THE LATEST humiliating back-flip by the NSW government over its planned power sell-off indicates two things.
Firstly, NSW Labor is facing a serious crisis. According to the polls, the Liberals are in a position to win the 2011 election. Secondly, the campaign against the sell-off has reached a turning point that requires urgent re-evaluation.
In June, NSW Treasurer Michael Costa announced that legislation enabling privatisation would be delayed until September, caving into Opposition demands that the auditor-general scrutinise the sell-off.
This is a cynical move by the Liberals—they are in favour of privatisation in principle, but want to appear to be heeding community concerns.
Shadow Energy Spokesperson Mike Baird made it clear that the Liberals are only interested in postponing the sell-off, arguing that, “Our role is to ensure a transaction of this magnitude is done in the interests of NSW. Hopefully the Auditor-General’s report will provide that.”
On one hand, the government is weaker and more unpopular than ever. On the other, privatisation is far from defeated and the need for a campaign to focus community anger is greater.
But this means addressing some serious problems. The campaign has focused on pressuring individual MPs not to support the government’s legislation, not on mobilising the enormous popular anger at the government.
There have been just two major rallies called in Sydney in the six months of the campaign. Instead people have been encouraged to send email protests or letters—actions which can easily be ignored by government.
Unions NSW has adopted a passive lobbying approach preferring top-level negotiation to large-scale mobilisation.
With the government on the defensive, the campaign should be planning mass meetings and demonstrations to parade the depth of public feeling over this issue and give confidence to activists and trade unionists across the state.
Greens failing to take action
Despite taking up the issue in parliament, the Greens have not mobilised their supporters as part of this campaign.
This is astounding given that most Greens voters are former Labor voters and that the best chance of increasing the Green vote lies in convincing more Labor voters to switch loyalties.
The sell-off proposal highlights the failure of Labor governments to fulfil the expectations of their working class supporters of protection from corporate greed and free market inequalities.
The problem isn’t that the Greens haven’t taken up the issue. Greens MPs have, for example, introduced a “no privatisation” bill in mid-May and, in February, a bill that required parliamentary approval for any sell-off.
They have encouraged petitioning, spread information in response to the government’s lies, and local members have participated in campaigning as part of their unions or community organisations.
But the Greens’ approach has been almost entirely electoral, focused on passive support for the activities of MPs.
Secondly the Greens have done next to nothing to find common cause with the rank-and-file struggle inside the Labor Party. Despite various useful Greens’ material attacking the sell-off you will struggle to find a single line on a leaflet or a press release pledging the Greens’ support for the campaign inside the Labor Party and outlining what action they will take to help.
Implicit in this approach is a high-minded assumption that having the right position will win votes. But no one can expect Labor supporters to switch allegiance in significant numbers when there is a campaign inside the party to bring Iemma and Costa to account. A resolution passed at Labor’s Administrative Committee on June 6 argued that the government’s decision to proceed with the sale constitutes “the most serious threat to the balance of relationships within NSW Labor since the 1939 Unity Conference re-united the Party in this State”.
Greens’ participation in joint campaign initiatives, such as the “Power to the People” committee in central Sydney, is ridiculously low.
As the polls reveal, the danger is that the Liberals might be the main beneficiaries of Labor’s degeneration.
Unless established, well-supported organisations like Unions NSW or the Greens act decisively and turn the sell-off into a focal point for public opposition to the government, we will end up with the worst of both worlds—our energy sector in corporate hands and a Liberal Party confident in its ability to win government.
The Sydney Power to the People grouping is planning a demonstration against privatisation before parliament resumes. For info email firstname.lastname@example.org
By Tom Barnes