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Iemma defies Labor conference, unions and public in push to privatise NSW electricity

The arrogant contempt in which democracy is held by many of Australia's political and business leaders and much of the newsmedia could not have been made more clear by the determination of the New South Wales Government of Morris Iemma to proceed with its plans to sell off publicly owned electricity assets. This is being done against undertakings made to the union movement immediately prior to the 2007 state elections1 and in the face of uproar from the NSW public two thirds of whom oppose privatisation2.

Last Saturday, 4 May, the conference of the NSW Labor Party reaffirmed its opposition to privatisation with a resounding 702 votes to 107. Just like Iemma's previously aborted plan to flog off the NSW government's stake in the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric scheme, privatisation of electricity has never been put to the people of NSW in an election. Indeed, only in 1999, the Labor Party won a resounding election victory against the Coalition which promised to fully privatise electricity. Ironically, then Labor Premier Bob Carr had previously tried to privatise electricity as Iemma is doing now, but had backed down following the repudiation of the policy by the 1997 NSW Labor Party state conference and subsequently by the NSW trade union movement.3. Carr and the Labor Party campaigned on a platform precisely against the policy that Carr had previously tried to impose on the Labor Party and won. Following its defeat the NSW Liberal Party accepted the repudiation of privatisation by the NSW electorate and dropped this policy 4.

On the day following the conference, in brazen defiance of that conference's decision, Iemma announced that he intended to push on with privatisation, regardless5.

Labor backbenchers opposed to the sale have vowed to vote in support of the conference decision of what decision is reached int NSW Labor Caucus meeting scheduled for Tuesday 6 May. In April, the NSW Labor Party president Bernie Riordan confirmed protection for any Labor MP who crossed the floor to uphold party policy. He said they would not be expelled or lose their endorsement6.

However, the NSW Labor Party needs to go much further than protecting state MPs who chose to uphold the conference decision. Any state MP who votes, whether in Labor caucus or on the floor of Parliament, for privatisation, starting with Iemma and Costa, should be expelled immediately from the party and disendorsed and new candidates, willing to abide by decisions of the Labor Party conference, be endorsed in their places. If the Labor Party fails to do this, then democracy will be a dead letter in their organisation.

If they act with determination to clean out the Labor Party, there may be still hope that NSW electors could be persuaded to give their vote to a renovated state Labor party, answerable to ordinary members rather than powerful business lobbies, at the next state elections. Indeed, given the extremely poor standing of Iemma in the polls, and given the barely concealed indifference to the electoral fate of the Labor Party by the likes of Costa, who clearly is looking to a future career in the finance sector, such a measure would appear to be essential, in any case, if NSW Labor is to stand any hope of electoral survival.

However, the NSW Labor Party machine cannot be depended upon to do this unless rank and file Labor Party members, unionists and minor parties and community activists opposed to the sale must continue with their energetic campaign against privatisation.

Appendix 1: A rogues' gallery of backers of NSW electricity privatisation

Footnotes

1. Watkins denies govt broke power promise, SMH 30 Apr 08; Not privatising, just giving control to private companies to run as they see fit for a century by Tim Dunlop, 30 Apr 08; Iemma told unions he would not privatise power sector, Daily Telegraph, 30 Apr 08[back]

2. Citation need. I read this in an online newspaper. [back]

3. Premier's power play, SMH 19 Apr 08 www.smh.com.au/text/articles/2008/04/19/1208025491879.html[back]

4. Citation needed. The Liberal Party, has not unexpectedly, become ambivalent on this question. However, if it does remain true to its past words, privatisation can be blocked in the NSW upper house with the support of minor parties and independents.[back]

5. Bad sell but I'm pushing ahead: Iemma, SMH, 5 May 08 [back]

6. Hunter MPs threaten power sell-off revolt, Newcastle Herald, 5 May 08; Iemma facing party revolt over power sell-off, ABC News, 5 May 08; [back]

See also: NSW electricity links

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Comments

Rudd, Kennett, Keating, Carr, have all been quoted as egging Morris Iemma on to privatise NSW electricity, against the will of 7/8ths of the ALP conference and 2/3 of NSW voters. The electorate, as well as having the right to say, "No", should also be asking, "What gives?"

Don't tell me that there are no contrary opinions around which the newspapers could have published. This time they have forgotten to keep up even their 'balanced reporting' illusion.

Why would you trust any of the above politicians?

Elected to serve the people, they serve big business and serve up ideology.

The Australian Financial Review editorial today was another piece of choreography in the dispossession of the common wealth. Evidently obliged to ransack his toy-cupboard and chests for material, in "Last stand against unions", the anonymous editor accuses unions and 'a few Latin American countries' of being misled in thinking that public ownership has some transcendent quality that could be worth striking for.

Well, excuse me, but public ownership DOES have a transcendant quality: it means that the people own the electricity and the state is obliged to provide it and perform to satisfaction in its delivery. Private ownership can never be 'efficient' because it is only justified by 'profit'. Private industry has to gouge a profit out of providing power to the public. That isn't efficient; that's just wealth transfer from public to private pockets. Once the wealth is in the private pocket, the public won't see it again.

We are in a nasty society, growing nastier every day, where the wealth divide is visibly widening. And we should transfer MORE to the private sector?

Please... How stupid do the newspapers think we are?

Furthermore, private industry is ideologically and economically committed to the growth paradigm. If private industry provides electricity, it will try to get people to use more and more, so that it can make more and more profit every year for shareholders and CEOs. That would be disasterous for everyone.

In the 21st century we cannot afford to entrust our electricity to the puerile economics of growthism. Electricity defines modern civilisation. As we run down our oil supplies, the other fossil fuels, such as coal, which currently power our electricity, are going to be called upon for all kinds of other functions, including the manufacture of coal-oil, for motor transport.

This is already happening in China and is being contemplated here. Australia is already supplying more export coal than any other country. We don't have the money to build nuclear power plants, even if they were a sensible solution to the problem of powering down.

Governments have to grow up and be responsible for the provision of power in an equitable and humane way to citizens as the growth era, founded on cheap oil, recedes.

Selling off electricity makes no sense in a democracy.

As for the assertions the editorialist makes about how Victorian and South Australian voters barely notice anymore that their power industries ... are privatised, well, how would he know? It seems like the Financial Review just lets the editorialist of the day on the Opinion page make up anything they want.

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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