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Issue #1758      November 23, 2016

Use Your Power rally – Fighting privatisation in WA

On a hot November lunchtime (Thursday 15) the Australian Services Union (ASU) and the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) held a Use Your Power rally outside the state Parliament in Perth. The rally was well organised by the two unions to demonstrate to the Liberal government of Colin Barnett their strong opposition to the proposed sale of the state electricity utility Western Power.

Unions WA Secretary Meredith Hammat chaired the rally of close to a thousand workers from a wide range of unions and their supporters.

They were united in solidarity with the Western Power workers who was made redundant as the government moved to reduce the organisation’s debt by cutting jobs.

In an unexpected move Premier Barnett decided to front the angry protesters at the rally and defend the privatisation of Western Power. It is not the first time that Premier Barnett whose arrogance has earned him a reputation as an emperor, has fronted a community rally at Parliament House. I was close enough to see that he gets some perverse joy from stirring up the working class.

His decision to front the rally should also be seen as a sign that the union movement’s well organised and hard-hitting campaign had clearly rattled the Liberal state Premier.

Barnett claimed that no decision had been made and that the final decision on the sale of Western Power would not be made before the March 11, 2017 election.

Barnett further vacillated by speculating whether it would be a full or partial sale of the utility. He said it would not be sold to a foreign entity and instead offered to an Australian superannuation fund. He also noted that the utility is a natural monopoly – it just remains to see whether it would be state or privately owned.

The rally did not buy Barnett’s reassurances as they had heard it all before with other privatisations – most notably the recent Alinta gas privatisation which was bought by Singapore Power International, Singapore’s largest utility company.

ALP state Opposition Leader Mark McGowan addressed the rally, promising a government of his would not sell Western Power as it was an important piece of infrastructure and a natural monopoly. He said that if it were kept in public hands, it would help maximise its potential service delivery.

Western Power delivered a net profit of over $500 million to the state for the 2015-16 financial year according to its latest financial report. McGowan also stated the utility had provided not only jobs but apprenticeships.

This year, as part of the government’s bid to strip down costs and help dress up the entity for privatisation, the intake of apprentices was reduced to zero.

ETU state secretary Les McLaughlin was the next speaker. He began by saying if Western Power goes it will not come back to state ownership. McLaughlin likened the privatisation to a “grab for cash”, which made no economic sense, and likened it to selling your house to pay off your mortgage but then not having anywhere to live.

The privatisation of Western Power would also lead to cuts in the workforce and to maintenance as the private owner sought to maximise returns on its investment.

In Victoria, the privatisation of the electricity utility led to maintenance cuts on poles and wires which significantly contributed to the state’s recent deadly bushfires.

McLaughlin finished his speech by reporting the pleas from fellow unions in Victoria and South Australia following their states’ disastrous experiments with privatisation. These have led to significantly increased electricity prices for consumers, loss of jobs and safety issues. “Do whatever you can to stop the governments privatisation plans!” McLaughlin concluded.

The next speaker was Christine, a union member from a rural town in the south west of WA who said the price of power was expensive enough now, not only for her but for the families of her children who were finding it hard to make ends meet. Christine, like many ordinary West Australian workers, is worried about what they will sell off next and the impact this will have on the cost of living – schools, ports, roads, hospitals – and once they are gone they will never come back.

The final speaker was ASU (the principal union representing Western Power workers) state secretary Wayne Wood who posed the question following the Premier’s brazen appeal to the rally, “Are we going to be hoodwinked by the Premier who said he had no plans to sell Western Power”.

Wood also reminded the rally that the government has a big debt which is of its own making from financial and economic mismanagement and that it was time to deliver a strong message to the government from the voters at the next state election.

The Communist Party of Australia supports the union and community campaign to keep essential public infrastructure such as Western Power in public hands – power in the hands of the people which will save jobs, ensure proper maintenance is carried out and provide quality, power generation and distribution – including renewable energy – safely, cost effectively and at prices which are affordable to all.

Next article – Traditional owners get Cape York land

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