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Why Bill Shorten is no Jeremy Corbyn - AFR op-ed

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Lee Rhiannon 4 Sep 2017

This appeared in The Australian Financial Review.

So Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann look at Bill Shorten and see Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, who are accused of being "socialist revisionists" and "the new romantics of protectionism". If only.

Bill Shorten is a milksop compared to Jeremy Corbyn. More on that in a moment.

Meanwhile, the Coalition's economic gurus claim the policies of the Liberal-National parties are "common sense" and not driven by ideology.

That is difficult to swallow, particularly if you live in NSW, where we are being overwhelmed by a privatisation binge.

More than $55 billion in public assets has been sold off to private interests since the current Coalition state government came to office. And the binge is not yet over as the state government lines up our buses and trains, our forests, prisons, crown lands and hospitals for privatisation too.

There could be more in the pipeline as the Orwellian named "Commissioning and Contestability Unit" in the NSW Treasury beavers away in secret concocting sell-offs.

The mantra that accompanies these privatisations is that they are good for the public, bringing greater efficiencies and lower prices. That is a myth, of course, as the annual double-digit increases in household electricity bills demonstrates.

As for efficiency in our electricity sector, one of the consequences of privatisation is the rundown of frontline maintenance staff. The Electrical Trades Union has estimated a 25 per cent reduction in the numbers of such essential workers since 2012.

Substantial losses

There have been staff increases – a fivefold increase in sales staff offering us incomprehensible and often misleading plans. Managers too have proliferated, from one in 13 workers to one in nine, as a study for the Australia Institute has found.

Analysis of the privatisations in the electricity sector reveals that the NSW Treasury has been denied more than $2 billion a year in revenue. That revenue could go a long way towards investing in the renewables and upgrades to the grid that we need if we are to head off more disastrous climate change.

Other privatisations, such as the recent long-term lease, of the Land Titles Office, also defy Mr Morrison's so-called common sense.

Federally there have been other disastrous privatisations – and on his and Senator Cormann's watch too. The rundown of the TAFE system in favour of shonky private providers preying on gullible loan recipients has cost the taxpayer more than a billion dollars. This is the sum the Commonwealth Auditor says will never be recovered. The loss to the skills base of our economy is likely to be even more substantial.

The corrupted privatisation of the TAFE system is the latest in a long line of privatisations that began with the Hawke-Keating Labor government 25 years ago. The worst of those privatisations, judging by recent scandals, has been the sell-off of the Commonwealth Bank which has degenerated from being a pillar of public service to questionable corporate behaviour.

One of the worst consequences of privatisation has been the rundown in union membership. The ETU says union membership has fallen from 68 per cent to 32 per cent in the electricity sector. As a recent editortial in The Sydney Morning Herald noted, the key aim of the Minister of Transport, Andrew Constance, in privatising Sydney buses appears to be to fatally weaken the Rail, Bus and Ferry Union. So much for the non-ideological approach of the Coalition.

Conservative blinkers

But back to the Shorten-Corbyn equation. This could only be believed by the most ideologically blinkered conservative voter.

The Corbyn-led British Labour Party went into the recent elections on a policy of, re-nationalising privatised electricity and water utilities, the Royal Mail and British railways.

Rather than return to centralised bureaucracies in government-owned enterprises for the many, not the few (the evocative title of Labour's election manifesto) also committed to "democratising" ownership and management via cooperatives and facilitating staff buyouts of failing firms. In addition, the manifesto promised to free trade unions from the legal constraints on their right to strike and to bargain collectively.

It may well be pleaded that section 92 of our Constitution prevents any nationalisations in Australia, even if Mr Shorten were so inclined. Section 92 was the provision the High Court relied upon in 1949 to rule against Ben Chifley's attempt to nationalise the banks. However, the court's interpretation of this section has evolved since that historic judgment.

The mess in the electricity sector and the need to rapidly transition to renewables makes a very strong case for nationalising the grid, as recently advocated by Professor John Quiggin, and for public investment and ownership in new solar power generation and wind farms.

Certainly, without dramatic government intervention there is no way we can reach the necessary targets for decarbonising the economy. Markets just won't do it – certainly not in the time frame we confront.

Now that is common sense. The kind that Messrs Morrison and Cormann will find impossible to grasp. As for Bill Shorten, he still has some way to go even if the recent annual conference of the NSW Labor Party did vote to set up a publicly owned Renewable Futures Corporation.

Lee Rhiannon is a NSW senator for the Australian Greens
AFR Contributor

Full article: http://www.afr.com/opinion/columnists/why-bill-shorten-is-no-jeremy-corbyn-20170904-gya75t#ixzz4szygW8nv 
 

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