Trench warfare on privatisation

by

Ed Lewis

The struggle against electricity privatisation in NSW has disappeared from the headlines as the two sides, the pro-privatisation Labor government and the anti-privatisation Labor-affiliated unions and Labor Party branch members, settle into trench warfare.

After the Labor conference overwhelmingly rejected privatisation on May 3-4, and Premier Morris Iemma declared that he would not accept the conference’s decision, the media awarded victory to Iemma, but that was never going to be the end of the matter.

Yesterday, the Liberal Party in the NSW parliament divided on the issue, when former leader Peter Debnam resigned from the shadow cabinet and moved to the backbench, declaring that both he and Iemma had gone to the last elections promising not to privatise and he at least intended to stick to his word.

Debnam is no friend of working people, but he’s very well aware that privatisation is unpopular. The Liberal Party went to the 1999 elections promising to privatise electricity and suffered a devastating defeat. It seems that many business people, like most members of the labour movement, don’t think handing over the state’s electricity assets to financial speculators is a particularly good idea.

Debnam took a swipe at the Owen Report, waved around by the Iemma government as its supposedly objective basis for privatisation:

“Tony Owen produced the report that Michael Costa wanted. The Owen Report is what the government wanted, and if you read the Owen Report he just dismisses renewables and there’s not much of a discussion of efficiencies either.”

This echoes a report in the May 10 Sydney Morning Herald that outlines how the Owen Report was commissioned:

The electricity saga began a year ago when the head of Treasury, John Pierce, one month after the Government was re-elected, rang his old university teacher, Tony Owen, to ask if he would review the electricity industry.

Iemma in May then announced the Owen review, a clear sign, many believed, he was about to sell the retail side of the electricity sector. This would raise $3-4 billion.

Owen for the first time revealed his close connection to Pierce this week saying: “I have known John for 30 years. He was a PhD student when I was on the staff of the University of NSW.”

Owen, as an energy economist, favours privatisation, and recommended selling the generators, but put in an option of long-term leasing to get Iemma out of a promise he had made not to sell generation.

Owen said this week if Iemma had not ruled out selling the transmission and distribution side of the business — the “poles and wires” — he would have recommended selling that as well.

The Owen report was what the Government has repeatedly used as its form of credibility on privatisation.

Iemma and his treasurer, Mick Costa, have used the Owen Report as the basis for a scare campaign to push through privatisation because NSW was said to be in danger of running out of electricity. It was always pretty clear Owen’s report was a got-up job largely shaped by the government’s political wishes, and now it is looking rather tatty around the edges.

Meanwhile, anyone who thought the anti-privatisation camp would quietly fold its tents is likely to be disappointed.

United Services Union leader Ben Kruse told the May 10 Australian:

“We have to look beyond the political, because we are dealing with a state government that has disengaged from the political process. We have to look at it as an industrial process with the government, like any other employer.”

Adding to the government’s problems, Greens MP John Kaye has introduced a No Mandate, No Privatisation bill in the NSW upper house that would require the government to take the whole of its privatisation plan to parliament. At present it can sell the assets by regulation, although it needs parliamentary approval for some parts of its proposal.

With the Liberal and Labor parties divided on the issue, the bill could pass. John Kaye is urging people to contact members of the upper house urging support for the bill.

John Kaye’s briefing on the Greens’ bill:
br080513_-esc-ownership-parlt-powers-bill-2008

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5 Responses to “Trench warfare on privatisation”

  1. Brolga Says:

    It’s a gruelling fight but it sure ain’t over and congrats to Bob and Ed for all the reportage and maintaining their and our rage. Political battles have a large psychological component in them and patiently maintaining focussed opposition and being mindful of morale plays a huge part too.

    You don’t have to have any illusions in the ALP to at the same time know that they are capable of being pressured. It’s an important point. And there is little alternative now than doing that, keeping up the pressure and the exposure and the counter-propaganda and kudos to the NSW Greens for the exemplary role they have played in this battle, including in the Parliament which after all is where things often come to rest and where people expect things to be resolved one way or another.

  2. Dan Murphy Says:

    How sweet it aint for the true believers

  3. Ed Lewis Says:

    It’s a long way from over Dan.

    This morning, the Sydney Morning Herald, Financial Review and Daily Telegraph all report events in the state parliament yesterday (no mention in The Australian, so I guess Imre Salusinszky was busy getting some other stuff wrong yesterday). The Telegraph has the most detailed report.

    The Herald yesterday also had an interesting report indicating that something was afoot in the parliament.

