You are here

ABC gives free kick to Iemma, NSW electricity privatisation

When Barrie Unsworth complained on Sydney's local ABC radio of the New South Wales Labor Party's efforts to ensure that state Labor parliamentarians vote against the privatisation of NSW's electricity assets - a policy already rejected resoundingly by the electorate in 1999 and currently opposed by 79% of the NSW public - his interviewer Toni Matthews expresssed her total agreement with the former NSW Premier: "Why - It seems obvious to me - Why isn't it obvious to these younger members that you're talking about that they're creating mayhem within the party?"

On 15 July, Sydney's local Radio Station gave a free kick to the NSW government's efforts to hand privatise the electricity assets of NSW when fomer NSW Premier Barry Unsworth was interviewed on the Morning Show by a wholly sympathetic and uncritical Toni Matthews This was subsequently reported in other media including the West Australian and ABC's online news service. In the interview Barrie Unsworth spelt out his plans to again enlist Labor 'elder statesmen' to including former Prime Minister Paul Keating, former Labor Premier Bob Carr and former Labor Council heads Michael Easson and John MacBean, to wear down the resistance of the NSW Labor Party to the privatisation of NSW's electricity assets. The online ABC report was misleadingly entitled "Keating, Carr asked to heal NSW Labor".

The ABC reported:

Mr Unsworth has lashed out at NSW Labor state secretary Karl Bitar for actively campaigning against Mr Iemma and his power privatisation plans, which the former premier supports.

However, if Mr. Unsworth had been a little more consistent, he would have also 'lashed out' at the entire NSW Labor Party, which, at its conference voted 702 to 107 against privatisation and he would have 'lashed out' at the NSW union movement.

If Mr Unsworth had been consistent, he would have, above all, 'lashed out' at the NSW public, who have failed to budge from their emphatic opposition to privatisation. On 29 June it was reported that an opinion poll found 79% opposed to privatisation, even when the Government's rationale for privatisation was put to them1. This poll is consistent with an earlier poll sponsored by the NSW union movement which found that 85% of the NSW public opposed privatisation.

It would therefore seem odd for Mr. Unsworth to have felt only resentful towards only a few Labor Party and trade union officials. Why Toni Matthews failed to point out these widely understood facts is unclear.

It is striking that Toni Matthews made no effort to challenge the seemingly very weak case put by Mr Unsworth for privatisation:

... I think it's an argument that has gone beyond its time because everywhere else in Australia electricity is conducted on the basis of a national market and there are some people - you would virtually call them Luddites in this state who can't comprehend that or don't want to accept that times change. I was saying to someone yesterday: Where's the state dock yard? Where's the state abattoirs? Where's the state brick works? I mean those sort of things come from another era and, quite frankly, governments should get on with the jobs that they're entrusted to do and get out of activity which is no longer relevant.

So, it would seem that 79% of the NSW public are 'Luddites' because, unlike Barrie Unsworth, they do believe that the provision of electricity, if not, perhaps, bricks, abattoirs and dockyards, are core government business.

In much of the interview Unsworth vented his indignation at the efforts made, within the NSW Labor Party, to remove the abysmally unpopular Premier Morris Iemma as leader of the NSW Parliamentary Labor Party. He told ABC 702 Sydney Local Radio:

"All this talk about forcing the Premier to leave office and searching for some other candidate is not in the best interest of the Labor Party,"

"I'm just appalled that there are people in trade union leadership and also now in party leadership positions who are seeking to achieve that end."

Toni Matthews, not for the first time and not for the last time in the interview, expressed her total agreement with the former Premier when she responded, "Why - It seems obvious to me - Why isn't it obvious to these younger members that you're talking about that they're creating mayhem within the party?"

Barrie Unsworth was particularly indignant at the attempts by the NSW Labor Party to ensure that Labor parliamentarians support, on the floor of Parliament, Labor's opposition to privatisation. He complained, "I have been able to confirm that parliamentary members in marginal seats have been brought to head office and in effect told that their preselections would be at risk if they didn't support the directives of head office".

"This is a democracy," Unsworth continued, "The people of NSW elected the Government, not people down in Sussex Street."

The full transcript interview lasting 8 minutes is included below. It is an illustration of how poorly the people of Australia continue to be served by its newsmedia, even the supposedly independent and 'left wing' ABC.

Unsworth's inititative, should it succeed in getting the NSW Labor Party to acquiesce before Iemma and Costa, will no more 'heal' the NSW Labor Party than did acceptance of the privatisation program of the Hawke and Keating governments 'heal' the national Labor Party back in the 1990's.

