Bob Gould, 2008

A powerful protest against privatisation
A large and important rally at Parliament House in Sydney

Source: Ozleft, February 26, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

This isn’t an end but a beginning, Unions NSW president John Robertson told the protest against electricity privatisation at the opening of state parliament for this year.

The rally drew about 12,000 people, and it was clear this rebellious movement is not about to go away, nor is Robertson. The estimate of 12,000 came from the platform, and it seemed accurate.

He said, to enormous applause, that the campaign against the Howard government’s Work Choices anti-union laws, which was important in federal Labor’s strong performance in NSW in the federal election, was now the campaign to defeat electricity privatisation.

The meeting was ably chaired by Matt Thistlethwaite, the assistant secretary of Unions NSW, and the organiser assigned by Unions NSW to the anti-privatisation campaign.

There was substantial community participation and all the socialist groups were present, but the main component was the organised working class, with a very substantial spread of trade unions represented. The biggest contingent was from the Electrical Trades Union, while the Centre unity AWU and the left metalworkers union (which cover similar areas of the workforce) marched together in a single contingent. Left unions with a notable presence included the National Education Union, the firefighters, the Public Service Association, the CFMEU (construction union), the maritime union, while the more industrially militant right unions had large contingents, particularly the National Union of Workers, the rail and bus transport union and the United Services Union (which includes the old Municipal Employees Union).

The large union turnout reflected an obvious but important fact: that the officials of many unions had put a lot of effort into mobilising their members.

The chants were vigorous, angry and constant. About a dozen Labor backbenchers, a number of Greens upper house MPs, and a lower house independent from Newcastle identified publicly with the protest. The smallish size of the parliamentary representation was a clear indication of one of the political problems facing the anti-privatisation campaign: the disinclination of much of the left in the Labor caucus, particularly the left ministers, to seriously oppose the privatisation.

To add insult to injury, the left deputy premier was on the radio this morning (Tuesday) supporting the privatisation, which is extremely unfortunate. It’s also reported that the left minister for agriculture and energy, Ian Macdonald, will be speaking at a $2000 a seat business conference on Thursday, talking up the privatisation.

The trade unionists at the protest were in a very angry mood. They are no respecters of persons or governments. They’ve just torn down a Tory government that attacked the interests of the working class and they’ll think nothing of doing the same to a bad Labor government if it doesn’t respond to their demands.

John Robertson correctly channeled the anger towards a vigorous campaign to force the government to back off. This is the appropriate strategy. The working class in struggle, when it’s given positive leadership by its trade unions, is a very powerful force.

There’s not a hint at this stage that the powerful and healthy coalition of unions, left and right, and their officials and the Unions NSW leadership, are going to back away from this struggle, and if they decided they were it would be very hard to put the genie of working class discontent back in the bottle. The union leaders are all experienced people and it’s becoming clear to almost all of them that this is a political fight to the death.

This is also clear to the ranks. The speakers at the meeting, which was short and sweet, were first-class. A very articulate electricity worker from the La Trobe Valley in Victoria explained very clearly the devastating impact of electricity privatisation on workers’ lives, jobs and communities. He said he couldn’t even begin to guess why a Labor government would consider such a proposal after the disastrous Victorian experience.

Kate Faehrmann from the Nature Conservation Council said that organisation opposed the sell-off and spoke frankly to the rally, including the large number of electricity workers present, about the problem of climate change, and got an extremely good reception.

These workers are vigorously defending their jobs and the interests of the community, but they’re not opposed to careful plain speaking about the problems of climate.

Kevin Manning, the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, spoke carefully and movingly in a pretty bald and extended exposition of traditional Catholic social theory of the sort outlined in Papal encyclicals about the rights of workers.

He almost paraphrased the encyclicals, saying the didn’t oppose all privatisations, but basic public services and natural monopolies should be in the public sphere, because when they were privatised the inevitable pursuit of profit bore down hardest on the most underprivileged sectors of society. He was extremely forthright in opposing the electricity privatisation and a breath of fresh air compared with the Tory cardinal down the road in the diocese of Sydney.

Bishop Manning got enormous applause from this, it seemed to me, rather secular assembly of Australian-born and migrant workers. One rather rough-looking bloke wearing an ETu T-shirt made a bit of a joke: “How can we lose with god on our side,u as he and his friends vigorously applauded the bishop.

