THE NSW election next Saturday is emerging as one of the most important state political contests in recent memory.
The Coalition led by Premier Mike Baird, who has a background in business, has set out an adventurous reform agenda. The Labor opposition led by Luke Foley, who has a background as a political staff member, trade union organiser and ALP machine operator, is policy-lite. Foley has no agenda to deal with the productivity-sapping traffic congestion that afflicts much of the state, particularly Sydney.
If re-elected premier, Baird proposes to fund infrastructure by leasing 49 per cent of the electricity poles and wires for a 99-year period. This means the government would maintain majority ownership of the facilities while gaining funds that can be used for infrastructure.
Needless to say, the proposed recycling of assets has led to a veritable scare campaign led by the Labor Party with the support of the Electrical Trades Union. The Labor opposition needs the votes from a successful scare campaign. And the ETU has a vested interest in protecting its membership base.
This is not, as presented by the labour movement, a “Tory versus worker” contest. There is widespread support for the leasing of assets from prominent Labor identities who have spent their careers as MPs and/or trade union officials. The list includes former premiers Morris Iemma and Bob Carr along with prominent identities such as Michael Costa and Martin Ferguson, plus former prime minister Paul Keating.
Even though Foley is from the Left of the ALP, it might be expected that he would take the hint from successful ALP figures such as Keating and Carr. Foley’s opposition to privatisation means that, if Labor happens to win on March 28, there will be virtually no money for necessary, and job-creating, infrastructure projects throughout NSW.
In a recent interview with Crikey journalist Bernard Keane, ABC Radio 702 presenter Linda Mottram declared that she could not understand why governments bothered with full or partial privatisation schemes. Just increasing taxation was her solution.
Like many journalists on the public payroll, Mottram appears not to understand that increasing a person’s tax means that they have less money to spend in other areas of the economy, whereas funds raised from privatisation will bring new money into the NSW economy. Moreover, as ABC presenters should understand, the states have limited access to new taxation revenue.
In years gone by, it would have made sense for a Labor leader to support the job creation that results from infrastructure. But Foley, like his predecessor John Robertson, is opposed to asset recycling. It’s much the same with Labor premiers Daniel Andrews in Victoria and Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland. Why?
Well, for starters, the contemporary leaders of the ALP — and their colleagues who elect them — are dependent on the support of trade union officials. What’s more, the trade union movement has all but collapsed outside the public sector. Trade union leaders who represent, say, shearers and car workers have diminished importance. But trade union leaders who represent workers in, say, the power and health industries remain influential. Also, the ALP is overwhelmingly dependent on the trade union movement for financial support.
But there’s another, more significant factor. The Labor heartland is threatened by the Greens, particularly in inner-city Melbourne and inner-city Sydney. The Greens party is essentially the representative of professionally educated, inner-city, middle-class radicals. Many oppose infrastructure developments because they simply don’t care about congestion when getting in and out of capital cities. They tend to live where public transport is available and where it is relatively easy to cycle or walk to work.
To guard its left flank, in recent years Labor has moved closer to the Greens on a range of issues — with the important exception of national security.
Recently, Labor announced a preference-swapping deal with the Greens in NSW.
After narrowly surviving the 2010 election, Julia Gillard entered into a formal pact with the Greens. This helped to ensure a working majority in the House of Representatives and led to the Gillard government getting virtually all of its legislation through the Senate.
It is fashionable for those on the Left, including many commentators, to refer to Tony Abbott’s (alleged) negativity when in opposition. It’s true that the Coalition in opposition led campaigns against the carbon tax and mineral taxes. But Gillard Labor got both taxes implemented — due to the support of the Greens in the Senate.
The Abbott government’s essential problem has turned on the fact much of its agenda has been defeated on the Senate floor. Today some of the commentators who regarded the 2014 budget as unfair are criticising Abbott for not being able to get key sections of his budget measures passed through the Senate.
This week Abbott was reported as having told the Coalition partyroom that the Senate was “feral”. It’s not uncommon for prime ministers to express exasperation with the upper house. Remember Keating’s reference to unrepresentative swill?
Senators such as Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and David Leyonhjelm came to the view that the Prime Minister was referring to them. This was refuted by Attorney-General George Brandis. With good reason.
The key problem the Abbott government faces does not turn on its inability to get six out of eight independent senators to support its legislation.
Rather, the Coalition’s problem turns on the effective unity ticket in the Senate between Labor and the Greens. It’s the Labor-Greens alliance in the Senate that is frustrating the Coalition’s attempt to repair the budget. Likewise, it is Labor’s move to the Left to keep its voting base safe from the Greens that leads it in NSW, Victoria and Queensland to line up in opposition to privatisation.
If the reformist Baird government is defeated, it will mean that the Labor-Greens opposition to economic reform, which is prevalent in the Senate and within governments in Melbourne and Brisbane, will have an impact across the nation.