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NSW anti-power sell off campaign scores a win

by Dick Nichols

The vote against the planned sell-off of electricity by the NSW government of Premier Morris Iemma at the May 3 NSW ALP conference exceeded the expectations of ALP and union
anti-privatisation campaigners.

In the days before the vote, the “best guesses” hovered around a 650-150 vote, but the final count after an impassioned two-hour debate was 702 to 107 against the sell-off plan.

The efforts of the pro-privatisation forces, led by Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa, proved counter-productive. Those few delegates undecided before the debate heard pro sell-off speakers who were hysterical and abusive of fellow ALP members.

Treasurer Costa set the tone by accusing the large number of conference delegates wearing the yellow “Stop the Sell-Off” t-shirt of hypocrisy because they didn’t oppose the competition that made Chinese-made t-shirts cheap but continued defending a state monopoly in the NSW electricity industry.

The Iemma government brought this thrashing on itself because the more it talks about electricity privatisation, the sillier its arguments become. Also, its arrogant disregard for the opinion of rank-and-file ALP members and unionists (many of whom played a critical role in the “Your Rights at Work” campaign that defeated the federal Howard government as well as to Iemma’s own re-election in 2007) has its base hopping mad.

The debate revealed just how strongly the arguments against power privatisation are felt in NSW (where up polls show up to 85% oppose the power sell-off). This is largely the result of the “Stop the Sell-Off” campaign, with its scores of meetings and protests outside ALP MPs offices.

A critical role in the campaign has been played by those — such as economists Bob and Betty Con Walker and Greens upper house MP John Kaye — who have demolished the arguments for privatisation in scores of meetings across the state.

All this work showed up in the ALP conference debate, where informed and forceful speakers against the sell-off answered each and every pro-privatisation argument. By the end of the debate the Iemma-Costa position that “you can have public spending on electricity or services but you can’t have both” lay in ruins.

It also showed in the lukewarm conference reception for Iemma. NSW premiers can usually expect an orchestrated standing ovation at their conference entry: Iemma got a greeting where half the delegates refused to rise (despite express instructions from party president Bernie O’Riordan), some MPs refused to clap his address, his attempts to defend privatisation were meet with boos and there was laughter from the hall at his claims that more trains in NSW were running on time. Rarely has a rev-up speech from an NSW Labor premier fallen so flat.

The last days before the conference were a mayhem of attempts at compromise between the ALP party machine and Unions NSW and the government, all of which came to nought. One meeting between desperate ministers floated a proposal to privatise only part of electricity generation, only to be howled down by Costa.

The fight against the sell-off is also producing deep fractures in the Right and Left factions of the NSW ALP. According to a May 3 Daily Telegraph report, the desperation to ensure a vote supporting the sell-off plan went through was so great that a pre-conference gathering of the NSW Right was allegedly stacked by privatisation proponents.

“NSW Treasurer Michael Costa and former ALP powerbroker Eddie Obeid were accused of bringing supporters to the meeting … One Labor source alleged at least 50 of the estimated 350 delegates were not even members of the party.”

Within the Left faction, the pressure is on its ministers like Ian MacDonald, Linda Birney and Verity Firth to tell Iemma that they cannot be bound by “cabinet solidarity” or parliamentary caucus discipline after such a commanding conference vote.

As Green Left Weekly goes to press, Costa has reaffirmed that he will press ahead with the sell-off in parliament. Assuming no last-minute abandonment by Iemma, Costa will have to get a majority of the ALP parliamentary caucus to support the proposal. He already faces a growing minority that says it cannot be bound against the decision of the state conference.

Whatever the final result of these twists and turns it would be a very big mistake for the Stop the Sell-Off campaign not to work at developing its “Plan B” in the event of the sell-off plan becoming law.

In the words of the latest Socialist Alliance leaflet: “The only way to stop electricity privatisation dead in its tracks is the combination of industrial action and mass public protest … Unions NSW must commit to organise total union resistance to the sell-off, starting with an industrial campaign of complete non-cooperation with government privatisation plans.”

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