NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa have displayed an unprecedented level of arrogance in their attempt to push through power privatisation.

Privatisation is against NSW Labor party policy and was not campaigned for or even discussed at the last state election.

But Iemma’s confidence is misplaced. The opposition to power privatisation adds to a long list of the government’s other woes, including anger over the failing health and public transport systems and their attempt to limit public sector pay rises.

Privatisation spells disaster for workers’ jobs, the public’s power bills, and action on climate change. The government wants the private sector to build a new coal or gas-fired power plant. Costa has argued that privatisation will provide the incentive for them to do this. But the government has failed to even consider any alternatives-like energy efficiency regulations or renewable energy.

Taking the power industry out of public hands will remove government control over how electricity is generated, making it harder to begin the shift to renewable energy. Instead decisions about energy production will be made by corporations hungry to boost profits.

Stopping privatisation should be a key focus for climate change activists in order to prevent the expansion of the coal industry, and to push for a shift away from energy generation by fossil fuels.

This is not the first time the NSW Labor government has tried to privatise power against the wishes of the Labor party membership and the unions. In 1997 then Premier Bob Carr was defeated at the state Labor conference when he tried to move for a sale.

This time around, unions and rank-and-file Labor party members have again united against it. In response to Iemma’s attempt to override party policy and democracy, Labor party members have passed motions against the sell off at over 130 Labor branches. ALP-initiated “Power to the People” campaign groups have held public meetings across NSW up to 500 strong.

Unions NSW, the peak body for NSW unions, has played a critical role. Early in the year it reconvened the Your Rights At Work (YRAW) network to campaign against privatisation.

YRAW groups played a major role in John Howard’s defeat at the federal election, campaigning for a Labor victory. Now Unions NSW have shown their willingness to use the movement to campaign against the state Labor government and its right-wing policies.

YRAW groups are holding public meetings and pickets aimed at pressuring sitting Labor MPs to come out against privatisation. Fifteen Labor MPs joined the major protest outside state parliament in February.

Focus on Labor conference

Opposition to privatisation stretches across the broadest cross-section of the left-rank-and-file Labor members and The Greens as well as the union and environmental movements. The challenge is to bring these forces together both locally, through YRAW campaigning, and in central displays of opposition to create such pressure that supporting privatisation becomes impossible for any NSW Labor MP.

The major focus for the campaign is the NSW Labor conference on May 2 and 3. Inside, Labor party members and the unions will be pushing for a vote to stop the sale.

But there also needs to be a mass lobby outside. This will be a fantastic opportunity to bring together the different wings of the campaign in a show of combined opposition that Labor MPs will not be able to ignore.

It now appears likely that Unions NSW will call a demonstration at the conference. This year’s May Day rally will also be held on Saturday May 3 and march to the conference.

This kind of pressure can ensure the proposal’s defeat at the conference. Such a vote would effectively sink privatisation and send a message both to the NSW state Labor government and to the new federal Labor government that a continuation of the agenda of privatisation and cutbacks federally will face broad, active opposition.

By Kieran Latty

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