A powerful protest against privatisation

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A large and important rally at Parliament House, in Sydney

Bob Gould

This isn’t an end but a beginning, Unions NSW president John Robertson told the protest against electricity privatisation at the opening of state parliament for this year.

The rally drew about 12,000 people, and it was clear this rebellious movement is not about to go away, nor is Robertson. The estimate of 12,000 came from the platform, and it seemed accurate.

He said, to enormous applause, that the anti-Work Choices campaign, which was important in federal Labor’s strong performance in NSW in the federal elections, was now the campaign to defeat electricity privatisation.

The meeting was ably chaired by Matt Thistlethwaite, the assistant secretary of Unions NSW, and the organiser assigned by Unions NSW to the anti-privatisation campaign.

There was substantial community participation and all the socialist groups were present, but the main component was the organised working class, with a very substantial spread of trade unions represented. The biggest contingent was from the Electrical Trades Union, while the Centre Unity AWU and the left metalworkers union (which cover similar areas of the work force) marched together in a single contingent. Left unions with a notable presence included the National Education Union, the firefighters, the Public Service Association, the CFMEU (construction union), the maritime union, while the more industrially militant right unions had large contingents, particularly the National Union of Workers, the rail and bus transport union and the united services union (which includes the old Municipal Employees Union).

The large union turnout was clearly indicative of an obvious but important fact: that the officials of many unions had put a lot of effort into mobilising their members.

The chants were vigorous, angry and constant. About a dozen Labor backbenchers, a number of Greens upper house MPs, and a lower house independent from Newcastle identified publicly with the protest. The smallish size of this parliamentary representation was a clear indication of one of the political problems facing the anti-privatisation campaign: the disinclination of much of the left in the Labor caucus, particularly the left ministers, to seriously oppose the privatisation.

To add insult to injury, the left deputy premier was on the radio this morning (Tuesday) supporting the privatisation, which is extremely unfortunate. It’s also reported that the left minister for agriculture and energy, Ian Macdonald, will be speaking at a $2000 a seat business conference on Thursday, talking up the privatisation.

The trade unionists at the protest were in a very angry mood. They are no respecters of persons or governments. They’ve just torn down a Tory government that attacked the interests of the working class and they’ll think nothing of doing the same to a bad Labor government if it doesn’t respond to their demands.

John Robertson correctly channeled the anger towards a vigorous campaign to force the government to back off. This is the appropriate strategy. The working class in struggle, when it’s given positive leadership by its trade unions, is a very powerful force.

There’s not a hint at this stage that the powerful and healthy coalition of unions, left and right, and their officials and the Unions NSW leadership, are going to back away from this struggle, and if they decided they were it would be very hard to put the genie of working class discontent back in the bottle. The union leaders are all experienced people and it’s becoming clear to almost all of them that this is a political fight to the death, and they have to win.

This is also clear to the ranks. The speakers at the meeting, which was short and sweet, were first-class. A very articulate electricity worker from the La Trobe Valley in Victoria explained very clearly the devastating impact of electricity privatisation on workers’ lives, jobs and communities. He said he couldn’t even begin to guess why a Labor government would consider such a proposal after the disastrous Victorian experience.

Kate Faehrmann from the Nature Conservation Council said that organisation opposed the sell-off and spoke frankly to the rally, including the large number of electricity workers present, about the problem of climate change, and got an extremely good reception.

These workers are vigorously defending their jobs and the interests of the community, but they’re not opposed to careful plain speaking about the problems of climate.

Kevin Manning, the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, spoke carefully and movingly in a pretty bald and extended exposition of traditional Catholic social theory of the sort outlined in Papal encyclicals about the rights of workers.

He almost paraphrased the encyclicals, saying the didn’t oppose all privatisations, but basic public services and natural monopolies should be in the public sphere, because when they were privatised the inevitable pursuit of profit bore down hardest on the most underprivileged sectors of society. He was extremely forthright in opposing the electricity privatisation and a breath of fresh air compared with the Tory cardinal down the road in the diocese of Sydney.

Bishop Manning got enormous applause from this, it seemed to me, rather secular assembly of Australian-born and migrant workers. One rather rough-looking bloke wearing an ETU T-shirt made a bit of a joke: “How can we lose with god on our side,” as he and his friends vigorously applauded the bishop.

The bishop’s useful contribution underlined a fact about the Australian labour movement and the Labor Party. This movement consists of two traditional streams: the secular socialist stream and the Catholic stream, which are sometimes in conflict, but often push in the same direction.

