Bob Gould, 2008

My, how quickly they roll over
Greg Combet and electricity privatisation

Source: Ozleft, March 28, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

This morning’s press reports that Greg Combet, former ACTU secretary, new Labor MP and parliamentary secretary for defence in the Rudd cabinet, has come in favour of electricity privatisation in NSW. Combet’s argument is pretty bald: Rudd wants it, and he can’t disagree with the leader.

Combet’s statement is even more significant when you consider that he was parachuted by the Labor machine into a safe Labor seat in the Hunter region, which is one of the centres of opposition to electricity privatisation at Labor rank-and-file and trade union level.

On behalf of the federal Labor leadership Combet is using the authority, and to some extent the credibility, given him by his reasonably competent leadership of the ACTU to undermine opposition to the electricity privatisation in NSW.

Combet is a leading member of the Labor left, and his fellow Labor left ministers from NSW have been strikingly silent on the question of electricity privatisation despite the fact that the Labor Party branches are seething with opposition to the privatisation, as demonstrated by many oppositional resolutions from Labor branches and state electoral councils, particularly in seats held by left Labor ministers.

This situation has very clear links with the other major issue in the new federal Labor caucus: the decision, supported vigorously by the leaders of the left in the caucus, to cede from caucus to Rudd the right to choose the Labor cabinet.

This is a piece of realpolitik by left leaders based on the calculation that they’re likely to get more bums on cabinet seats from Rudd because he needs them as a kind of ideological cover, and they’re useful in keeping at bay several remotely potential leadership challengers from the Labor right.

In the new federal Labor caucus, only two members of the left have stood up to the pressure that is discreetly, but nevertheless massively, applied at every level in the Labor Party.

In the debate on whether to cede the powers to Rudd (as reported by the courageous parliamentary journalist, who gives us all a bit of hope, Alan Ramsey) Daryl Melham fought hard but unsuccessfully in caucus against handing over the powers to Rudd. Melham is the chairman of caucus, a member of the left who stood down from a Labor cabinet once over a point of principle, and he has fended off conservative challenges in what is from time to time a marginal seat.

The other notable breath of fresh air in the new federal caucus is Doug Cameron, the left Senator-elect from NSW, who doesn’t take his seat until the beginning of July. He has fought from day one, forthrightly, against the electricity privatisation and he has clearly been a factor in the strong stance of the important union he comes from, the metalworkers.

Cameron’s opposition is clearly a bit of an embarrassment to the federal left ministers and it’s hardly accidental (there aren’t many accidents in politics) that he is demonised by Mark Aarons in his call for an end to union influence in the Labor Party.

The forces being rounded up to try to force through the electricity privatisation in NSW against the utter hostility of the rank and file, and against even bourgeois economic rationality, are enormous. The pro-privatisation forces are now mobilising in a more or less public way significant figures on the left, obviously hoping that they can crack the nerves of the anti-privatisation majority of the labour movement.

This battle against electricity privatisation in NSW will shape the future of the labour movement in Australia. All past differences on many questions are now secondary. The alliance of the left and right unions, in their substantial majority, and the labour movement rank and file in its overwhelming majority, and all the Labor and Green politicians willing to swim against the tide of neoliberalism on this question, make up the decisive alliance for the future of the labour movement in Australia.

Anyone who lines up on the proper side on this question is now my friend and anyone who lines up on the wrong side is very much my political opponent, independent of any past differences, alliances or friendships.

The people in the labour movement, right and left, who are trying to consolidate their grip on the basis of the political program of neoliberalism are likely to get a bit of a political education in this developing battle. Some of them hold positions of great power, but they are profoundly underestimating both the traditions of the labour movement and the resilience of a large part of the younger rank and file.

The battle may seem a bit unequal when you look at the power currently held by the neoliberals versus the privatisers, but the mobilised trade unions, environmentalists and labour movement and Greens rank and file will give the privatisers a big run for their money, and we can be successful in this battle.

We’re also aided in this battle by the extraordinary and useful expertise of serious economists and experts such as Bob Walker and Betty Con Walker.


Bob Gould, March 29, 2008 Norm Dixon on the Green Left list responds to my comments on Greg Combet’s position on privatisation with a one-line half-smart throwaway remark: “Gee whiz, what a shock,”, but apparently it’s beneath him to comment on the issues in the struggle against electricity privatisation.

For a very long time Noisy Norm has been whingeing about the fact that socialist activists in the Labor Party and the Greens don’t report to him in detail about their activities and perspectives.

I and others have usually recognised Norm’s baits as the spicy provocations that they are, and treated them accordingly, but on this occasion it has been politically appropriate to spell out in some detail some perspectives for the struggle against electricity privatisation, both medium and long-term, including, in that context, the struggle in the Labor Party.

After all his whingeing, cyber-commissar Norm has had very little to say about this struggle as it has unfolded. Nevertheless, he can’t resist the temptation to throw a bit of verbal mud at me. But he throws the mud without any semblance of analysis or comment on perspectives for this struggle, which it’s obvious to most socialists is a critical battle in the workers movement.

If he can’t relate the struggle to the DSP, Norm’s not interested, but he’s still ready to throw a bit of abuse.

What about a bit of analysis of where to go in the struggle, commissar Norm? Or don’t you have you anything useful at all to say about it?

Norm Dixon, March 29, 2008 It seems I have upset the sensitive Bob Gould by my cheeky throwaway line, which I admit was somewhat dismissive of Bob’s fervent hope that Greg Combet would actually represent the workers rather than his fellow parliamentary seat-warmers. I’m tempted to just say, “Lighten up, Bob”, but instead I apologise for any hurt that followed that cutting remark.

But hey, Combet is just the latest in a long line of sell-out ALP politicians and a 100-year plus tradition of Labor governments knifing the labour movement in the back on behalf of proving its credentials as the better manager of the capitalist system. I’m not sure I need to prove that or justify my retort.

As it is Bob who persists in insisting that it is possible to transform the ALP into a vehicle to achieve socialism in this country, the onus surely is on him, not me, to prove to active socialists that their efforts and scarce resources are better spent inside that monolith rather organising together as socialists to build a much-needed alternative.

Yet, Bob then moves on to attack the DSP’s attitude on the struggle against his favoured party’s attempts to privatise the NSW electricity system. But the DSP’s and the Socialist Alliance’s attitude to the struggle — which I fully support — to prevent the ALP privatising power has been spelled out regularly in Green Left Weekly (see and by our participation in the campaign and in broader committees such as the PeoplePower group in the Blue Mountains.

So if Bob really has a gripe with how DSP and Socialist Alliance activists are operating within this movement, say so and spell it out, and spare us the bluster.