December 2003 #2

Privatisation and an Old Proposal

Victorians woke up to the news yesterday morning that the state government is more than considering reducing the number of public transport operators from 6 to 3. You see, the private operators are concerned that they cant  make enough money and, flying in the face of the much lauded and implemented "competition policy", the state government is more than likely going to allow 'mergers' in the interests of offering better services and infrastructure. You'll have to excuse me while I puke in my wheaties.

Over the last four years and this is only a guess because of 'commercial in-confidence' clauses, but the Victorian state government has pumped almost half a billion dollars into subsidies for the public transport operators so they could remain viable. Sorry, I mean profitable for their shareholders.

When I moved to Victoria in 1992 Kennett had just taken power and there were demonstrations on the streets of Melbourne that saw 100,000 plus people come together to protest the then declared Liberal/National policy platform.

First of the real biggies to go in the mid 90's was the power industry. We were told that by unbundling the generators from the distributors and the retailers that energy costs would fall, that Victorians would, by the end of the process, be enjoying the lowest cost electricity in the country. Even lower than Tasmania with it's almost exclusively renewable Hydro power.

A report released last week shows that Victorians are second only to South Australians in the amount they pay for power. From lowest to highest we have Queensland, NSW, Tasmania, Victoria and SA. What differs between the lowest and the highest is that the lowest are state owned. They are corporatised and ready for sale as was Victoria's industry ten years ago, but we have to ask why do the other state governments remain committed to delivering low cost electricity while the Victorian government, a government that when in opposition was just as committed to privatisation as the Liberal/Nationals were, remains wedded to the teat of the multinational power companies? Whatever the situation, the fact is that the power generators are screaming like stuck pigs to get out. The half share or so in Loy Yang is still not sold and now one of Yallourn Energy's major shareholders want out. Literally, there's a fire sale on generators happening but no buyers to be seen through the smoke.

Then there's public transport. In the last four years or so we've seen timetables being wound back, increased numbers of derailments and breakdowns, trains travelling 26 kms without a driver and crashing into other trains at one of the two main stations in the city, we've seen deaths at level crossings due to faulty signals and the list goes on. Then there's the failed ticketing system, trams crashing, increased strikes and fares on both trams and trains going through the roof all the while timetables are wound back and services reduced or cut all together.

There are two main issues here. The first is the ideological underpinnings that drive seemingly all governments and their advisors and the second is the lack of action by citizens in response to the loss of access or availability of goods and or services.

At one level there is not much we can do about the first. However, there is one thing that politicians respond to - the threat of being voted out. For most of us there is the feeling that the politicians hold the power and we need to listen to them. However, all they really do is hold our proxies and therefore should be doing our bidding. While there are, no doubt, many politicians who try and recall the interests of their constituents, when was the last time we heard good news come out of parliament? When was the last time we heard a law being passed that placed an imposition on, lets say, public transport operators to charge lower prices, offer more services and get their safety act together? When was the last time you heard parliament actually being the place of debate where all parties got together to improve the lot of the poorest and weakest within their constituencies? When was the last time we saw bipartisan agreement on anything like human rights, peace, higher taxes on the rich and improved services for the disabled?

Everyday some might argue. If they argue that then I challenge them to find one benefit that has come out of a state or federal parliament that has lowered costs, increased access and demonstrably bettered the life of those who are not as fortunate as the so called 'average' Aussie.

One must wonder at, in a seemingly unrelated event, what it is the Victorian State government is doing in winding back the taxi subsidy for disabled people in this state. As someone familiar with the utility of this program, all I can say is that by capping the total taxi subsidy to $500 per person per year, many disabled Victorians will now be forced out of jobs and their social connections because the government would rather provide subsidies to private operators. Ideologically the government would argue that the taxi subsidy is not productive and adds nothing to the state and is a drain on the coffers. Well, isn't that the same as offering subsidies to private companies so their shareholders can be enriched? The trickle down effect has failed and while the rising tide was supposed to lift all boats, it's only the already rich who can afford to have a yacht hitched to the highest mooring. 

Changing ideologies is almost a religious conversion experience and just as rare as true conversions. While some may say they've found 'salvation' many find it hard to give up their past habits and many more just slip back into the old ways.

On the other hand there is people power. Its been said by many far more informed and experienced than me that there are two superpowers in the world today, political fanaticism and public opinion. The first is always driven by religious or ideological beliefs. The second is what we, as citizens, believe in our hearts but are only slowly acting on.

Without exception out of all the people I've talked to about the effects of privatisation - and this includes some highly placed industry people - not one is willing to declare outright that privatisation has brought even a fraction of the promised benefits. No one I've spoken to, no report I've read, no discussion I've heard has been able to demonstrate a single benefit brought to the citizens of Victoria by the privatisation of electricity and public transport. If this is the case, why then have we allowed it to happen? I propose that the reason is we still believe that power is centralised in the capital. In other words, most of us believe that there is nothing we can do. I argue that that is not so.

What we should be doing is calling public meetings prior to any elections and getting the candidates to sign contracts that are anything but 'commercial in-confidence'. These contracts would bind the successful candidate to a course of a action while in the parliament and would bind them, for the term of the contract, to refer back to their constituents any issues the constituents were concerned about. Once their constituents had come to an agreement, then and only then could the representative vote on the issue.

Hang on, you argue, that would slow down the process and make it more difficult for politicians to do their job. Well, excuse me, the job they are supposed to do is to ensure that we are the beneficiaries of their decisions. What is the difference between my proposal and the current influence of the powerful lobby groups that occupy the buildings surrounding the capital houses? The difference is that we, the people, would have the influence over the decision makers rather than powerful interest groups whose interests lie well outside concerns for a few locals and their parochial issues.

Its not a new idea. Its not even a radical idea. It's the underpinnings of the democratic system, widened beyond the landed gentry gathered around the city gates, to include all those who choose to attend the public meetings. It still comes back to personal choices but at least those choices can be informed by discussion with our neighbours and colleagues and at leats if offers a real change for citizens to enter into the debates within our houses of parliament. After all, if we say that politicians aren't working for us, we must ask, who is it they are working for?

Privatisation has failed us in all areas. Yet the ideology of the economic rationalists continues to dominate. The question for us to ponder is, how much more are we willing to allow to be taken from us before we act to take back what is rightfully ours? Perhaps a second question could be added. That is, what role do I see for myself as I join with others in taking back our, collective and common wealth?