    Greens MP John Kaye’s bill was debated in the upper house yesterday and two Labor MPs said in the debate that they would vote for it, which means it would pass if the Libs vote for it as well. The Liberal leadership eventually and reluctantly, under heavy media and big business pressure, came out for privatisation but the Libs are divided on the issue, and in any case they’d probably like to see the government twisting in the wind a bit longer in a fight against its own best supporters, so apparently they will support the Greens bill, which would force the government into a full-scale debate and vote on all aspects of the privatisation.

    The government managed to stall the vote on the Greens vote for a couple of weeks after the upper house was deadlocked and the chairman was forced to break the deadlock in favour of the government. Presumably, the two weeks will be used to increase the threats and pressure against Labor caucus members. If nothing else, this whole struggle has dragged into the open the politics of intimidation used by this Labor government to keep the Labor caucus under control and stifle discussion.

    The two so-far declared supporters of the Labor Party conference decision in the upper house are Linda Voltz and Ian West, and they have taken their stand against massive pressure from the cabinet, although Morris Iemma was on Radio National this morning denying that any pressure was applied.

    The Financial Review reports that Iemma is planning a visit to China with Energy Minister Ian Macdonald in tow, arousing fears that they’re planning to talk to Chinese state-owned possible buyers of the NSW electricity assets. Iemma also denies that, but after his denial that Eddie Obeid and Mick Costa are prowling the parliamentary corridors twisting arms, who’d believe anything he says?

    Apparently Iemma tried to get Costa to go along on the China trip, but the slightly touched Treasurer wants to stay at home and have some fun. As if the privatisation supporters didn’t have enough to worry about.

    Opponents of the privatisation are urging that Lynda Voltz and Ian West be contacted with messages of support.

    Email:

    lynda.voltz@parliament.nsw.gov.au

    ian.west@parliament.nsw.gov.au

  4. JO Says:

    Mick Costa and other NSW ALP leaders have threatened NSW Upper House MP Lynda Voltz “with never getting a ministry, losing her seat and even expulsion from the ALP if she opposed the government on its $25 billion power sell-off” according to today’s Daily Telegraph. Heavy. But totally unsurprising, eh?

    I checked out Ms Voltz’s first parliamentary speech from almost exactly one year ago. It’s worth a read.

    It contains a passionate defence of the essential democratic and constructive role of trade unions. It tells of her two grandfathers who fought in WW1 and of her own six-year experience as a member of the Australian Regular Army. She talks of the tragic mistake of Australian troop involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and quotes Sun Tzu who wrote in ‘The Art of War’:

    “Those who love war will lead the country to destruction and those who crave victory will bring it dishonour. Therefore, war is not to be loved and the glory of victory not to be longed for. Dislike of war is the highest military principle.”

  5. Ed Lewis Says:

    Editorial from Challenge, journal of the NSW Labor Party left.

    At a meeting of the NSW Parliamentary caucus yesterday, left MPs continued to oppose privatisation, and voted in the caucus against introducing transitional legislation into the parliament, ahead of a power sale.

    This issue has now been voted on twice since the Conference met. Despite the overwhelming vote at Annual Conference of 702 to 107, only three right wing MPs have voted in the caucus to support the Conference decision.

    The matter will now come to the floor of the Parliament, and all members of Parliament will consider how they vote when three bills are debated in the week beginning the 3rd of June.

    The first is the Greens bill in the Legislative Council requiring any privatisation proposal is voted on by the Parliament. Contrary to reports, this bill has not been defeated; it is yet to be voted on. In response the Government has brought forward the transitional legislation required for the sale. These transitional bills will now be debated in the Legislative Assembly.

    The Left caucus will continue to meet to determine the most strategic approach to upholding the will of the NSW Labor Party, as expressed by the Conference.

    It is now appropriate for the Administrative Committee to act — to call on members of Parliament to defend the will of the Conference, and to make clear the Administrative Committee will protect MPs who do so — given that threats have been made to expel MPs from the Labor Party.

    Those making such threats are the same people who argue that the Labor Conference should not be a decision making forum, but an advisory body. They argue the British Labour Party as their example.

    If the Labor Conference is no longer a binding forum, it is not entirely clear why the Labor Caucus would remain so. Those making the case will have to argue why we should not also move to the British tradition of MPs crossing the floor of the Parliament.

    The NSW Left’s preference is to retain the system that has served NSW Labor well for 117 years. It hasn’t always served the Left, but it has served the Labor Party well.

    If we are forced to strike a new compact between the Labor movement and Labor’s parliamentary wing one thing is guaranteed — it is not only the role of the Conference that will change.

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