The electricity privatisation proposed by a Labor government is a display of arrogant contempt for the traditional socialist stream, which has usually fought to defend and extend the public sector, and for the traditional Catholic stream, which has always emphasised that natural monopolies and basic services should be in the public sphere.

The better aspects of both traditions, which are still powerful, were well represented at this rally, and when these currents are united, and the working class is united, it’s possible to develop a very powerful force.

It’s important not to underestimate the power of capital that we’re up against, as Dick Nichols points out in a useful article in Green Left Weekly, which DSP members were selling at the protest.

Undue pessimism about the outcome of this unfolding and already quite momentous struggle is not indicated, however.

If the government doesn’t back off, it will precipitate a political crisis in the labour movement and the whole state of NSW.

The struggle continues.

A postcript on a handful of leftists from the twilight zone

Some rather unpleasant socialists from the twilight zone, who now deserve to be dubbed Costa’s Loyal Trotskyists, were giving out a very nasty leaflet to the protesters. I saw some ETU members who, after reading some of the leaflet, made a point of seeking out the leafleter, explaining what they though of the leaflet, and tearing it up.

This socialist group says the Labor Party and the unions are so corrupt that there’s no difference between Labor and Liberal, and that workers should leave the unions they’ve fought for all their lives because the only political task is the construction of a little socialist sect in cyberspace.

The obvious first point about the destructive political line of this group is that the unions are clearly not dead and they’re clearly a powerful force in society and the labour movement, and when given reasonable leadership they will conduct a powerful struggle.

So much for the twilight zone socialist bullshit about workers leaving the unions. The most stupid aspect of the leaflet, and the thing that seemed to get the ETU workers angry, was the assertion that the Labor government would win the fight to privatise electricity.

This assertion of the inevitability of the victory of the privatisers underlines the role the twilight zoners play these days for the ruling class. The operative part of what they put out in leaflets and on their eccentric website is that all popular struggles are inevitably sold out, and the leaders of these struggles, not being affiliated to the World Socialist Web Site, are inevitably all in league together to betray struggles. This is arrogant contempt for the working class and people in popular struggles.

The role the WSWS plays for the ruling class, insofar as anyone takes any notice of it, is that its argument parallels the viewpoint of all the bourgeois ideologues that unions are out of date and a waste of time, and that privatisation is inevitable. This situation must exist, you see, because there are no popular struggles led by the WSWS anywhere, and all other struggles are fake.

The WSWS should stay in cyberspace, where it belongs, rather than serving as tiny auxilliaries to the ideology of the bourgeoisie.

When Michael Berrell parrots these twilight zoners on the Green Left discussion website, he just demonstrates that, politically speaking, that he’s a waste of space. His question to me about whether or not we should advance the demand for the expulsion of Costa at this stage of a serious battle is just mischievous nonsense, because it also carries the implication that inevitably the struggle will be defeated, which is by no means indicated.

A very powerful struggle is under way and the role of socialists is to participate in that struggle without dopey ultimatums. In struggles of this sort, Lenin’s well-known paraphrase of Napoleon’s aphorism is apposite: start fighting, then see.

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5 Responses to “A powerful protest against privatisation”

  1. Bob Gould Says:

    Where do the Labor Party rules require not telling party members what happened in caucus?

    I’m reliably informed that this evening (Tuesday) one of the NSW Labor Party left MPs who was conspicuous by not being one of the courageous 15 or so parliamentarians who associated themselves with the rally against electricity privatisation, when questioned about the day’s events in the Labor Party caucus, said: “I shouldn’t really be telling you this” because of the confidentiality of caucus, and went on to give a very truncated account of events in the caucus.

    That raises very sharply one of the questions at the heart of this matter in the Labor Party. Is the parliamentary caucus now something like the Mafia, with a code of silence? Are MPs not allowed to tell anything to anyone?

    Where is the notion of caucus confidentiality in the rules of the Labor Party?

    I’m against making the struggle against privatisation personal, concerning individual members of parliament, but these things are not personal matters. Labor Party members are entitled to a full and frank account of proceeding in the party’s state parliamentary caucus, and of who took which side on electricity privatisation, which is a vital matter for the future of the Labor Party as any kind of workers’ organisation.

    Another curious feature of today’s very powerful demonstration is that one very well known left member of the federal cabinet walked down the other side of the street during the protest, locked in conversation, and made no attempt to associate himself with the protest.

    Members of the left who have helped this bloke advance his career over the years are entitled to be very angry at that sort of calculated insult to them, and the unionists who protested against the privatisation push.

    This bloke should be constantly asked the direct question whether he will support the rank and file struggle against electricity privatisation in NSW.

