Queensland: Stop the assets sell-off!

By Andrew Martin

The Queensland ALP government, re-elected in March, has put forward legislation to sell off the port of Brisbane, Queensland Motorways, Forestry Plantations Queensland, Queensland Rail’s coal business and the Abbot Point coal terminal in the state’s north. All of these government-owned corporations (GOCs) provide significant income for Premier Anna Bligh’s government.

Her government’s actions confirm the warning in the July 2008 Direct Action that the restructuring of Queensland Rail (QR) was privatisation by stealth. It appeared that the biggest losers from the restructuring would be QR’s employees, followed closely by commuters. But the restructure was revised and employees remained directly employed by QR, creating some hopes that the plans for privatisation were on hold.

Now that the government has announced at least some of its plans, it is clear that the billions of dollars it is pouring into QR are intended to fatten it up for sale. In 2007, QR pulled in a total revenue of $3.25 billion and announced plans to spend between $8-10 billion on infrastructure in the next five years. The rail group has six long-term customers — BHP Billiton, Felix Resources, Xstrata, Muswellbrook Coal, Centennial and Gloucester Coal — and it freights more than 25 million tonnes of coal a year. The current planned expansion of the Abbot Point terminal will double its capacity from 25 million to 50 million tonnes per year; the long-term goal is to quadruple its export capacity. QR revenue rose to $4 billion in 2008. The after-tax profit has not been announced but is believed to be substantially more than the $194.5 million made in the 2007-08 financial year.

‘Not for sale’

On May 21, Ipswich MP and transport minister Rachel Nolan told state parliament that QR was “not for sale”. Twelve days later, on June 2, Bligh announced the sell-off, which she hopes will raise $15 billion to balance the state’s budget. The government will also scrap the eight-cents-a-litre fuel subsidy to save $2.4 billion over four years. The Bligh government is pushing full steam ahead with privatisation with barely a hint of party room dissent. Only two MPs in the 51-strong Labor caucus, Evan Morehead and Jo-Anne Miller, opposed the plans.

The party rank and file are completely impotent to bring Bligh into line and there is very little protest from the union movement. Bligh laughed off a vote in her electorate branch of South Brisbane, which sought her expulsion from the party. Andrew Dettmer, state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and ALP state president, was nevertheless furious at the motion, which was passed unanimously. Dettmer said that Bligh was an “exemplary” premier who was leading the state in “trying circumstances”. Bligh won the privatisation vote at the ALP conference, held over the June 6-8 weekend, by 207 votes to 156. Another 44 delegates abstained, most of them from unions in Bligh’s own “left” faction, which opposed the sale but did not want to embarrass her. These included the nurses’ union and the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union.

‘Hang their heads’

Union opposition was so weak that the former Liberal-National Party leader, Lawrence Springborg, who had floated ideas of privatising QR during the election campaign, could make a show of criticising them from the left. Holding up a punnet of pansies in parliament, he said: “I want to say to the average Queenslander that the unions are the very definition of a pansy — pathetic and wimpy.” He challenged unions to start “standing up for their members instead of meekly accepting the Bligh government’s fire sale of assets. Last week’s capitulation ... is something the unions should hang their heads in shame over.”

None of the leaders of the railway unions will countenance proposals for industrial action to oppose the sell-off. After a report on a meeting with Nolan, the conveners of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, the AMWU and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) at QR’s Redbank workshops refused to allow any motions to be put or even to discuss the possibility of industrial action. Clive Cooke, convener of the ETU, argued: “Strikes don’t work. We’ve tried full scale industrial battles before; they alienate the public. This campaign could go for many years. It’s an ongoing campaign.” This statement was made despite 91% of respondents in a poll run by the Brisbane Courier Mail answering “No” to the question, “Should public assets be sold to balance the budget?”.

Newspapers and talkback radio were overwhelmed by readers’ and listeners’ indignation at the sale, and many people are looking to the unions to take decisive action. But the unions’ response is to call for a three-year campaign, which they expect delegates to motivate as a campaign like the Work Choices campaign, and to bluster about asking their members to “box clever”. Yes, if you’re in a staged fight, why win or lose in the first round when you can string it out for the hapless punters?

ETU state secretary Peter Simpson disaffiliated the branch from the Bligh’s “left” faction, but retained the union’s affiliation to the ALP. He described the ETU as “free agents from here on in”, which only means wheeling and dealing among the different Labor factions. The ETU has launched a statewide campaign, “Light on the Hill”. This will include workplace meetings, rallies, public meetings in regional cities, radio and newspaper advertising and literature drops. The campaign will work its way down the coast over the next two weeks, with a major rally scheduled for Brisbane on Friday, July 3. No industrial action has been planned. The real goal of the ETU officials is to shore up their position within the ALP. The ETU itself claims the campaign is about “putting labour values back into the Labor Party”.

ALP’s privatisation record

Many government assets have been sold since Labor won office in Queensland, with little or no opposition: the SGIO, now Suncorp (1998); the Totalisator Agency Board (1999); the Dalrymple Bay coal loader (2001); the retail arms of the Energex and Ergon electricity companies (2006); the Golden Casket state lottery agency (2007); Cairns, Mackay and Brisbane airports (2008).

In the current global recession, it’s unlikely that the Queensland sales will raise the amounts of money the ALP is hoping for. That means the wealthy buyers of these assets will get an even better deal, but it also makes it harder to convince the general public. So Bligh’s defenders rely on encouraging a belief in “free markets”. We’re told that private corporate ownership is somehow inherently more efficient than government ownership, that competition between enterprises and between workers is the best way to deliver services. But it’s a lie to say that society in general benefits from privatisation. Since the current state government privatised the retail arms of Ergon and Energex, prices have increased 17%. Private corporations have no obligations to maintain services where they may not be profitable, such as in rural Queensland, or to people who have little capacity to pay for them.

There is nothing inherently progressive about GOCs such as QR. As every rail worker knows, they function much like any other capitalist corporation and are just as bureaucratically run and exploitative. Their role is to increase the profits of the privately-owned monopolies by socialising the costs of the services these corporations require. Where the market does not deliver substantial profits, the government intervenes to provide the infrastructure for the capitalists.

The market is not “free”, but is constantly manipulated in the interests of big business. The “public sector” and the corporations, whether they are GOCs or privately owned, are deeply interwoven, and there is often a fusion of their personnel. CEOs of private corporations often sit on the board of directors of GOCs or become their CEOs. GOCs are also a path into big business for trade union officials on the make. Much of QR’s management comes from the union movement. For instance, on its board of directors sits Dave Harrison, who is also chairperson of the Port of Brisbane Corporation and former state secretary of the AMWU.

The sale of the state government’s assets is nothing less then grand corruption; it will provide a boon to the coal barons and will leave working people short-changed, unsure of the security of their entitlements and the provision of services. The privatisations will not mean that the new enterprises will be independent of the government. As experience has shown, after the GOCs are fattened, slaughtered and sold off, the government continues to subsidise them.

[Andrew Martin is a fitter and member of the AMWU at QR’s Redbank workshop.]