NSW energy fight: defend public assets!

May 10, 2008

The plan for the privatisation of electricity in NSW is like the mythical creature the hydra, which had multiple heads. It had to be "killed" many times before it would actually die — and every time it was "killed" it could bite back apparently unharmed.

Pity then the people of NSW, who are wondering just what they need to do to defeat the massively unpopular privatisation plans of Labor premier Morris Iemma and his blustering treasurer Michael Costa.

The plan to privatise NSW's electricity was first defeated in 1997. Then premier Bob Carr wanted to sell the lot: the generators, reticulation assets (poles and wires) and retail services. Carr's plan started a revolt in the Labor Party, led by the union movement, which defeated the plan at the ALP state conference.

Carr respected the decision of the majority of Labor Party members and backed off. In the 1999 election, Labor even campaigned against the Coalition's promise to privatise electricity — and won.

The privatisation plan made a resurgence in 2007, but only after the March state election was won by Labor — against the odds — on the back of a union-led campaign against Work Choices.

As soon as the election was over, however, Labor commissioned the Owen Report, with terms of reference that made the recommendation for the privatisation of electricity practically inevitable from the start.

From the outset, the plan to sell off (or lease for 99 years, which amounts to the same thing) the state power industry has been massively unpopular. In the lead-up to the recent ALP state conference that would adopt Labor policy regarding the sale, polls showed that up to 85% of NSW residents opposed the privatisation — while the premier's approval ratings slumped to the lowest level of any NSW premier in history.

But still the plan refused to die.

ALP conference

The third attempt to kill the electricity privatisation plan occurred at the ALP state conference held on May 3-4 in Sydney where 702 delegates voted to reject the Iemma government's plan to privatise electricity, which was backed by only 107. The day after the vote was taken, Iemma — who refused to stay at the conference to participate in the vote — simply rejected it. "I've considered the views that have been expressed and in weighing up my responsibility … to the people of NSW, I'm advising that we are proceeding down the path the government has started", Iemma told the media on May 4.

Iemma's public rejection of the conference vote was met with defiance by the ALP delegates. On May 4 the conference reaffirmed its opposition to the privatisation and made this a matter of party policy. However, it also called for further negotiations, opening the door to a compromise proposal.

The May 5 Sydney Morning Herald reported that the premier would "begin talks with unions about the possible public-private ownership of power stations", which it argued was the most likely compromise to be settled on. The discussion "with unions" to date has been in the form of an internal ALP committee, consisting of one union representative (ALP state president Bernie Riordan) along with Iemma, Costa, deputy premier John Watkins, ALP upper-house leader John Della Bosca along with Karl Bitar and Luke Foley from the party "machine". The committee has met once to date, with all parties staying tight-lipped.

Unions NSW, the central organiser of the anti-privatisation campaign, has made no public statement on where it thinks the campaign should go from here. Both Unions NSW secretary John Robertson and United Services Union secretary Ben Kruse were quoted in the May 6 Australian Financial Review as refusing to rule out industrial action should the government press ahead with its privatisation plan without consultation.

Robertson also told the May 7 SMH that "Anyone who thinks this is over is kidding themselves and is totally misunderstanding the seriousness of the situation".

No sale!

Community opposition to the sell-off remains solid. Community organisations, including Your Rights at Work groups, have continued to organise. A meeting of rank-and-file ALP members and other campaigners held in central Sydney on May 7 pledged to continue a public campaign against the sell-off. Ideas raised at the meeting included the calling of a large public meeting, the formation of a united-front committee among all interested campaigners and the calling of a public demonstration.

While the massive vote against privatisation at the ALP state conference was a huge boost for the campaign, the campaign will not be won from within the ALP alone.

Greens MLC John Kaye told Green Left Weekly that the Greens would do everything they could in parliament to delay any privatisation legislation, in order to provide "time to get a people's movement organised" against the sell-off. Kaye also said that while not advocating industrial action by workers affected by the privatisation, he would support it, should workers decide to run such a campaign.

"I'm in a state of outrage", Kaye said. "Any time is a bad time to sell the power industry but this is the worst time possible. Our one lever to address greenhouse pressure and prevent lower-income households being devastated is about to be lost", he said, adding that he is continuing to speak publicly against the privatisation campaign at every available opportunity.

Socialist Alliance national coordinator Dick Nichols told GLW that the campaign against electricity privatisation was a matter of democracy. "If Iemma is so confident that electricity privatisation represents the best interests of the people of New South Wales, let him put it to a referendum", he said. "Iemma and his backers like Paul Keating claim that the ALP conference was unrepresentative, because it was dominated by trade unionists ('lemmings' according to the former prime minister). So let's have a public debate and decision on the pros and cons of his sell-off plan."

Nichols went on to explain that the majority of NSW residents had consistently rejected the false dichotomy being offered by the Iemma government — demanding that the government fund decent, fair-priced services as well as maintaining power in public hands.

The "economics" of the government's plan (selling the assets to fund ongoing spending on health, education and public transport) had even been rejected by many leading economists as short-sighted. "Iemma and his gang just want to create a slush fund to bribe the people of NSW to re-elect them in 2011\", Nichols said. "The fact that the NSW public sector will be the poorer in the long run doesn't matter — no doubt Iemma and Costa will have moved on to plum jobs with the likes of Macquarie Bank by then."

Nichols called on the union movement to organise its members to oppose the government's undemocratic privatisation push by all means necessary. "Unions NSW must commit to organise total union resistance to the sell-off, starting with an industrial campaign of complete non-cooperation with government privatisation plans", he said.

He called for the convening of an all-union mass delegates' meeting as the first step in such a campaign, to be called as a matter of urgency.

The Iemma government's push for privatisation will not end with the state's electricity. Should Iemma and Costa get their way on power, Sydney ferries will be next in the firing line,with the state's rail system a close third. Already the state government is moving to privatise business-related functions of the NSW public service.

Concerted action by unions and the community in NSW can and must stop this theft of public assets in its tracks. The alternative is to let Iemma, Costa and their big business mates have their way, for which all the services the people of NSW rely on will be so much the poorer.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.