NSW Labor faces electoral wipe-out

Faced with opinion polls showing that the 16-year-old NSW Labor government is facing electoral wipe-out in the March 26 state election, Premier Kristina Keneally unveiled a phoney “fairness for families” package as her main campaign platform at a gathering of 400 party supporters and candidates in Sydney’s western suburbs on February 6. Keneally claimed that the measures, costing $913 million, would shield working people from soaring electricity, water, public transport and other government fees and charges.

Working-class voters’ discontent with the state Labor government is thoroughly justified. While essential public facilities like schools, hospitals, public transport, housing and basic infrastructure have seriously deteriorated, rising bills for electricity, gas and water services — all of which have been handed over to profit-oriented state government corporations or to fully privatised companies — have raised the cost of living for millions of people. The major beneficiaries of Labor’s policies have been the same big-business interests that have become the party’s biggest donors.

Polls crash

Opinion polls over the last few months suggest that the ALP would be lucky to retain half of the 50 seats it currently holds in the 93-member Legislative Assembly. According to a Nielsen poll published in the February 16 Sydney Morning Herald, Labor’s primary vote had crashed to 22%, and the opposition Liberal-National Coalition was leading Labor by 66% to 34% on a two-party preferred basis, leaving Labor with as few as 13 seats in the NSW lower house. The poll also showed that - unlike other recent elections - disenchanted Labor voters were not moving to vote for the Greens. Support for the Greens remained steady at about 13%.

So far, 24 Labor MPs have announced they will not re-contest their seats — a move described by electoral analyst Malcolm Mackerras as “rats deserting the sinking ship”. Among them are a host of former ministers in the state government, who will not only receive generous parliamentary pensions, but will no doubt be rewarded for their years of service to big-business interests with lucrative “consulting” jobs - like former Labor Premier Bob Carr, who became a highly paid consultant to Macquarie Bank, Australia’s largest investment bank, which has benefited to the tune of billions of dollars from the privatisation of government assets in NSW and elsewhere. According to the November 20, 2006, Sydney Daily Telegraph, Carr was being paid $500,000 a year for this part-time consultancy, twice as much as he was paid while he was NSW premier.

Promises, promises

Under her “fairness for families” package, Keneally promises that, if re-elected, her government will introduce legislation on the first day of the new parliament that will cap a list of government fees, taxes and charges in line with inflation, cap public transport increases to the rate of the Consumer Price Index and increase the energy rebate to $250 per year for NSW households with a combined income of under $150,000. Prior to Labor’s election in 1995, then-leader Bob Carr made a similar promise to cap all government charges at the CPI, but despite being premier for 10 years, he never delivered.

Furthermore, Keneally has already given herself a way to renege on capping government charges. “We will guarantee that any plan to increase a government tax or charge will need to go to parliament, to be voted on by every local representative”, she told a media conference on February 8. So, even if Labor were re-elected and its “fairness for families” bills were made law, any increase to government charges would simply require a vote by a majority of MPs.

Electricity privatisation

At the end of January, the Keneally government was forced to abandon its planned second stage of electricity privatisation because, with the government clearly facing defeat in the March election, no companies put in bids. The government is likely to be left with less than $1 billion after costs are subtracted from the first round sale of electricity assets, which included three electricity retailers and the trading rights attached to two power-generation companies and which attracted bids of $5.3 billion. The February 18 SMH reported that Steve Easton, foundation professor of finance, and Paul Docherty, lecturer in finance, at the University of Newcastle estimated the government had sold these electricity assets for about $3 billion less than their value.

The NSW Coalition parties have refused to spell out what they will do with the Keneally government’s partial privatisation of the electricity industry. Instead, Coalition leader Barry O’Farrell has stated he will await the outcome of a proposed judicial inquiry into the bungled first phase of the sale, which will be set up only if the Coalition wins the March 26 election. Like Labor, O’Farrell would commit only to keep “the poles and wires of the state’s power industry” in government ownership. Heath Aston, the Sun-Herald’s NSW political editor, reported February 13: “An O’Farrell government will privatise certain assets, however. Sydney Ferries and the desalination plant top the list but ports, roads and even new rail lines may also go on the block. O’Farrell wants to save $250 million a year in government costs and some heads in the bureaucracy will have to roll.” Furthermore, the Coalition has indicated it plans to cut at least $3.8 billion in state spending, including cutting workers’ compensation payouts.

Whether the Coalition or Labor is elected on March 26, NSW working people will face deteriorating public services. The Coalition’s planned cuts to public sector jobs will make things even worse. Both major parliamentary parties are committed to the same pro-big business agenda.

Greens, socialists

Do the NSW Greens offer a political alternative? While they are opposed to the privatisation of government-owned assets and want greater government investment in public transport, their desire to be regarded by the big-business-owned media as part of the mainstream of capitalist parliamentary politics means they cannot be relied on to stick to their limited progressive reform agenda. The Greens promote the false idea that working people should rely on parliaments and parliamentarians to solve their problems, rather than our own independent collective actions, such as mass protest rallies and strikes. And they have begun to appeal to big-business interests to gain electoral support. Thus they formed a coalition government with the openly pro-capitalist Labor Party in Tasmania following the March 2010 state election. This was justified by state Greens leader Nick McKim with the argument that only the Greens could deliver “the stability the business community wants”, a stance fully endorsed by federal Greens leader Senator Bob Brown.

In the March 26 NSW election, there are only a few socialist candidates running for the Legislative Assembly (for the Socialist Alliance in the seats of Keira, Newcastle, Marrickville and Parramatta). The SA is also running a ticket in the Legislative Council. Direct Action urges our readers to give them their first preference votes. While the SA advocates socialism as the solution to working people’s problems, it fails to provide any clear idea of how this can be achieved. It argues: “Only everyday working people, organised into mass movements in the workplace and on the streets, are powerful enough to win real social justice and ecological sustainability”. But it fails to explain that “real social justice and ecological sustainability” can be achieved only if political power is taken out of the hands of the capitalist ruling class through a working-class revolution that puts power into the hands of a working people’s government that is committed to serving the interests of working people and that bases itself on their collective organisation and action.

Furthermore, many of the specifics in the SA platform are not much different from those put forward by the Greens. Thus, NSW Greens leader David Shoebridge explained to Australian Associated Press that his party “believed in borrowing money to pay for infrastructure rather than ‘robbing this generation of funds by going into this constant focus on (the state’s) AAA credit rating and avoiding borrowing to build the infrastructure NSW needs’”. Similarly, SA national convener Peter Boyle told a Gosford election forum on February 9: “Socialist Alliance is for public investment in a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2020, based in the main on long-term public borrowing. This has been done before to build our national rail network and other infrastructure and can be done again.”

But “public borrowing” in Australia today simply means burdening this and future generations of working people with restrictions on capitalist government social spending to fund hefty interest payments to private banks. That’s how “our” national rail network and other infrastructure were paid for by the federal and state governments.