The jolly jugglers of Macquarie Street


Ed Lewis

To follow everything that’s going on with the electricity privatisation push in NSW, you need a very quick eye. There are so many jugglers with so many balls in the air, keeping track is a bit of a feat. That’s half the point of course; us mug punters are supposed to shrug our shoulders, forget the whole complicated mess and let the pollies get back to tugging the forelock to the corporate royalty at the big end of town, as nature intended.

The apparent complexity is an old carnival ploy: watch the hand the conjurer wants you to watch, while the other hand is busily at work preparing the trick.

Clive Hamilton cut through a lot of this bullshit last year in his book Scorcher: the dirty politics of climate change, a clinical dissection of what he calls the Greenhouse Mafia, a group of corporate lobbyists that had the Howard government in its pocket and as a result successfully delayed Australia’s signing of the Kyoto accord on global warming for a decade or so, with the result that Australia is now a long way behind most of the world even on carbon trading, the very initial, and in the long term completely inadequate, response to climate change.

Hamilton’s account makes it clear that a lot of people, including politicians supposedly representing the people who voted for them, have lost track of where business ends and government begins. The sharpest business interests haven’t, of course. They know exactly how to buy influence and who’s for sale.

Hamilton was writing about the Howard government, and the Greenhouse Mafia’s aim at the time was to stop Australia signing up to Kyoto. They eventually lost that battle, or perhaps they consider the 10-year delay a victory since their activity was always a rearguard action. Most of the world had signed up to Kyoto, but corporations operating in Australia got an extra decade’s reprieve from dealing with any of the costs of climate change.

Now the terrain has changed, and Rudd has signed up to Kyoto, but the same interests are still working night and day to make sure corporations can go on plundering the environment and society with minimal hinderance, in accord with the huckster religion of laissez faire capitalism mark II (aka neoliberalism).

That’s the big picture. Some of the detail is sketched out in this morning’s papers, starting with Morris Iemma tossing a bone to the environment movement’s corporatist, Jeff Angel (for more on this see Environmentalists fall for Unsworth sucker bait.

Angel deservedly took a bit of flak for giving cover to the privatisation push as a member of the farcical Unsworth inquiry, which predictably said there was nothing in the Labor Party rules to prevent the Labor government flogging off the state’s electricity assets to corporate raiders.

This morning Iemma announces he’ll stop lobbying the federal government for free permits for electricity generators to keep polluting the atmosphere, and the privatisation process will favour bidders that undertake to close the state’s dirtiest coal-fired power plant, Munmorah. This, of course, will considerably reduce the price the NSW government will get for selling the power network, undercutting the government’s argument that selling the power network will free funds for other public services and infrastructure.

Of course, Iemma is only one voice in all this, and his word is not worth a great deal. At his side is Treasurer Mick Costa, an aggressive climate change denialist (or at least a denier that climate change has anything to do with human destruction of the environment) and Iemma manifestly doesn’t speak for Costa. As well, Iemma’s voice in Canberra is likely to be well and truly drowned out by the activities of the Greenhouse Mafia, who are no doubt hard work to cripple the climate change legislation that the Rudd government is working on.

The very dry bone Iemma tosses to Jeff Angel is a cheap way of trying to drum up a bit of support in the Labor Party’s ranks for the privatisation push. Angel, to his credit, recognised this to some extent, pointing to the role of Costa: “I would hope the Premier can exert enough discipline on the Treasurer to prevent his alarmist campaign for the free permits to pollute for the coal-fired power generators.” Such ingratitude!

Angel, however, welcomed other promises by Iemma to force the state’s top 200 electricity users to introduce energy efficiency measures, something that some have begun to do in any case and that most recognise as inevitable. Greens MP John Kaye summed up Angel’s position very succinctly: “Jeff arguing that is like interpreting Pearl Harbour as a win.”

“The industry should not be sold, and certainly Munmorah should not be sold. It should be closed down by the government. This is a little bit of icing on a very bad cake.”

Equally, Iemma’s grandstanding $272 million to prevent the poor and elderly being disadvantaged by privatisation is a promise he can’t keep, as indicated by the example of grain freight in NSW. Once a public asset is in private hands, any agreement expires after a few years.

A hint of what’s now in the minds of the Greenhouse Mafia is contained in an article in today’s Australian about Shell and other big corporations threatening to stop investing in Europe if the EU goes ahead with more stringent greenhouse measures.

Meanwhile, the NSW Labor Party state conference draws closer, at which the unions and the ranks of the party are almost certain to combine to reject privatisation. Expect more carnival tricks from the jolly jugglers of Macquarie Street.


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