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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Keating's Past is Not NSW Labor's Future by Peter Botsman

Pryor's view of Keating as ALP Prime Minister back in 1994.

It’s been 12 years now since Paul Keating lost office. He returns to public life from time to time when he can’t help himself. But lately Keating has become just another politician who not only lives in the past but wants to turn the future into some version of his own heroic past battles. His recent vilification of Paddy Mc Guinness after his death was pathetic.

Today’s Op Ed on the hopeless Costa and Iemma is just as bad. Keating blames Bernie Riordan, John Robertson and the officers of the NSW Labor Party for the fact that Iemma and Costa could not win a simple argument with the rank and file of the party. That is not only the most pathetic joke I have heard in a long time, it makes a mockery of what really happened at conference on the weekend.

Not only did Iemma and Costa lose, they lost as close to unanimously as could ever be at a State Labor conference. It seems Keating, Iemma, Costa, Carr and Unsworth want to return to the past when majorities did not matter and you bludgeoned your way through the factions to get your way. The difference is this time if the old hacks get their way – it will be the end of the NSW Labor Party.

Parliamentarians won’t need a party they will just consult with their big end of town mates and make decisions based on their narrow, self oriented, view of the world. No doubt this cosy little group will be the major consultative group. This was not just a union vote. It was a vote in which unions were a minority of the vote against privatisation of the NSW electricity industry. The 702 delegates who voted against Iemma and Costa were left, centre and right. They were rank and file members elected from their State Electoral Councils and branches. They were as close as you could get in this forum to the make up of the people of the State of NSW. Ignoring this vote, goes beyond the privatisation issue, it trashes the idea of a democratic party and sets an ominous precedent for the future.

Despite the fact that Michael Costa was sent in to stir up the conference for the media, the untelevised debates were as good as I have ever seen at a Labor conference.

The debate on the floor of the conference was decisively won by the anti-privatisation group. They addressed in detail all of the arguments that Paul Keating raises in the SMH raised today. This was not the usual NSW Labor debate. Copies of the Unsworth Inquiry was circulated to all members on behalf of the government. Many used the opportunity to wade through it. In the past, if you dared to not follow the official Sussex St line then you were berated mercilessly on the floor. Keating learned all his formidable parliamentary venom from berating people on the floor of the Labor conference.

This time the tables were reversed. Those who usually gain the protection of the right wing Sussex St machine actually had to make a case. They failed miserably. Only John Della Bosca and John Watkins managed to cut through and make some decent arguments about the merits of the sell off. Bernie Riordan who Keating lambasts today gave a speech that was crisp and to the point. He demolished any argument that was made by the pro-privatisers. In doing so, he simply used sound logical argument.

His main points were:

NSW Electricity generation is a profitable monopoly business that returns a dividend to government each year. Now is not the time to sell the asset because it would probably not even get $10 billion let alone the $15 billion government first touted as its sale price.

Managing the transition of coal based power generation to carbon neutral power generation should rightly be a major job of government that would be aided by retaining power generation in public hands.

Not selling avoids the inequities that have arisen in every area of privatisation over the past three decades.
It is the height of hypocrisy for Keating to use his track record as President of the Labor Party to have a go at Riordan as Labor President.

It was Riordan who time after time implored the delegates to respect each contribution.
One can hardly imagine Keating in this role? It was Riordan who gave Kevin Rudd one of the best introductions that a Prime Minister has had to NSW Labor Conference. It all could have gone horribly wrong without Riordan's speech. It was Riordan who looked like a statesman, not a buffoon like Costa, or a man out of his depth like Iemma.

So Keating get your facts straight; it would be nice to see you some time at conference, maybe you can’t spare the time from listening to Mahler to actually mingle with the rank and file.

Keating says the National Electricity Market now means there is no reason to hold the monopoly NSW generators in public ownership. Who says?

The fact is that National Electricity Market gives public generators greater flexibility and capacity to on-sell. It also means that the people of NSW have a greater level of protection from pricing and predatory behaviour than the people of any other State.

It means that the people of NSW avoid the chaotic entry of private owners and managers and enjoy the benefits of national competition. Keating says that there is now competition in pricing through the National Market. This is no reason to sell off power generators.
Electricity generation simply becomes a better statutory corporation operating in public ownership but with the disciplines of the market to keep it efficient. NSW get the benefits of both worlds.

Keating says that power generators are industrial archaeology so they should be offloaded as if government’s sole prerogative was to dump losses. But he says hold on to the unprofitable poles and wires which do not make any money? Privatise the profits, socialise the losses! The super funds will build the power generation of the future says PJK. But where have the revolutionary projects been undertaken by even the union based Industry funds.

We've all been waiting for them? But the fact is that the trustees of even union funds are petrified to do anything outside markets dictates for fear of breaking their fiduciary duties to contributors. There is no way they will invest in risky new generators with unproven technology. So who cares about how the transition to a more greenhouse efficient energy production is managed?

This is not a job for government says Keating. We’ll leave it to the super funds and the market place. You’ve got to be kidding. It’s about time governments took on leadership on the big issues and stopped running governments as if they were just an accounting entity.

The clinch argument Keating wants to make is that if Carr had sold the electricity industry in 1997 the public was worth $35 billion. What a joke? I remember that debate very well. I was in the middle of it.

Those figures were constantly in debate particularly since when Kennet sold the Victorian industry he got such a profit than the first movers went broke in a very short amount of time creating chaos in Victorian power generation. The argument that Michael Egan and Bob Carr made was that the power industry was a basket case and would not return any dividends and needed to be sold because the government was going to have to go into debt to retain them. Last year the electricity generators returned $1.2 billion to the State budget in taxes and dividends. Since 1997 many billions have been earned. So deduct $10 billion from the $20 billion Keating reckons the government has lost because it should have sold in 1997 and then deduct another $10 billion as the normal wear and tear on an aging asset.

The government has lost nothing, and a counter argument can be made that it has been profitable to retain the assets given all of the dividends, taxes and external benefits that have been enjoyed by retaining them in public ownership. The truth is Paul Keating wants to go back to the party that he, Graham Richardson and Barry Unsworth shaped in the 1970s.

Now not even the party officers want to go back to that dark period. What a joke for Keating to hold himself up as a model of rectitude as party President. Loyalty for Keating meant stifle any free debate, obtain outcomes for the dominant group, dance over and ignore ordinary rank and file members views and ideas and make a laser-like run for any power. Keating was like a whippet at any party position that might gain him power and woe to any poor soul who got between him and his prize.

The reason why the Labor Party now has such a small membership is because Keating and his co-horts from the NSW Labor Right created a party that was for one small factional group. Whatever may happen now, Luke Foley and Karl Bitar are a breath of fresh air. Their task it to build a broader church and to create Labor officials, ministers and parliamentarians who have merit and are not just mates. The task is to build a party that is about the betterment of mankind not just the betterment of the big end of town.
So move over Keating. And Keating, so far as political competitiveness is concerned: The most competitive NSW government would not include Iemma or Costa in its ranks. Like the 85 per cent vote at conference, 85 per cent of the State do not want privatisation. Iemma won the last election facing the worst Opposition leader in living memory. Costa has made an utter fool of himself.

Now it is Iemma who has the lowest rating of a Premier in living memory and Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell is the front runner. John Della Bosca as Premier and John Watkins as Treasurer would be the strongest team against O’Farrell.

Lets hope that the gutless parliamentary representatives who have decided to defy Labor's membership and organisation, will see sense over the next week or so and ignore the mutterings of Labor has beens.

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