Bob Gould, 2007

Issues in the struggle against electricity privatisation in NSW

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, December 28, 2007
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Despite the tendency of Australian politics to go into recess in January, the developing struggle over electricity privatisation is shaping up as the first major political collision of the Rudd era. All polls taken by media organisations show that electricity privatisation is overwhelmingly on the nose with the population, by margins of about four to one — even polls conducted by the reactionary News Limited publication the Daily Telegraph.

This campaign to privatise electricity is an ideological obsession of the ex-socialist NSW treasurer, Mick Costa. It’s also quite clear that large capitalist investors such as Macquarie Bank are in the process somewhere. One of the major advisers to Macquarie Bank, on a large stipend, is former Labor premier Bob Carr, who tried to privatise electricity 10 years ago and was resoundingly defeated at a NSW Labor Party conference.

A curious aspect of the proposed privatisation that has just emerged is that one of the major bidders is the government of one of the southern provinces of China. So you have the curious proposal to sell state-owned NSW electricity infrastructure to the government of a Chinese province.

When the leader of the NSW trade unions, John Robertson, raised this question fairly sharply because of the lamentable record of Chinese government bodies on workers’ and trade union rights, he was accused by Costa of adopting the xenophobic position of Pauline Hansen. Robertson quite properly tossed this off as ridiculous.

It’s clear that enormous pressure is being brought to bear for electricity privatisation from the most conservative elements in the new federal Labor government. Wayne Swan, the treasurer, made a public statement in support of privatising electricity in NSW, federal energy minister Martin Ferguson, who is ostensibly part of the left, induced the energy ministers of the states to endorse the privatisation.

The major problem facing this push for privatisation of electricity (the same smart alecs of the entrepreneurial classes will also eventually try to privatise water) is the strong opposition of ordinary people, consumers, which is supplemented by the so-far almost unanimous opposition of the trade union movement, led by electrical trades unions leader Bernie Riordan (who is also NSW Labor Party president), Ben Kruse from the United Services Union, and John Robertson, secretary of Unions NSW.

The push for privatisation has been devious and ruthless. The stated policy of the Labor Party in NSW, coming from the conference that defeated privatisation in 1997, is against privatisation of electricity.

The trade union and Labor Party opponents of the move point out that to try to push privartisation through without a state conference is political bastardry of the highest order. This political battle is opening the Pandora’s Box of all the old battles in the Labor Party and the labour movement over the rights of the Labor Party conference to tell politicians what to do, and the more conservative forces on both the right and the ostensible left are trying to marginalise the trade unions and the Labor Party members, replacing it with Bonapartist rule by decree by federal and state Labor leaders and cabinets.

The most stubborn opposition to the privatisation so far has come from the Robertson wing of Unions NSW, which is dominant in the trade unions, both right and left, and by virtue of that situation is also an enormous force in the Labor Party.

On both right and left there’s clearly a lot of pressure being brought to bear by cabinets and politicians to tone down or abandon opposition to the privatisation, but so far this lobbying, which is going on frantically in the background in both factions, only seems to be hardening the opposition.

Unions NSW has set up a website to campaign against the privatisation.

In the political manoeuvres in the parliament, the left ministers are sheltering behind the proposition that they’re bound by cabinet solidarity, but as several experienced Labor politicians have pointed out, so-called cabinet solidarity is merely a practice that has grown up, and is nowhere mentioned in the Labor Party’s rules, at either party or parliamentary level.

The acid ought to be put right on the members of cabinet who are committed to opposing the privatisation to exercise a conscience vote in caucus on the question. There’s a fair amount of shadow boxing on this issue by politicians of both left and right, but judging by the mood at the rank and file Labor Party meeting called to initiate a campaign in the branches, attended by about 50 people from about 30 Labor branches, the ranks are fairly aware of the shadow boxing and they don’t like it.

The way the Labor Party works is that members who campaign hard during elections usually have some factional alignment, which even includes sub-factional alignments, and they’ll often allow their leaders, including sub-factional leaders, some slack on questions such as pre-selection ballots and other matters. But the same members bitterly resent being taken for mugs on visceral policy questions such as electricity privatisation, even by their own factional leaders.

