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Issue #1592      May 8, 2013

Queensland’s fire-sale

Privatisation is unpopular with the people of Australia. It is also the guiding principle of state and federal governments doing their bit to shore up capitalism locally and guarantee the already wealthy get wealthier out of any crisis. The Newman government in Queensland is back in the limelight trying to appear to be a mob of reluctant neo-liberals. But the Queensland government’s reaction to the Costello commission of audit report confirms it as being committed as any to robbing the public of assets built up over a century. These public enterprises have provided stable income, ensured services and a degree of accountability and some security from the manipulation of corporate cowboys.

Anne McDonnell at Kershaw Gardens where a community protest was held opposed to the privatisation of Rockhampton's two public nursing homes. (Photo: Chris Ison)

The people of Queensland will resist the sales. Up for immediate grabs are contracts for rail and bus services, maintenance of Queensland Rail’s regional services, management of five major stadiums including Suncorp Stadium, ownership and management of new public housing stock and all information and communication technology services. Listed for consideration after the election due in 2015 are long-term leases (effective sale) of the ports of Gladstone and Townsville, electricity generation companies CS Energy and Stanwell Corp and the Queensland Investment Corp.

Much has been made of the dispute between the Premier Newman and the majority of his Liberal National Party colleagues, on one hand, and Treasurer Tim Nicholls on the other, regarding the recommended sale of the Powerlink high-voltage electricity transmission network. A plea from audit commission head, former federal treasurer Peter Costello, failed to convince the government to stick its neck out further politically than it had already with its proposed fire-sale.

The argument in favour of larger scale theft of public property is that it is the easy way to boost the state’s credit rating. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett was on hand with some neo-liberal advice. “We moved very quickly on asset sales because it gave us the greatest impetus to not only return to the AAA but in economic terms to stop paying so much of our revenue in interest,” he said.

It is galling for the people suffering the consequences of the latest economic downturn to realise the ratings agencies and financial institutions that had such a big hand in the post-2007 crisis still have such sway over the economic affairs of their victims.

While the Newman government does its best to downplay the significance of the sales, private investors are licking their lips. They are already checking out 13 public housing sites. “There are some astounding sites,” developer Devine’s chief executive David Keir told The Australian Financial Review. Developers are presenting the situation as an opportunity to fix up the delivery of public housing, which they have an interest in portraying as a failure.

“Public housing is outdated, expensive to maintain and the mix of it is inappropriate,” said Lachlan Grantley of Consolidated Properties. Reports often use the term “social housing” to refer to public housing. This is in line with the long ideological battle against public ownership. Since the 1980s, access to public housing has steadily been restricted to those on extremely low incomes who would also be eligible for social welfare.

The idea that public housing should be available to any member of the public who was not interested in home ownership or who had no need for it was impermissible to the policy makers of late capitalism. Public housing put a brake on private market house prices and rents. It has now been stigmatised and set up for destruction.

Communities to be affected by port and rail maintenance privatisation are also concerned. Gladstone Mayor Gail Sellers said, “The port has been the lifeblood of the community and it contributes a lot more than dollars. They’re involved in recreation, development … all sorts of things.” Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill has similar concerns.

Les Moffitt of the Townsville Council of Unions foresees major disruption for towns along the rail line to Mount Isa. “When they talk about outsourcing the maintenance of the railway line, what will happen there is that they won’t have anyone on the ground in those towns like Hughenden or Cloncurry, but they’ll have a mobile workforce which comes in and out,” he said. “This is all about putting profits before services.”

The Newman government no doubt believes its response to the Costello report has been clever. The Bligh Labor government softened the ground with a round of privatisations of its own and the fear campaign about the state’s debt has not abated since the election of the LNP last year. Further, direct public sector sackings and reduction of services would bring too many people onto the streets in protest. The measures are being sold as slow changes that the community can bear following the shock treatment already inflicted on the people of the state. It is unlikely the people of the state will be fooled.   

Next article – “Reverse the cuts” – Open letter from academics and scientists at Australian uni’s

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