    If people like Senator-elect Doug Cameron can take the risks associated with his forthright defence of principle involved in opposing the privatisation, why can’t other federal members from NSW, including the ministers, do likewise?

    If the left is to survive as a force in the Labor Party, a lot of people are going to have to climb down off the fence on the electricity privatisation issue.

    The trade-union based campaign against the privatisation, embracing as it does the militant unions from both left and right, is going to make it very difficult for any Labor politician in NSW to sit on the fence for very much longer.

    Once again, this is not personal. In everything I write I avoid naming people to give them the chance to change their tune or explain that they’ve been misunderstood, but there’s no way a number of the pollies can talk out of both sides of their mouths for too much longer.

    The trade union based movement against privatisation isn’t going away, and it will continue to broaden and deepen, particularly in the Labor Party, leading up to the state Labor conference in May.

  2. Bob Gould Says:

    Norm Dixon has been posting various media reports of yesterday’s protest on the Green Left discussion site, and that’s useful as far as it goes. These media reports, however, are obviously angled to express the point of view of the media owners, who aren’t foolish and are quite deliberate supporters of the privatisation.

    One feature of the reports is the numbers at the protest. The media have settled on the mythical figure of 4000 to talk down the importance of the rally.

    It is hard to accurately estimate numbers at an event of this nature, but it’s not impossible, and despite what the media say, pretty well the whole area of Macquarie Street from the State Library to Sydney Hospital, and past it, was crowded with demonstrators, and more were scattered beyond at both ends, and more were coming and going all the time.

    I’ve since spoken on the phone to quite a few comrades, friends and acquaintances, who I didn’t see at the protest, but who were there. And in my usual stickybeak way I was circulating throughout, studying the event. All this tends to underline the point that the number has to have been pretty much the size of 12,000 that was announced from the platform.

    The bourgeois media estimates of numbers are part of the ideological battle to sell the privatisation.

    In addition to this, the rapidly growing uneasiness not just of the 15 or so Labor caucus members who protested, but of others in the Labor caucus who didn’t demonstrate is of some significance.

    When you count the Labor Party conference representation to which the unions that protested are entitled, it’s clear they and their allies will have a comfortable majority at union level. It’s also clear that there’s a majority against privatisation among State Electoral Council and Federal Electoral Council branch delegates to the conference.

    This is the underlying political framework to the uneasiness expressed by important MPs in the state caucus who initially supported privatisation and are having second thoughts.

    Today’s press reports that one fairly astute Centre Unity upper house member, Christine Robertson, makes the valuable point about the situation if conference defeats the privatisation, where do her loyalties lie: to the state conference that elects upper house candidates, including her, or to Mick Costa and his dangerous and unpalatable privatisation scheme?

    Christine Robertson clearly indicates that she’ll stick to conference when the crunch comes, and she’s very sensible to make that judgment.

    All of this underlines the broad question of where we go now, and at this point I see great value in the general point, which has been put a bit rhetorically by the DSP and others on the far left, but I would put it a bit more concretely. What we need now is the widest possible all-embracing trade union, community, Labor Party ranks and Greens campaign in the community at large.

    This campaign, however, clearly has to be directed in the first instance at the resounding defeat of the privatisation at the forthcoming Labor Party state conference in May.

    It would be stupid to underestimate the forces lining up to support the privatisation, but given the appropriate campaign we have clear possibility of victory and the kind of malicious defeatism peddled by twilight zone pseudo-Trotskyists, such as the World Socialist Web Site, is not at all called for.

    I’d also be interested in whatever ideas the Greens and groups on the far left might have, by way of an appraisal of the struggle so far, and perspectives for the further development of the struggle.

    PS, by way of a correction. We seem to have made a mistake in an earlier post. The business event touting the privatisation appears to be a State Energy conference, to be addressed by Minister MacDonald, and the cost is $2500 a seat, not the $2000 mentioned in our recent post. We’re also told that some environmental groups are planning to picket the dinner, and more power to their elbow. The event is at L’Aqua, Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour, tomorrow, starting at 8.15am.

  3. Prince Nikolai Says:

    Bob neglects to detail the strong pressure being placed on the ALP by the Greens in this battle. Ironically, February 26 was also the day the Greens’ Climate Futures bill was defeated in the NSW Parliament with every single ALP member voting against it. Shame ALP Shame. For in doing so, in defeating this extremely important and necessary bill, they voted and in most cases explicitly spoke in support of an industry, coal, the continuation of which will guarantee that greenhouse gas emissions will massively increase.