The privatisation of Qantas and the Commonwealth Banks, also carried out against Labor's own platform and also without any mandate from the electorate, only helped pave the way for 11 dark years of even worse misrule by the Howard Government. The privatisation of the remaining Government-owned half of the Commonwealth Bank followed Paul Keating's election victory in 1993. It was privatised despite a specific promise made by Keating not to. This only served to help demoralise Labor's own ranks and handed a perfect propaganda weapon to the Howard opposition, which had cynically voted in Parliament to support the breaking of Keating's 1993 election pledge2. From then, amongst the repertoire of responses to any objection to the Coalition's own plans to privatise Telstra, was to remind the electorate that the preceding Labor government had "privatised everything that moved."

It became impossible, during subsequent federal elections campaigns, to convince many rural residents, hard hit by the Commonwealth Bank privatisation and Labor's overall neglect of rural Australia, that Labor was sincere in its stated opposition to Telstra privatisation, which, in any case, it has retrospectively endorsed.

In the inteview Unsworth accused the younger Labor Party officials of failing to understand history: "I mean if they had looked back over history, they would realise that disunity is death."

In fact it is Unsworth, himself, who seems unable to grasp the lessons of Labor's history. Whilst 'unity' under the pro-big-business leadership of Hawke and Keating, did not save Labor supporters and the broader Austrlian public from the catastrophe of the Howard years, open defiance of the NSW Labor Party of Premier Carr's earlier attempt to privatise electricity did not cost it office. In 1999, when Labor stood against a Liberal/National opposition pledged to fully privatise electricity, it won resoundingly, in spite of being led by Bob Carr. This is clear evidence that the NSW public can be discerning enough not to automatically turn away the Labor Party simply because of an episodic display 'disunity'.

NSW Labor's best chance to both hold on to office and to actually do something whilst in office, other than serve the interests of the corporate sector and property developers, would be for the ranks of the Labor to disendorse all of their parliamentiary supposed 'representatives', who have turned their backs not only on them, but also on the NSW public and basic principles of democracy, starting with Iemma and Costa

Footnotes

1. John Kaye calls on Iemma to dump sell-off as NSW public repudiate privatisation of 29 Jun 08 by John Kaye

2. To their credit, the NSW state Liberal/National Party Opposition has acted in a far more principled and decent fashion than did the Federal Liberal/National Opposition in the 1990's, not to mention the NSW state 'Labor' caucus. Paradoxically, it is thanks to the them, far more than to the Labor caucus, only a small handful of which were prepared to support Labor's own policy on the floor of the NSW Parliament, that the attempt to flog off NSW's electricty assets has been defeated thus far. This is in spite of such a stance threatening to strain their relationship with the NSW corporate sector as The Australian newspaper ominously warned in June. Had the Liberals and Nationals not inisted upon the privatisation legislation be referred to the NSW Auditor General, the legislation would almost certainly now be law.

See also: Unsworth report is a dead duck of 11 Mar 08 by Ed Lewis, John Kaye calls on Iemma to dump sell-off as NSW public repudiate privatisation of 29 Jun 08 by John Kaye, No Mandate, No Sale - Demand Costa and Iemma debate electricity sale in Parliament of 14 May 08 by John Kaye

Appendix: Full transcript of Interview of Former NSW Premier Barrie Unsworth by Toni Matthews

The follwing has been transcribed from MP3 file linked to from "Keating, Carr asked to heal NSW Labor"

BU:We've got an unprecedented situation at the moment where the leadership of Centre Unity (the predominant right wing faction in the NSW Labor Party) is undermining the Government of the state of NSW in the Premiership of Morris Iemma. Now, that's just untenable. I attended the party conference in May and the scenes that occured there I have never seen in my more than 50 years' membership of the party.

TM: Well, what do you mean? What kind of scenes are you talking about?

BU: Moving censures on the Premier and the party secretary giving leadership to the Centre Unity faction by actively campaigning and speaking against Premier Iemma. Now, Premier Iemma won the New South Wales elections last year, brought the Labor Party back into Office, continued the Labor Government that was commenced by Bob Carr back in mid-nineties and he should be rewarded for that - not attacked by the party administration as occurred at the conference.

TM: Well, it does seem a little unusual ...

BU: ... and as has occurred since then.

TM: ... mmm, and seems very destabilising.