The bishop’s useful contribution underlined a fact about the Australian labour movement and the Labor Party. This movement consists of two traditional streams: the secular socialist stream and the Catholic stream, which are sometimes in conflict, but often push in the same direction.

The electricity privatisation proposed by a Labor government is a display of arrogant contempt for the traditional socialist stream, which has usually fought to defend and extend the public sector, and for the traditional Catholic stream, which has always emphasised that natural monopolies and basic services should be in the public sphere.

The better aspects of both traditions, which are still powerful, were well represented at this rally, and when these currents are united, and the working class is united, it’s possible to develop a very powerful force.

It’s important not to underestimate the power of capital that we’re up against, as Dick Nichols points out in a useful article in Green Left Weekly, which DSP members were selling at the protest.

undue pessimism about the outcome of this unfolding and already quite momentous struggle is not indicated, however.

If the government doesn’t back off, it will precipitate a political crisis in the labour movement and the whole state of NSW.

The struggle continues.

A postcript on a handful of leftists from the twilight zone

Some rather unpleasant socialists from the twilight zone, who now deserve to be dubbed Costa’s Loyal Trotskyists, were giving out a very nasty leaflet to the protesters. I saw some ETu members who, after reading some of the leaflet, made a point of seeking out the leafleter, explaining what they thought of the leaflet, and tearing it up.

This socialist group says the Labor Party and the unions are so corrupt that there’s no difference between Labor and Liberal, and that workers should leave the unions they’ve fought for all their lives because the only political task is the construction of a little socialist sect in cyberspace.

The obvious first point about the destructive political line of this group is that the unions are clearly not dead and they’re clearly a powerful force in society and the labour movement, and when given reasonable leadership they will conduct a powerful struggle.

So much for the twilight zone socialist bullshit about workers leaving the unions. The most stupid aspect of the leaflet, and the thing that seemed to get the ETu workers angry, was the assertion that the Labor government would win the fight to privatise electricity.

This assertion of the inevitability of the victory of the privatisers underlines the role the twilight zoners play these days for the ruling class. The operative part of what they put out in leaflets and on their eccentric website is that all popular struggles are inevitably sold out, and the leaders of these struggles, not being affiliated to the World Socialist Web Site, are inevitably all in league together to betray struggles. This is arrogant contempt for the working class and people in popular struggles.

The role the WSWS plays for the ruling class, insofar as anyone takes any notice of it, is that its argument parallels the viewpoint of all the bourgeois ideologues that unions are out of date and a waste of time, and that privatisation is inevitable. This situation must exist, you see, because there are no popular struggles led by the WSWS anywhere, and all other struggles are fake.

The WSWS should stay in cyberspace, where it belongs, rather than serving as a tiny auxilliary to the ideology of the bourgeoisie.

When Michael Berrell parrots these twilight zoners on the Green Left discussion website, he just demonstrates that, politically speaking, that he’s a waste of space. His question to me about whether or not we should advance the demand for the expulsion of Costa at this stage of a serious battle is just mischievous nonsense, because it also carries the implication that inevitably the struggle will be defeated, which is by no means indicated.

A very powerful struggle is under way and the role of socialists is to participate in that struggle without dopey ultimatums. In struggles of this sort, Lenin’s well-known paraphrase of Napoleon’s aphorism is apposite: start fighting, then see.

A code of secrecy in the Labor caucus

February 26, 2008

Where do the Labor Party rules require not telling party members what happened in caucus?

I’m reliably informed that this evening (Tuesday) one of the NSW Labor Party left MPs who was conspicuous by not being one of the courageous 15 or so parliamentarians who associated themselves with the rally against electricity privatisation, when questioned about the day’s events in the Labor Party caucus, said: “I shouldn’t really be telling you this” because of the confidentiality of caucus, and went on to give a very truncated account of events in the caucus.

That raises very sharply one of the questions at the heart of this matter in the Labor Party. Is the parliamentary caucus now something like the Mafia, with a code of silence? Are MPs not allowed to tell anything to anyone?

Where is the notion of caucus confidentiality in the rules of the Labor Party?

I’m against making the struggle against privatisation personal, concerning individual members of parliament, but these are not personal matters. Labor Party members are entitled to a full and frank account of proceeding in the party’s state parliamentary caucus, and of who took which side on electricity privatisation. This is a vital matter for the future of the Labor Party as any kind of workers’ organisation.

