Bob Gould, 2008

A lot of high ground won in a continuing battle
NSW Labor conference overwhelmingly rejects electricity privatisation

Source: Ozleft, May 3, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

11pm, Saturday evening. I’ve just returned, very tired, from the traditional left dinner at the Labor conference. I arrived at it late because the privatisation debate went on into the early evening. I’ve been on the go since 7am, and myself and a couple of comrades have given out 1800 copies of my leaflet.

About 1100 of the leaflet went to conference delegates and observers and 700 to the May Day protesters outside.

My comrades and associates have also had a hectic and active day leafleting for the Power to the People Labor rank and file group, distributing the yellow T-shirts (which seemed to drive Treasurer Mick Costa into a fury) and giving out two or three leaflets.

All these activities were extremely well received by the conference delegates and observers and by the May Day crowd outside, and a very strong camaraderie prevailed across the whole of the Labor Party ranks and among almost all the trade union delegates in the battle to defeat the government’s privatisation proposal.

The speakers on the anti-privatisation side were spectacularly effective and very knowledgable about the subject. They included left and right Labor Party members of parliament, left and right branch delegates, and trade union leaders of the left and right across a very wide spectrum.

The speakers for the government were in my view hysterical and demoralised, and Mick Costa in particular blew his top completely, attacking the delegates for wearing T-shirt made in China, and telling them they were all a joke. He also poured bile on his former associates at Unions NSW, which took them aback a bit, it seemed to me.

So far the Unions NSW officials have tended to try to keep the conflict with Costa objective and have avoided personal acrimony, because he is an old associate. Mick Costa is not responding in kind, and is lashing out in all directions, in a quite extraordinary way, some of which was on the television news this evening.

In my view, every government speaker except John Della Bosca and the ostensibly left-wing deputy premier John Watkins lost votes for the government as the debate progressed. Premier Morris Iemma left the conference during the debate and did not take part in it.

Labor Party members at moments of crisis have plenty of ingenuity. The conference was jammed into a ridiculously small and impractical space, but the delegates just rode over that problem, and the attending branch observers packed into the back of the hall gradually squeezed out (in a gentle way, of course) the bewildered corporate guests who had been given precedence at the back of the hall.

The Labor and trade union ranks are pretty resourceful when their passions are aroused and their political and industrial interests are at stake. It was the rowdiest and most boisterous conference in my memory, going back about 40 conferences.

Some of my associates in the anti-privatisation campaign unfurled a banner at the back of the hall, and there was a desultory attempt by conference security to move on them, but the rebels simply took down the banner when security approached and put it back up when they left. There are plenty of ways to skin a cat.

Heckling from the floor and the crowded gallery was often pretty funny, considering the gravity of the topic, and the ranks won the battle of repartee.

Ultimately, the major amendment killing off the privatisation, was carried by a margin of 702 to 107 votes out of about 850 delegates. The government supporter, a lawyer, who presented the finance committee report in which the debate took place, tried to pull a fast one by claiming that the amendment wasn’t a platform resolution, which caused pandemonium. Doug Cameron from the metalworkers and John Robertson from Unions NSW sprang to their feet and Cameron insisted on a ruling, and the secretary, Karl Bitar, ruled that it was a platform policy matter that was binding on the parliamentary caucus.

Bitar and the left assistant secretary then moved a further amendment, adopted unanimously, allowing further negotiations with the government, which is obviously designed to avoid a split if that’s at all possible (the negotiations can only be within the framework of explicit acceptance by the government of the conference resolution as Labor policy and platform).

The conference then adjourned and many delegates and observers moved on to the pub and then the traditional left dinner, where I continued some lobbying of the left ministers, all of whom I know, pressing the point that they had to cross the Rubicon and put aside the convention of cabinet solidarity in the interests of the movement as a whole. These left ministers now face a rather historic responsibility on Tuesday at the first meeting of the caucus after the conference.

The battle is by no means over, but at the political level the ranks of the labour movement and the responsible official and rank and file of the trade unions have captured a lot of the high ground.

This battle will obviously continue for days, firstly during the second day of the conference, tomorrow, and at the parliamentary caucus meeting on Tuesday, and if the government is intransigent the question is then posed of organising effective industrial action, etc.

In my lifetime of activity in the labour movement I’ve seen some victories and quite a few defeats, and sometimes one feels like giving it all away, but today I felt very proud to be playing a modest part in a battle with 1000 or so comrades across the traditional left and the traditional right.


Jenny Haines, May 4, 2008 This, as Paul Keating said once, is a victory for the true believers. Whatever happens next, this vote, by this overwhelming margin, could not have been won without the leadership of Unions NSW and its affiliated unions, the 144 party units that sent in resolution after resolution opposing privatisation, and the activists, ALP and non-ALP, who lobbied politicians right and left, encouraged branches and party members right and left to lobby their member of parliament, set up stalls in shopping centres, handed out leaflets, collected names in shopping malls, letterboxed, held public meetings and generally did everything they could to develop a community campaign. There is no doubt that the Your Rights at Work activists were vital to this campaign and the winning of the vote by such a margin. Thanks go to everyone and now for the next stage of the fight!

Ed Lewis, May 4, 2008 Now would be a good time to email your local Labor MP urging them to accept the conference decision. The vote is on Tuesday.

This morning I wrote something along the lines of the following to my local member:

As a trade unionist I urge you to accept the NSW Labor Party conference decision on electricity privatisation.

I am not a member of the Labor Party, but of the Greens, but in recent elections I have directed my ultimate preference to the Labor Party and urged others to do likewise.

The Labor Party’s mass conferences are one of the important institutions of Australian democracy and as my representative in the NSW parliament I urge you to respect the decisions of this body by voting for the conference decision on privatisation at the next meeting of the Labor caucus.

Greg, May 4, 2008 Fantastic news! How extrordinary he used a “made in China” comment about the shirts! What can ALP members living abroad do to help out?

Brolga, May 4, 2008 Costa’s furious dig at the ALP conference delegates for wearing the printed anti-privatisation yellow t-shirts “that were probably made in China” seemed to be connected to his religious-like belief that it is futile for Australia to limit its greenhouse gas emissions, even if they should be definitively proven to be linked to climate change since, as he has argued, China’s ecological footprint and use of coal and other fossil fuels are so massive on a proportionate world scale as to render any mitigation efforts by a small country such as Australia a complete waste of time.

The global trend and frame of reference that Costa thinks inescapable, and in fact heartily endorses as necessary medicine for Australia, is essentially neoliberal economics. Privatisation of public assets and govenment-run services is a central tenet of that.

How ironic, and stupid, that he should sneer at the efforts of the Australian working class to stand up to the destructiveness of neoliberalism within one of the few forums in which they can oppose it.

Ed Lewis, May 4, 2008 Greg, at this stage, everything hangs on the parliamentary caucus meeting on Tuesday. If enough of the caucus accepts the conference decision, we’ve won. If it doesn’t, Labor is in uncharted waters, since you have to go back to the conscription issue in World War I to find a Labor premier defying a conference.

The conference has made the opposition to electricity privatisation part of the Labor platform, and normally any Labor MP who votes against platform in the parliament is considered to have placed themselves outside the party.

The stakes are huge and the pressures on the caucus are huge, and those pressures, from both sides, will increase in the next few days. The more pressure from the left the better.

Emails to the leaders of the caucus can add to the pressure. Perhaps in your case an email to Morris Iemma

Business forces are hard at work trying to get their way by having the caucus defy the conference. Pressure from the ranks of the labour movement must be even more intense.