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Issue # 1425      26 August 2009

Labor MPs rebel as workers fight public sector sell-offs

Eight NSW Labor politicians have come out against the Rees Labor government’s plans to sell off public sector assets and services. They include former corrective services minister Richard Amery, as well as Western Sydney based MPS John Aquilina (Riverstone), Karyn Paluzzano (Penrith), Paul Gibson (Blacktown), Diane Beamer (Mulgoa), Allan Shearan (Londonderry), Phil Koperberg (Blue Mountains) and Tanya Gadiel (Parramatta).

The trigger for their revolt is the imminent sale of Parklea Prison, located in the Riverstone electorate. The MPs have written to Mr Rees demanding a meeting to discuss the prison changes.

Mr Amery said the privatisation push went against the government’s previous promises: “In 2003 Bob Carr said the clear difference between us and the opposition was prison privatisation. I went round to every prison in the state and assured them. We have asked for a meeting with the Premier but we haven’t heard back from him which is pretty disappointing.”

This split in the government’s ranks comes on top of growing opposition among workers and the broader community to the Rees government’s plans to ransack the public sector and sell off publicly owned and managed assets.

Prison officers and jail staff, acting with widespread community support, stopped the sale of Cessnock jail earlier this year, and prison officers and supporters have kept a picket outside Premier Rees’ Toongabbie electorate office since early June.

More than 3,500 guards went on strike for the day on August 6 and at a rally in front of the Premier’s office in Governor Macquarie Tower demanded jails be kept public and Premier Rees be sacked.

Parklea prison guard and NSW Public Service Association state chairman Matt Bindley told the rally that prison officers were determined to fight to keep Parklea public “right up to when the prison is physically overtaken by private contractors.”

PSA general secretary John Cahill told the rally private operators could run jails cheaper only by slashing wages and conditions. He claimed ALP politicians privately disagreed with selling off jails, but the government had to carry out its privatisation plans to maintain NSW’s triple-A credit rating.

Robert Pritchard from the Police Federation of Australia said profit driven companies could scrap prison rehabilitation programs. This is a realistic fear given cases in the United States of prison operators bribing judges to deliver extra prisoners through unjust sentencing.

“Our justice system is too important to sell off,” said Pritchard.

A delegate from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) declared support for the prison officers and called for solidarity to build a broad defence of the public sector.
Greens MP Sylvia Hale claimed a tenderer for Parklea had offered Corrective Services Commissioner Ron Woodham a job, and that the lowest tender was still $25 million higher than what it cost the government to run the jail.

Jail sell-offs part of larger plan

Prisons are part of a package of public sector assets the Rees government is trying to sell. It is also preparing to sell the three state-owned electricity retailers, along with the sales rights to the electricity produced by the state-owned power stations; the NSW Lotteries, which generate $400 million revenue a year; the publicly owned Pillar superannuation fund administrator, which employs 600 workers in Wollongong; publicly owned waste management services; and Sydney’s public ferry services.

This is accompanied by plans to slash rail staff on city stations, a cost cutting measure which has significant safety concerns for users of public transport; and it is cutting costs and staff throughout the public service, with inevitably affects on delivery of public sector services and the conditions of public sector workers.

The government’s apparent purpose in doing this is to raise a war chest in time for the 2011 election, to cut the budget deficit and to retain the state’s triple-A credit rating, so it remains attractive to international investors.

This is in line with the World Trade Organisation/OECD neo-liberal strategy of the last few decades, which presses governments to hand over government services and public enterprises to commercial operators, inevitably international corporations, in the name of creating efficient free market economies.

The Rees NSW Labor government may have hoped to carry out these privatisations by stealth, but as the sales move closer to fruition and the contracts are rolled out workers in the targeted services are forced to defend themselves and to reach out to other unions and the community for support.

Opposition grows against sell-offs

An effect is that the campaigns are becoming broader and more community based as resistance grows to the government’s privatisation plans:

  • A union and community campaign to keep Sydney’s ferries in public hands was launched at a rally at Circular Quay on 21 August. The government has received a number of tenders from private contractors to operate the services, but NSW Transport Minister Daley says it is only “testing the market” to see whether services should be privatised. The Maritime Union has called on its members to fully support the campaign against privatisation.
  • The United Services Union and electricity retail workers are campaigning to keep NSW electricity assets in public hands and are fighting for the future of their jobs.
  • Hospital staff and the Health Services Union are fighting to stop the NSW government handing over the state’s hospital food and catering services to an external contractor. NSW Health has already begun centralising responsibility for meals away from hospital and regional management to a new statewide Health Support Services, to ease the way for privatisation.

Health Services Union organiser Adam Hall calculates 3,000 jobs could be lost if the health department goes ahead with centralised and privatised services. It would inevitably limit patients’ food choices and lead to increased transportation costs and wastage of food and packaging.

Unrest is also growing over cost cutting measures the NSW government is attempting to impose on public services and workers’ conditions:

  • Police are involved in rolling industrial action over stalled wage negotiations with the NSW Government.
  • TAFE teachers took industrial action on August 11 against cost cutting measures that would force teachers into longer hours while giving them less control over how to organise their time. Greens MP John Kaye claimed the trade-offs being forced on TAFE teachers amounted to $55 million being taken away from the NSW TAFE system. “Taking the razor to a critical area of skills education in the current economic climate is reckless and irresponsible,” declared Dr Kaye.
  • Rail workers are conducting a Save Our Stations campaign against planned cuts of 700 rail staff off metropolitan stations. Rail workers confronted Premier Rees in a last minute rally on August 27, when he visited Central Station in Sydney to make a publicity statement.

Power to the People

An important part of the anti-privatisation campaign is the community-union solidarity committee Power to the People. Through holding public forums and regularly setting up information tables in shopping centres the committee is informing the public and galvanising opposition to the Rees government’s privatisation plans.

Power to the People aims to build up popular resistance that can be demonstrated at the NSW ALP state conference in November, where Rees is likely to confront a similar fate to that of his predecessors – Carr and Egan in 1997 when the conference blocked their plans to sell off energy generation and Iemma and Costa in 2008, who were driven to resign after defying a conference resolution against privatising electricity.

The Communist Party of Australia is actively participating in the campaign against the Rees government’s privatisations. As well as taking up the issue in their unions, CPA branches are mobilising their members to take the message to the people at shopping centres and railway stations, from the city centre to the outer suburbs.

CPA Sydney District Secretary Tony Oldfield says the anti-privatisation battle is one that shows working people that they can rely on the CPA to take up issues and protect their interests.

“Privatisation raises the issue of whether or not we can make this government put people before profits” Tony said.

For further information and to join the campaign contact
cpa@cpa.org.au or Colin Drane, Convenor of Power to the People at email:
colin.drane@amwu.asn.au

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