BU: Well, I have been able to confirm that Parliamentary members in marginal seats have been brought to head office and, in effect, told that their preselections would be at risk if they didn't support support the directives of head office. Now, this is a democracy. The people of New South Wales elected the Government, not people down in Sussex Street (the head office of the NSW branch of the Labor Party). Now, I have been one of those apparatchiks. I know how the system works, and what I say is the elder statesmen of the Party should come together, have a look at what's happened to the party in this last 30 years - look at where it is at the moment - controlled by a group of younger, and in my view, inexperienced members, and look at the real issue. The real issue is keeping Labor in Government. The real issue is supporting a premier who won an election a little over twelve months ago, and will be in office for almost another three years, and all this talk about forcing the Premier to leave office and and searching for another candidate is not in the best interests of the Labor Party and I am just apalled that there are people in trade union leadership and also now in party leadership positions who are seeking to achieve that end.

TM: Forgive me, Mr Unsworth. Why - It seems obvious to me - Why isn't it obvious to these younger members that you're talking about that they're creating mayhem within the party?

BU: They haven't had the experience. I mean I have been reading some of their profiles on the weekend. They've been in the Labor Party for less than ten years and some of them are holding senior positions. I mean if they had looked back over history, they would realise that disunity is death, and if you destabilise the party you will be out of office and it's a lot harder to get back into office than it is to get out of office and I should know. Oppositions - they don't win elections. Governments lose them and having lost an election in '88, I can see the same situation occurring again in 2011 unless the party settles down, so it needs people who have had the experience, who were at the formation of Centre Unity such as those that I have nominated and I have nominated and spoken to John McBean who was party President and Michael Costa, who was secretary of the Labor Council, and both John and I were secretaries of the Labor Council. I know Paul Keating, because of the letter he wrote to the papers after the conference, is of a like mind and I have spoken to Bob Carr about the situation and I think that we've got to come together and give some direction.

I've spoken to delegates who were at the conference who were most uncomfortable with the direction they were given by the leadership of the Centre Unity at that conference. Some of them walked out and didn't vote and others voted, because they were under pressure, within their delegations and the leadership they were given was abysmal.

TM: It's twenty to nine on Mornings on 702. I am talking with former New South Wales Premier Barrie Unsworth about the current disquiet within the state ALP. Mr Unsworth, is this factional warfare playing into the hands of the Opposition?

BU: Obviously, it is! Obviously, it is! I made the point to the Premier, I think his popularity is at 28% - something like that, and I was editorialised once as "Mr twenty six percent", but I was able to claw back to 62%.

TM: That's just the media, isn't it?

BU: Well, I think ...

TM: (laughs)

BU:I think the media conducts the polling, and I've been in radio. I know a little bit about polling. Popularity comes and goes and it depends upon how you're treated by teh communication mediums and I think Premier Iemma has - he's got some very good policies. He's put in to action quite a number of them in the interests of the community in key areas such as health and transport and public security and this whole argument is just about electricity and I think it's an argument that has gone beyond its time because everywhere else in Australia electricity is conducted on the basis of a national market and there are some people - you would virtually call them Luddites in this state who can't comprehend that or don't want to accepet that times change. I was saying to someone yesterday: Where's the state dock yard? Where's the state abbottoirs? Where's the state brickworks? I mean those sort of things come from another era and, quite frankly, governments should get on with the jobs that they're entrusted to do and get out of activity which is no longer relevant.

TM: I gather that you have spoken to the Premier recently. How is he feeling about all this? He must be disappointed.

BU: I think that Premier Iemma shows great resilience and his public persona, I think, is tremedous because he's prepared to get on with the job and - sort of - brush off these frustrations, but i think we have got to send a message to the people who are white-anting the party that it's just not acceptable. It's not not just in the interest of the party, but all of the - you know - the millions of people in New South Wales that support the Labor Party that put them in office last year and expect them to do a job in the intersts of the people of this state.

TM: Mr. Unsworth, what would you say to those people who say, "Look, you've been around the block. You've had your time. It's now for the younger people, coming up through the ranks. If they make mistakes, so be it. Let them make mistakes. Let them learn.

BU: Well, you can't learn on the job. I mean, they should become a little more proficient. A lot of people that are in these positions today have never really worked. The system has changed. You have got a lot of staffers that get into these positions who have never had a job in industry. I mean, I - I am an electrician. I have worked as an electrician. I have come up through the ranks, and many of the people - and all of my contemporaries had that experience. You've got young inexperienced people now in positions of authority, and it's not just a question about "We've had our time". We've got the experience. We've got the runs on the board. We've been through all of these situations, the splits in the Labor Party, and we don't like it. And what we want to see is a bit of a steady-up. What it's all about is the egos of one or two individuals in the trade union movment and the ambitions of others in the party machine, who, themselves, want to see that they exercise parliamentary representative office.

