Region the ‘guinea pig’ for widespread privatisation

It must sometimes seem that the Hunter is the guinea pig for the NSWCoalitiongovernment’s ideological experiments. Following the privatisation of Newcastle’s buses and ferries,the sale of the Belmont TAFE site is in the news again.The state government also still seems intent on privatising Maitland Hospital. Butthe Hunter’s fighting spirit may still prevail and stop or reverse thesell-off of public assets.
Nanjing Night Net

MAITLAND ACTION: Community and union campaigns have forced the government to abandon privatisation plans for other state hospitals, Senator Rhiannon says. Photo: Marina Neil

TAFE NSW is already reeling from the privatisation of technical education with 100,000 fewer students and 5000 fewer teachers compared with five years ago. Thousands of those lost students live in the Hunter. TheAustralian Government Actuary has calculated that more thana billion dollars of public money has been lost due to corruption in the privatisation of technical education.

If TAFE NSW is to stage a comeback – and the Greens andLaborare pledged to restore a healthy TAFE system – it will need all its campuses. So far sell-offs have not takenplace, whichis a tribute to the campaigns of teachers and the public. But it is not time for complacency. The government is advertising for a TAFE ‘portfolio divestment manager’ to ‘coordinate the portfolio of divestment projects from initiation to closure’. That has to ring alarm bells.

The Hunterappears to be the bunny in hospital privatisationtoo.A year ago the state government announced the privatisation of five regional public hospitals – Bowral, Goulburn, Wyong, Shellharbour and Maitland. A year later, onlyMaitland hospital is still slated for privatisation. Community and union campaigns have forced the government to abandon their plans for the other hospitals.

Health MinisterBradHazzard is trying to allay fears by promising that the privatisationof Maitlandwill be undertaken by a non-profit. Yet, as unions have pointed out, guarantees about staffing, wages and conditions,and the quality of care,willlast only two years.

Yet all is far fromlost. The Hunter can do what other communities have done. Maitland Hospital and Belmont TAFE can be saved as public assets. Our buses can return to public ownership. Support for re-nationalising privatised public assets is emerging. Privatisation of our electricity sector has been a huge failure. Instead of the promised greater efficiency and lower prices we have had double-digit increases in power bills and failures in supply.

This has led to JohnQuiggin, professor of economics at Queensland University, proposing that the Commonwealth and state governments buy back the grid and manage it. The aim would be to guaranteereliable supply, modernisethe grid for renewables andchargereasonable prices for households and businesses.

Likewise,theGreens andLaborsupport the ‘re-nationalisation’ of the TAFE sector. This would be achieved by guaranteeing that 85% (or 70% in the case ofLabor) of government funding for technical and further education go to TAFE.

These are practical initiatives that would benefit the people of the Hunter.Electricity prices fell in the decades priorto privatisationwhen the electricity sector was government-owned. Investment in renewables could benefit the Hunter with thousands of new jobs in advanced manufacturing.

More investment in TAFE to supply the skilled workers needed for this renewables future would follow logically.

None of this will be easy as the present NSW government has a dogmatic belief in privatisations. Yet with a combination of community and union campaigns, leading to a change of government in 18 months, the ideological experiment which threatens the Hunter and its future can be reversed.

Lee Rhiannon, Australian Greens Senator for NSW