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Sunday, June 22, 2008

NSW energy privatisation: Labor rats make deal with Liberals by Dick Nichols

The expected showdown in the struggle over the NSW Iemma government’s proposed electricity privatisation has stalled.

While the bills enabling the sell-off received their first reading on June 4, they then disappeared from the parliamentary agenda as it became apparent that Iemma and his treasurer, Michael Costa, didn’t have the numbers. The legislation risked defeat in both houses.

This was despite “left” cabinet ministers, such as deputy premier John Watkins and agriculture minister Ian Macdonald berating MPs to agree to the sale, and right-wing power broker Eddie Obeid having offered nearly every member of his faction a cabinet position. In the Legislative Assembly, nine Labor MPs, including ex-ministers Grant McBride, Kerry Hickey and Phil Koperberg as well as government whip Gerard Martin were either committed to, or considering, crossing the floor, risking a Iemma loss by one vote.

In the Legislative Council five ALPers — Linda Voltz, Mick Veitch, Penny Sharpe, Ian West and Helen Westwood — were ready to oppose the bills. When added to Green and Coalition votes this would have torpedoed the sell-off. Simultaneously, a mass meeting of Central Coast power industry workers voted on July 11 for an “immediate stoppage of work by all members across the industry if the sell-off legislation is passed by the Lower House of NSW Parliament”.

Before the vote the meeting was addressed by Greens MLC John Kaye, the most prominent parliamentary opponent of electricity privatisation. On June 16, Iemma caved in and accepted the Coalition’s five “community safeguards”, including having the NSW auditor-general review the proposed sale and report back to parliament. Iemma also agreed to a “rural and regional communities impact statement”, an independent committee to oversee the spending of the sale proceeds, a parliamentary committee to oversee commitments on renewable energy and a review of proposed safety nets for low-income earners.

The deal was announced after the NSW National Party state conference on June 14-15. The rank-and-file of the Nationals are strongly opposed to the sell-off. Delaying the announcement until after its conference allowed Nationals’ leader Andrew Stoner to escape having to explain to his members why he accepted the Liberals’ conditional support for the sell-off. The Nationals conference also rejected a merger with the Liberals. The heat now goes onto the auditor-general.

Exactly what does a “review” of the sell-off proposal mean? What terms of reference is the auditor-general to follow? Opponents of the sell-off are already demanding that the auditor-general’s review take the form of a public inquiry with broad terms of reference, which would allow the full case against privatisation to be heard. It is already being suggested to MPs opposing the sell-off that they introduce legislation proposing such terms of reference.

Iemma’s deal with the Coalition opens a new phase in the drawn-out fight against NSW electricity privatisation. The defeat of Labor's arrogant Macquarie Street clique was a victory for the campaign against the sell-off: without the mobilisation of community opinion and the numerous community meetings this year about the ins and outs of power privatisation there would not have been the 702-107 NSW ALP conference vote against the sell-off in May.

It is also doubtful whether 14 Labor MPs could have been persuaded to oppose it in parliament. But the campaign must not relax: if it is to win it must plan for a worst-case scenario in the September session of parliament — an auditor-general’s report that allows a Iemma-Coalition majority to vote through the sell-off. Here, it would be of great use to the campaign if the NSW ALP Administrative Committee applied the big stick to Iemma’s ministerial clique of Labor rats for flouting party policy.

That message should be made crystal clear when Iemma fronts the committee in early July. It wouldn’t be the first time a NSW ALP premier has been shown the door by the party. In 1916, Premier William Holman was forced out of the party for supporting conscription, only to join up with Labor’s traditional conservative opponents to continue in office as a leader of a “Nationalist” government. In the short term, Holman lorded over a shrunken group of Labor MPs. However, the conscription split did not put the ALP out of office in NSW — the party returned to win the 1920 election.

State-wide mass protest However, a win against the privatisers is only certain if this fight mobilises the 85% state-wide opposition to the sell-off in industrial and community action. We need to continue informing and mobilising the mass sentiment against the sell-off. This includes multiplying the suburban stalls, the pickets of MPs’ offices and challenging MPs to face their electors.

But we also have to continue to push for a state-wide day of action against privatisation, to be launched by a cross-union delegates’ meeting convened by Unions NSW or the public sector unions. Preparation for such a protest has to include mass leafleting of railway, bus and ferry stations and public sector workplaces. With Iemma and Costa’s surrender to the Coalition, Unions NSW now has to refocus on the industrial and community campaign that was put on the backburner during the last two months of lobbying ALP MPs.

It is critical that planning starts now for a mass protest rally outside the NSW parliament when the September session begins. The Sydney Power to the People group is planning for a “Super Saturday” of suburban stalls on August 16 and a monster public meeting against the sell-off on August 30.

For its part, the Socialist Alliance in NSW will be putting its heart and soul into the campaign over the next few months, and is encouraging everyone to get involved. For details visit the Socialist Alliance web site at . Meetings of the Sydney Power to the People group take place every Wednesday at 7pm in the AMWU building, Chalmers Street, Surry Hills. For details contact Colin Drane on 0419 698 396.

[Dick Nichols is the national convener of the Socialist Alliance.]
From: Comment & Analysis, Green Left Weekly issue #756 25 June 2008.

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