TM: So, Mr Unsworth, if this factional issue isn't addressed before the next election, it's certainly going to have an effect on the results.

BU: Oh, huh. The next election's not for another three years. It'll be addressed well before then and I think it will have to be addressed again in the immediate future, because the Government has got to get on with the job, not be distracted by all this self-indulgent behaviour of a handful of people.

Comments

Unsworth expressed his indignation that threats were made by the NSW Labor Party to disendorse Labor politicians who failed to uphold Labor Party policy against privatisation:

Well, I have been able to confirm that Parliamentary members in marginal seats have been brought to head office and, in effect, told that their preselections would be at risk if they didn't support support the directives of head office.

However, he had nothing to say about the fact that earlier on threats of expulsion had been made against other Labor Politicians if they voted for Labor Policy on privatisation on the floor of Parliament.

The Sydney Morning Herald article Electricity dissidents face expulsion from party: Iemma of 16 May reported:

MORRIS IEMMA has issued a veiled threat to caucus members who might consider crossing the floor on electricity legislation.

The Premier warns they could face expulsion from the party. And, just before leaving for China on a trade mission, he opened the door for the sale of power stations - not just long-term leases as he first promised.

...

Asked to rule out seeking disciplinary action at the national executive for MPs who cross the floor, Mr Iemma said: "I'm not going into the business of speculating on hypotheticals of what may or may not happen."

Mr Iemma's move to push the legislation through the caucus came amid claims that Mr Obeid was pressuring upper house MPs not to cross.

Mr Obeid confirmed to the Herald that he had warned the upper house MP Mick Veitch he could be taken to the national executive to be expelled if he opposed power privatisation. But he denied using strong language to Mr Veitch.

...

There have also been claims that the upper house MP Linda Volz was threatened by Mr Obeid, but Mr Iemma yesterday said both had denied this.

NSW state Labor officials had every right to act against Labor politicians who voted for privatisation

It is extraordinary that only days after the NSW Labor Party conference voted against privatisation 702 to 107, in accord with the views of the broader NSW public that state MPs who wanted to uphold that policy on the floor of NSW Parliament were threatened with expulsion form the Labor Party.

It is fashionable to regard all political parties as necessarily corrupt, as Alan Moir seemed to imply in a cartoon of 6 June in the Sydney Morning Herald (see below). However this case shows where political parties can act as they should and stand up to, rather than defend powerful vested interests. In point of fact the attempt by the NSW Labor Party administration to force the Labor Party MP's to abide by the decision of the conference was one of the rare instances in modern Australian politics where political parties have functioned as they should.

The Labor Party officials had every right, and, indeed a duty, to disendorse state Labor politicians who threatened to vote for privatisation, and for having done so, they should have been applauded. However, the unions and the state Labor Party officials were predictably vilified by the newsmedia, even, surprisingly, by the often very good cartoonist Alan Moir who, on 8 June depicted the NSW state Labor Party and unions as having seized from Iemma the driving wheel of the car of the state of NSW. Had the cartoon also also put somewhere into the picture the corporate sector from whom Costa and Iemma were taking their orders, then the cartoon would have been a fairer depiction of reality.

If anything, the NSW Labor Party should be criticised for not having taking an even stronger stance against those in control of the NSW government. They should have acted without hesitation to expel Iemma and Costa and made it clear that any other state MP who voted for privatisation would face disendorsemant as Labor candidates at the very least.

However, they failed to act as decisively as the circumstances demanded and it had to be left, ironically, to state Liberal and National MP's, rather than the majority of state Labor MP's to uphold Labor policy, as well as basic principles of democracy, accountability and morality.

On the news tonight they are talking about giving people heavy discounts on their power bills this summer if they reduce consumption. This is supposed to be in the public interest to "avoid blackouts" We are running into a brick wall of unsustainability. Looks as though the rich get to have air conditioning and the poor try to weather it! If things are really that bad they should RATION it - for everyone . I bet those power companies will get the same or more from the public. It's disgusting! Not to mention the importation of ever more "customers"

I agree with you Myrtle! I laughed when I read it in this morning's in Age, AGL, Origin, Energy Australia...... they're in the business of making money, they've screwed us before and they'll screw us again if we let them!

To put it bluntly this the face of overpopulation - the rationing of water, gas, electricity; food will be next!!