'Asset recycling' bill held up in the Senate

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Tony Abbott government's "asset recycling" bill — in effect an incentive for the privatisation of public property by state governments — has been stalled in the Senate.

Amendments moved by the Greens and the ALP were declared unacceptable by the government so parliament went into the winter recess before the bill was voted on.

The government wanted to use the proposed $5.9 billion Asset Recycling Fund to provide 15% "bonus" payments to state governments that sell public assets and use the proceeds to pay for so-called "nation-building infrastructure" — mainly big privatised road projects.

"The Senate has imposed limitations on the government's 'asset recycling' scheme, ensuring the upper house can veto proposed incentive payments to the states for using the proceeds of privatisation to fund infrastructure," the July 18 Guardian reported.

"Labor won adequate support for an amendment to ensure those infrastructure projects worth more than $100 million were assessed by Infrastructure Australia with a published cost-benefit analysis.”

The Senate also cut $3.5 billion from the $5.9 billion fund because it was money that was supposed to pay for education infrastructure, such as investment in university research. The $3.5 billion was intended to come from abolishing the Howard government's Education Investment Fund, but the Senate voted to maintain it.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said the bill "would create a toll-roads slush fund at the expense of investment in public transport, and at the expense of revenue-generating publicly owned state assets”.

"State governments should not be bribed with incentive payments to sell off public assets in public hands, and the Greens will fight this move all the way.

"Australia doesn't need more new roads at the expense of 21st century mass transport and, thankfully, the Asset Recycling Bill has been so heavily amended, the government has now done what it always should have: canned it.

"Bribing financially stretched state governments to sell assets in return for funding catastrophically expensive urban freeways and tunnels shows the Coalition's poverty of vision when it comes to infrastructure funding.”

However, while it is a significant win for the public interest that the bill has been held up in the Senate for now, this is unlikely to signify the end of the matter.

The federal government and Coalition state governments around the country are driven by the neoliberal urge to sell off all remaining public assets in the interests of their big business backers. This amounts to nothing less than the theft of the people's property on a grand scale, to make greater profits for big corporations.

Unfortunately, the Coalition have been joined in this mad privatisation race by Labor governments in South Australia and the ACT.

A July 23 Australian article, "States scramble for pieces of 'asset recycling' billions", reported that all state governments were continuing to negotiate with the federal government over money for the privatisation of key public assets.

Despite amendments to the bill in the Senate, "the government believes it can go ahead with its plans."

"[Federal Treasurer] Joe Hockey said the plan was about 'creating a stronger economy with more jobs, and the great irony is that while the Labor Party blocks the initiative in the Senate, their state colleagues are falling over each other to use it' ...

"Under the initiative, the states have until mid-2016 to agree on the assets to be sold and the extra projects, with the sales to be done by mid-2019. One of the nation's most powerful business leaders, West Connex Delivery Authority chairman Tony Shepherd, said, 'We must get over the obsession with state ownership which is generally inefficient and unresponsive to the customer.'"

There you have it in black and white: Tony Shepherd, former chair of the Abbott government's Commission of Audit and head of the Business Council of Australia, wants the Australian people to get over their "obsession" with state ownership. Just let the corporate profiteers and their lackeys in government rob you blind of your jointly owned property, and cop it sweet.

It is now urgent that the community and unions rise up in protest at the ongoing robbery of our common property. It is time to end the dominant, neoliberal "obsession" with privatisation of the people's assets in the interest of the profits of the 1%.

We need to organise to build a huge, nationwide movement against this privatisation offensive. This can be a key part of the campaign to defeat Abbott's cutback budget, if we act now.

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From GLW issue 1019