WA government puts public services up for sale

The West Australian public sector is under attack. Under Liberal Premier Colin Barnett’s privatisation plans, public sector agencies delivering services in industries such as forestry, health, education, and electricity and water supply are being asked to identify activities that may be sold off to private businesses. And public servants could be fired if they refuse “appropriate employment” in the private sector, or with “not-for-profit” organisations, on a wage that could be up to 20% lower and with poorer working conditions.

Last December, the state government’s Economic Audit Committee released a report recommending outsourcing of more government services to the “not-for-profit” and private-profit sectors. The report followed an announcement last October, by the then state treasurer Troy Buswell, that public sector spending would be cut by 3% in coming months.

In 2009, 469 WA public servants accepted voluntary redundancy packages and, in March this year, 300 more public servants were offered “voluntary separations”. The cuts continue a long term trend of decline in state public sector employment. The WA’s state public sector’s size as a proportion of the WA workforce has decreased from 17% in 1997 to 12% in 2008.

On January 28, forestry minister Terry Redman announced that a taskforce would be established to examine the proposed sale of the Share Farming division of the WA Forest Products Commission, threatening 90 public service jobs (40% of the FPC workforce). The Share Farming division of the FPC oversaw a strategic tree planting project, between the government and over 650 farmers, aimed at developing a sustainable timber industry. Announcing the planned sale, Redman told the media, “the government will be exploring ways it can transfer this work to the private sector and focus on its core role of supplying native hardwood, pine and sandalwood to our forest industries”.

Indicating the WA government’s intention to transfer public servants to private sector employment, Redman said, “Approximately 90 FPC staff are involved in these areas and have a huge wealth of resources and knowledge that could be very attractive to private investors. A sale option will be thoroughly investigated as an alternative to redeployments or voluntary redundancies.”

Under current state legislation there is no obligation for the WA government to offer these workers a redundancy package or redeployment in the WA public sector. And amendments being considered by the Barnett government to the WA Public Sector Management Act could see public servants fired with only four-weeks notice.

On March 11, 3000 public servants rallied outside WA parliament protesting the Barnett government’s privatisation of public services. Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association of WA (CPSU/CSA) WA branch secretary Toni Walkington told the rally, “The quality of services will diminish, the cost of services will rise and employees will be worse off under the government’s privatisation agenda”.

On the same day, WA health minister Kim Hanes announced the privatisation of a range of services — including catering, linen, waste disposal, cleaning, security and gardening — at the new Albany regional hospital, due to open in 2013. “We want to explore the options for involving the private sector in delivering first-class support services at the new Albany Health Campus”, Hanes told the media. “Detailed analysis of the project has shown private sector involvement could provide greater flexibility and value-for-money in the delivery of non-clinical support services.”

According to the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union (LHMU), 100 public sector jobs could be at risk as a result of the Albany Health Campus privatisation. Also threatened with privatisation are services at the Fiona Stanley Hospital, Midland Health Campus, the Princess Margaret Hospital for Children and Bunbury regional hospital.

LHMU member Stephanie Hayman, a patient care assistant at Royal Perth Hospital, told a rally against privatisation outside state parliament on April 21 that workers were worried about the security of their jobs and working conditions if privatisation was rolled out. “Private firms are there to make a profit so they are going to want more bang for their buck from we workers”, said Hayman. “The extra work loads and pressure won’t be good for us and it’s going to have a knock-on effect for patient care.”

LHMU WA branch secretary Dave Kelly told the rally: “Barnett’s privatisation agenda is an attack on standards in schools and hospitals. The people in these workplaces, the doctors, nurses, cleaners and admin[istration] staff, work as a team. If they are accountable to different employers, public accountability and responsibility is lost … When something goes wrong with a privatised service in a hospital, it gives Kim Hames the opportunity to pass the buck to the company running it when really it should be him who is answerable.”

To date, the CSA’s and LHMU’s campaigns against privatisation have focused on lobbying the ALP to oppose privatisation of health and education and to support amendments to the Liberal government’s proposed reforms of the Public Sector Management Act. A December 15 Unions WA delegates meeting allowed no resolutions from the floor from delegates and focused on a “marginal seats” campaign to pressure sitting MPs to oppose privatisation and anti-worker laws.

On April 21, state Labor leader Eric Ripper announced that the ALP will be introducing legislation to make it illegal for WA’s hospitals, health services and schools to be privatised. “Public hospitals and public schools should be run by public workers”, Ripper told the media. “The Liberal government’s attempts to privatise essential services in the 1990s failed and this government should learn from past mistakes.”

However, while Labor reversed the previous Liberal government’s privatisation of school cleaning services, it maintained and extended privatisation of the state’s prisons and utilities while in government. In 2004, a Labor government awarded private prisons corporation Global Solutions Limited (GSL) a $25 million contract for court security and transporting prisoners across WA using the Department of Corrective Services fleet of 38 prison transport vehicles. G4S (the renamed Australian GSL subsidiary) was described last year by the WA state coroner as having contributed to the ‘”wholly unnecessary and avoidable death”’ of 46-year-old Aboriginal elder Ian Ward while in G4S custody in January 2008. In 2006, under the same Labor government, another prison corporation, Serco, took control of WA’s 750-bed Acacia Prison.

During seven years of state Labor governments, between 2001 and 2008, there was no attempt to reverse the corporatisation and privatisation of the WA’s utilities. Forty percent of the state’s electricity generation, and the total supply of gas, is now in corporate hands. As a consequence, utility prices continue to increase. The May 18 state budget announced electricity and water prices increases from July 1, that will increase average household bills by $368 per year.

Around the country Labor governments, both state and federal, have advocated “public-private partnerships” (PPPs) as their preferred model of privatisation. Federal Labor’s National Public Private Partnerships (PPP) policy requires that state and federal government infrastructure projects valued at over $50 million be considered for tender under a PPP model. Additionally, federal Labor is also advocating the outsourcing of public services to “not-for-profit” organisations under the National Compact with the Third Sector.

On March 17, the CPSU-CSA welcomed the signing of the compact between the federal government and not-for-profit organisations, calling on the WA state government to develop a similar plan. “The state government needs to develop a plan for engagement with the not-for-profit sector to ensure a new partnership is a true partnership and not exploitation of working families”, Walkington told the media. But, whether under the guise of “a true partnership” with the not-for-profit sector, or under a PPP model, Labor’s agenda differs only marginally from that of the Liberals. Recognising that privatisation is today unpopular with voters, Labor is seeking to implement privatisation by stealth under the guise of “partnerships”.

Now more than ever a campaign to defend public services is needed. Unions in WA can ill afford to rely on lobbying Labor MPs to oppose privatisation. The March 11 CPSU-CSA rally demonstrated the willingness of public servants to fight the Liberal government’s privatisation push. This should be the start of a broad union and community campaign, involving delegates and members meetings, protests, rallies and industrial action, to force the Barnett government to abandon its anti-worker and privatisation plans.

[Nick Everett is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a council member of the WA Civil Service Association.]