Another curious feature of today’s very powerful demonstration is that one very well known left member of the federal cabinet walked down the other side of the street during the protest, locked in conversation, and made no attempt to associate himself with the protest.

Members of the left who have helped this bloke advance his career over the years are entitled to be very angry at that sort of calculated insult to them, and the unionists who protested against the privatisation push.

This bloke should be constantly asked directly whether he will support the rank and file struggle against electricity privatisation in NSW.

If people like Senator-elect Doug Cameron can take the risks associated with his forthright defence of principle involved in opposing the privatisation, why can’t other federal members from NSW, including the ministers, do likewise?

If the left is to survive as a force in the Labor Party, a lot of people are going to have to climb down off the fence on the electricity privatisation issue.

The trade-union based campaign against the privatisation, embracing as it does the militant unions from both left and right, is going to make it very difficult for any Labor politician in NSW to keep sitting on the fence.

Once again, this is not personal. In everything I write I avoid naming people to give them the chance to change their tune or explain that they’ve been misunderstood, but there’s no way a number of the pollies can talk out of both sides of their mouths for too much longer.

The trade union based movement against privatisation isn’t going away, and it will continue to broaden and deepen, particularly in the Labor Party, leading up to the Labor’s state conference in May.

Media misreporting of the protest

February 27, 2008

Norm Dixon has been posting media reports of yesterday’s protest on the Green Left discussion site, and that’s useful as far as it goes. These reports, however, are obviously angled to express the point of view of the media owners, who aren’t foolish and are quite deliberate supporters of the privatisation push.

One feature of the reports is the numbers at the protest. The media have settled on the mythical figure of 4000 to talk down the importance of the rally.

It is hard to accurately estimate numbers at an event of this nature, but it’s not impossible, and despite what the media say, pretty well the whole area of Macquarie Street from the State Library to Sydney Hospital, and past it, was crowded with demonstrators, and more were scattered beyond at both ends, and more were coming and going all the time.

I’ve since spoken on the phone to quite a few comrades, friends and acquaintances, who I didn’t see at the protest, but who were there. And in my usual stickybeak way I was circulating throughout, studying the event. All this tends to underline the point that the number has to have been pretty much the size of 12,000 that was announced from the platform.

The bourgeois media estimates of numbers are part of the ideological battle to sell the privatisation.

In addition to this, the rapidly growing uneasiness not just of the 15 or so Labor caucus members who protested, but of others in the Labor caucus who didn’t demonstrate is of some significance.

When you count the Labor Party conference representation to which the unions that protested are entitled, it’s clear they and their allies will have a comfortable majority of union delegates. It’s also clear that there’s a majority against privatisation among State Electoral Council and Federal Electoral Council branch delegates to the conference.

This is the underlying political framework to the uneasiness expressed by important MPs in the state caucus who initially supported privatisation and are having second thoughts.

Today’s press reports that one fairly astute Centre unity upper house member, Christine Robertson, makes the valuable point about the situation if conference defeats the privatisation, where do her loyalties lie: to the state conference that elects upper house candidates, including her, or to Mick Costa and his dangerous and unpalatable privatisation scheme?

Christine Robertson clearly indicates that she’ll stick to conference when the crunch comes, and she’s very sensible to make that judgment.

All of this underlines the broad question of where we go now, and at this point I see great value in the general point, which has been put a bit rhetorically by the DSP and others on the far left, but I would put it a bit more concretely. What we need now is the widest possible all-embracing trade union, community, Labor Party ranks and Greens public campaign.

This campaign, however, clearly has to be directed in the first instance at the resounding defeat of the privatisation at the forthcoming Labor Party state conference in May.

It would be stupid to underestimate the forces lining up to support the privatisation, but given the appropriate campaign we have clear possibility of victory and the kind of malicious defeatism peddled by twilight zone pseudo-Trotskyists, such as the World Socialist Web Site, is not at all called for.

I’d also be interested in whatever ideas the Greens and groups on the far left might have, by way of an appraisal of the struggle so far, and perspectives for the further development of the struggle.

PS. By way of a correction, we seem to have made a mistake in an earlier post. The business event touting the privatisation appears to be a State Energy conference, to be addressed by Minister MacDonald, and the cost is $2500 a seat, not the $2000 mentioned in our recent post. We’re also told that some environmental groups are planning to picket the event, and more power to their elbow. The event is at L’Aqua, Cockle Bay Wharf, Darling Harbour, tomorrow, starting at 8.15am.