The rank and file of the left are pretty angry, to say the least, with the role of Ferguson, the federal energy minister, one of the leaders of one left sub-faction, and the state energy minister Ian Macdonald, a major leader of the other left sub-faction, who once the privatisation proposal had been carried by the Labor caucus, rolled over and immediately started trying to sell the privatisation.

Way back in the late 1960s, as a rather left-talking young student leader, Macdonald briefly had a rather flamboyant affection for all things Chinese. Maybe he thinks flogging NSW electricity to a provincial government of China has some socialist aspect to it. Who knows what someone like Macdonald thinks.

Apart from being wrong in principle, selling public assets right now is raving lunacy from an economic point of view because of the instability of the world capitalist system. There’s a devastating problem in arranging credit for anything major in infrastructure of the speculative sort because of the reluctance of the major world banks to lend to each other out of fear of what disasters are concealed in the other banks’ balance sheets.

It’s also a notorious fact that the wildly speculative Chinese economy has three aspects: 1.It rests on the super-exploitation of the Chinese working masses. 2.It’s severely repressive, particularly of real trade unionism. 3.The national economy is extraordinarily speculative and deeply tied into the speculative crisis of the whole global capitalist economy.

What happens to NSW electricity if the government of the Chinese province that buys it, or some of its enterprises, go broke? The idea of flogging Australian government utilities anywhere, in the present climate, is a completely weird triumph of neoliberal ideology over world realities.

In Britain the government is talking about nationalising the failed Northern Rock bank to avoid a deep crisis. Why would we in Australia sell our basic public assets? Judging by the polls, masses of ordinary people can see that, so why can’t the Labor politicians?

The Labor Party rank and file meeting was businesslike and determined. A comprehensive report was made by Labor parliamentary backbencher Paul Pearce, who has led opposition to the privatisation in the caucus, and the meeting adopted a seven-point statement, one of which I drafted. A decision was made to have a demonstration at Labor Party head office in late January or early February, and to apply maximum pressure to bring forward the Labor Party conference to March.

The Labor Party officers didn’t agree to that, but they have brought the conference forward by six weeks to early May, and they also say the government has made some sort of undertaking not to exchange contracts or do anything irreversible until after the May conference.

Unions NSW is pressing ahead with its independent agitation and its website. The focus of both initiatives is the resounding defeat of the proposition on the floor of a Labor Party conference as the initial point in an expanded campaign. Media reports suggest the cabinet has been leaning heavily on some trade unions to roll over, but that so far only two unions have done so, and that’s a long way from any kind of majority in the Labor Party for electricity privatisation.

The far left and electricity privatisation

The DSP has taken up this question a little belatedly, but better late than never. Norm Dixon, in his first comment on the matter, coyly says it would be better to have an open committee rather than the existing committee of Labor Party members. The weakness of the campaign so far is the lack of a big public agitation in the community at large, and a supplementary open committee could initiate such a campaign, along with Unions NSW and the Labor Party rank-and-file committee.

Therefore, in my view, an open committee isn’t such a bad idea and if Norm Dixon and other groups on the left initiated such a thing I’d certainly support it. Nevertheless, to counterpose such a not-yet-existing committee to the existing Labor Party, and by implication trade union, agitation, is the usual DSP exposure nonsense in another form.

Dixon’s extremely strange semi-Stalinist cyberspace ally “Hard Labor” Raven (who I’ve never met, but who slandered me a while back as an agent provocateur) spells things out for himself, Dixon and others in his usual ponderous way.

Raven slanders all the Labor Party members and trade union officials who are actually campaigning, calling them “Hard Labor” stooges, and he implies that the kind of agitation I’ve just described, which is entirely appropriate to the developing situation, is no good at all because just about everybody involved is a stooge.

To take a nice phrase out of the DSP minority’s platform, that’s just clowning, and the way Raven presents it is vicious, anti-working-class, anti-labour-movement clowning, the clear aim of which (if anyone listens to Raven, which I’m inclined to doubt) is to derail the healthy and so-far effective campaign that has developed in opposition to electricity privatisation and is continuing to broaden.