    I note that the new and very inexperienced, if left, Environment and Climate Change Minister Verity Firth, the MP for Balmain, which is potentially a Greens-held seat and hopefully will become so at the next state election, did not attend the Feb 26 anti-privatisation rally. Why not?

    Coal-powered electricity contributes to 35 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and the privatisation of electricity, as the Greens’ private members No Mandate, No Privatisation Bill 2008 introduced today in Parliament explains, will inevitably lead to higher greenhouse gas emission rates in addition to all the other negatives. The Bill prohibits the sell-off without a motion passing through both houses of parliament.

    Politically, the Greens are in the best position and have got the most to win from this battle and their role in pressuring the ALP government and its MPs will be crucial to any victory. It was good to see the ALP participation at the rally, but the contradictions inherent in the ALP with its continuing support for coal are all too obvious to the most casual observer of state politics. How many ALP MPs will have the guts, conscience and morality to vote for the Greens bill?

  4. mikebeggs Says:

    Good point Nikolai. The NSW Greens are taking this issue very seriously and activists were helping build the rally, leafleting central city and (I think) Parramatta train stations in the days beforehand.

  5. redbox Says:

    Rattled by at least 64 per cent opposition to its electricity privatisation push, and the rapidly spreading local government corruption scandal, the Iemma government is resorting to bureaucratic manoeuvre, as Marion Wilkinson and Brian Robins report in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. Costa and Iemma plan to bring on a parliamentary vote on some aspects of the privatisation plan in April, before the Labor Party state conference considers the matter in May.

    The Greens have introduced a bill into the NSW upper house to at least require the government to air the whole question of privatisation before parliament and have used the discussion to skewer some of the government’s lies.

    Speaking to the bill, John Kaye yesterday said that the government had for some time been planning to go ahead with the privatisation without a parliamentary vote:

    “I direct the House to the media statements made by both the Treasurer and the Premier on 29 December 2007. In the Daily Telegraph and on the ABC a spokesperson for the Premier is reported as confirming that the Government does not need special legislation for the sale to go ahead, but some bills may be required at the back end of the process. We take the back end of the process to be those things that the Premier and the Treasurer promised in their 10 December media release, such as extending the period of retail price protection for consumers and providing additional funds for environmental purposes. Those are not the substantive issues. The Premier said in his media statement, and the Treasurer reiterated, that it is possible for them to privatise the industry without changing legislation and without reference to Parliament. It is certainly true from our reading of the legislation that the raw version of the Premier’s media statement on 10 December 2007 could be implemented without reference to Parliament. That means that a carefully designed privatisation process could escape the need for parliamentary scrutiny. That is a bad outcome. It is important that Parliament has an opportunity to scrutinise this privatisation for three key reasons: First, the privatisation is controversial and there is great public interest in the outcome; secondly, the impacts of privatisation are massive and long lasting and the privatisation itself is completely irreversible; and, thirdly, to privatise these activities of public enterprises without reference to Parliament is a violation of a very basic understanding of democracy.”

    John Kaye also took up the matter of polls on the privatisation:

    “A number of opinion polls have been published and there has been extensive debate in the media about what they mean. Of course, pollsters can ask questions and shape the information given to those surveyed to get whatever answer they want. Interestingly, when one looks carefully at the data presented one sees that all the polls showed that, of those people who held an opinion, 63.4 per cent or more oppose privatisation. The Infrastructure Partnerships Australia poll released on 21 February 2008 indicated that, of the 70 per cent of those surveyed who knew about the issue and had an opinion, a massive 63.4 per cent opposed increased private sector control of the electricity industry. The Unions NSW poll had a far higher figure. Perhaps the least biased and most independent was the Herald-Nielsen poll published yesterday, which showed that 64 per cent of those surveyed opposed and 25 per cent support privatisation.”

    Kaye went on to take on the government’s slippery argument that the assets would be sold, not leased:

    “The argument is that this is not privatisation because the business of an energy services corporation is being sold, not the energy services corporation itself. It is a fine point, but it becomes even finer when one considers the reality of the way in which EnergyAustralia, Integral Energy and Country Energy are operated in the context of the national electricity market and national competition policy. The distribution business units, the units dealing with the wires and poles; and the retail business units, the units that buy energy from the national electricity market and sell it to consumers; are operated as separate entities within each of those three corporations. They are, for all intents and purposes, ring-fenced from each other: financial and administrative walls exist between them. The process is in effect, if not in black-letter law, the privatisation of a business that ought to be called a separate energy services corporation. Accepting the structural constraints and implications of the national electricity markets, it is probably accidental that those two units exist within the one business body. Again, it is equivocation. It is effective privatisation to sell those business units of the energy services corporations.”

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