The withdrawal of the electricity privatisation legislation in NSW until the parliamentary sitting in September is a second victory for the anti-privatisation forces in a protracted war on the question.
The bourgeois media are making the best of the situation, saying some kind of deal has been concluded with the Liberals. That may well be, and Unions NSW leader John Robertson has warned against this possibility.
Nevertheless, the Iemma-Costa-Macdonald ministerial clique of the ex-Labor government bunkered down in its Macquarie Tower fortress clearly wouldn’t have withdrawn the legislation if it had anything like the numbers needed to push it through in this parliamentary session.
The reasons for this are obvious. Any kind of due diligence, even by the NSW auditor general, which the government has been forced to agree to, is very dangerous for the privatisers.
Time is not on the government’s side, although it hopes to wear down opposition to the privatisation over the next three months.
The global capitalist turmoil is clearly going to get worse. The likely bidders for NSW electricity assets are outfits such as Macquarie Bank, Babcock and Brown and the Stalinist local government of a south China province. None of these entities look particularly healthy in current economic conditions, and B&B, is struggling to stay afloat, although the directors are cracking hardy.
There’s no doubt the government and the bourgeois media will lean heavily on the auditor general to give them the story they want, but the auditor general has certain public obligations, and if he delivers a report that’s too crazy his professional reputation will suffer.
At the very least all the fantastic sweeteners and secret commercial arrangements to guarantee any profits to the private sector and any losses to the public sector will have to emerge in this process.
It’s still not entirely excluded that somehow the sale can be forced through. Sections of the ruling class want it very badly, as do capitalist ideologues in general, against all the real evidence about privatisation. (There are sections of the capitalist class, however, represented by former Liberal leader Debnam, who don’t have direct stake in the likely rake-off from privatisation, who are clearly uneasy about the kind of fire sale that will be required to sell the assets, and the damage it will do to state finances.)
The battle in the labour movement in NSW has been protracted and complex. It has proceeded so far mainly at the level of political agitation, with one big display of industrial muscle outside the opening of parliament in March. For the rest, it has been political mobilisation in the unions, the Labor Party, and to some extent in the community.
The street activity has mainly been organised the Power to the People, Labor Party and community rank and file group, in which I’m involved, which has been meeting and organising in an occasionally haphazard, but generally effective, way since January.
The political battle in the Labor Party has taken the form of a rapid emergence of a fairly dramatic split in the dominant Centre Unity faction between the unions, led by John Robertson and Bernie Riordan and supported by some courageous Centre Unity state parliamentarians.
A similar polarisation has taken place on the left, with the Socialist Left unions solidly against the privatisation, supported by a number of left backbenchers, but so far, unfortunately, not by the left cabinet ministers, who are still sheltering behind the bankrupt shibboleth of cabinet solidarity, even in the Labor caucus, which is very sad.
Some people who are still ostensibly members of the Socialist Left, such as deputy premier John Watkins and primary industry minister Ian Macdonald, particularly the latter, have emerged as kind of whips on behalf of Iemma and Costa, trying to beat the left parliamentarians into line (politically speaking).
Unusually, in Labor politics, both left and right factions of the Labor Party machine have been reasonably solidly in the anti-privatisation camp and both sides have been working together with union leaders John Robertson, Bernie Riordan and the right and left unions to constantly light political fires under the cabinet rump, which is still a theoretical majority in caucus.
The Labor head office argument is unanswerable: conference has spoken by 702 to 107 in opposition to electricity privatisation, which is now the party platform in NSW, and the recalcitrant ministerial cabal is defying the rules of the party, with all the consequences that may bring in due course.
The weakness of the anti-privatisation campaign so far is that to some extent the political chop-chop has taken place behind closed doors, in negotiations in the parliament, in Unions NSW, and on the adminstrative committee of the Labor Party. This tends to hamper the necessary public agitation.
I’ve become convinced that the main players: on the left Labor assistant secretary Luke Foley, the CFMEU, the metalworkers union, and Steve Turner of the Public Service Association; and on the right, John Robertson, Bernie Riordan, Ben Kruze, and Labor Party secretary Karl Bitar, have genuinely been doing what they can to defeat the privatisation proposal.
The difficulty is that all their instincts lean towards an internal factional battle in the unions and the Labor Party, and this tends to lead them to neglect public agitation and mobilisation, which is also needed. Nevertheless, anyone who questions their good faith in this battle is politically blind.
Another major player in the battle is Greens MLC John Kaye, recently elected to the parliament, who has hit the ground running and been a very effective public agitator and a very energetic parliamentarian. Kaye is obviously driving the Macquarie Tower ministerial rump mad through his ingenious parliamentary activities.
I’m told events in the corridors in Macquarie Street have become almost farcical in recent times, with Karl Bitar, Luke Foley, John Robertson and Bernie Riordan energetically lobbying Labor politicians to do the right thing, including crossing the floor if necessary, in defence of Labor policy and platform, and on the other side Costa and Macdonald following them around and, in a rather more direct wielding of the power they fancy they hold, trying to get the Labor politicians to defy conference.
What do we do next?
We now have an extra couple of months in which either privatisation will be defeated or the ranks of the labour movement and the community will be defeated and the cabinet rump will succeed in a course of action that will inevitably lead to the defeat of the Labor government the next time the population can get at these politicians in an election.
The first thing that should happen is a proper meeting of the membership of Labor’s Socialist Left, at which all the left NSW parliamentarians, including the cabinet ministers, should be obliged to attend. At this meeting the left’s MPs should be told firmly that all of them, including the ministers, should vote as a bloc in caucus against the privatisation and that on this question cabinet solidarity must be dumped.
Such a meeting should happen promptly.
I’m not privy to how the issue will proceed in the Centre Unity faction, but it seems obvious they are likely to meet to make a clear decision about whose policy is to be followed in the parliament: the Labor Party’s policy or the cabinet’s policy.
Unions NSW, the Power to the People group, and other community organisations, the Greens, the Labor Party and even the Nationals, should be requested to get together and organise a monster public meeting, or even several monster public meetings, quickly, to demonstrate in a concrete way a so-far passive but massive popular opposition to the privatisation.
I have no doubt that in due course Unions NSW will feel that it’s important to call some kind of representative trade union mass meeting, perhaps of delegates, to underline the trade union opposition to the privatisation, and to decide on industrial tactics.
Power to the People, Unions NSW and all the other interested parties should immediately start to more systematically organise Saturday stalls against the privatisation in a carefully selected but large list of shopping centres, and the Your Rights at Work committees should be mobilised in such a project.
It’s clear that the initial stalls held in shopping centres, about 30 of them so far, have been very effective, particularly in working class areas, where 95 per cent of people appear to agree with us.
If we could build up to 30 or 40 stalls each weekend, the impact on the state politicians would be very considerable.
Any politicians who have not so far committed to unequivocal opposition to the sale should be gently persuaded by popular agitation in their electorates.
Two or three months is not a lot of time, but if we use that time well, we can defeat the privatisation and the political effect of that will be enormous.