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Visit from the other side

Thursday, 11th September, 2008

It's welcomed many Labor leaders through its doors before, but yesterday the Trades Hall hosted a rare visit from a leader of that other side of Australian politics.

After presiding over an hour-long cabinet meeting at the Council Chambers, NSW Liberal leader Barry O'Farrell crossed the road to call on the president of the Barrier Industrial Council, Danny O'Connor.

Joined by Nationals leader Andrew Stoner, local MP John Williams and electrical trade union member Kevin Woodman, the two men spoke for over 45 minutes inside the building that symbolises the birth of the Australian union movement.

Not surprisingly, the State's electricity industry and its proposed privatisation dominated the talks which at times became robust.

In the end, though, Mr O'Connor and the man who could become the next NSW Premier agreed to disagree on the role private enterprise should play in the State's future energy industry.

Mr O'Connor said after the meeting that Mr O'Farrell and the Liberal and National parties were left with no doubt about where the BIC stood on the issue.

"We put our opinion across to Barry O'Farrell that we believe there should be no privatisation whatsoever and we're certainly calling on him to come out and state that, not wait two years down the track," he said.

"At this stage they're not against it - he's (Mr O'Farrell) said they voted against it but we believe they should be coming out far stronger."

Last week the Liberal/National parties blocked the NSW Government's plans to press ahead with a partial sale of the electricity industry.

However Mr O'Farrell has not ruled out paving the way for further private sector involvement in the energy industry under a Liberal/National government.

Mr O'Connor said private ownership of the industry would only cost jobs and lead to increased electricity prices.

"This theory that private enterprise is all of a sudden the Godsend for all your ills is load of crap.

"There's been nowhere in the World where the privatisation of electricity ... has been successful.

"They (private companies) are going to have to sack workers and they are going to have to raise prices to get their money back."

Mr O'Connor said there were other ways governments could raise money to fund public infrastructure, and one example was the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The public, he said, wanted forward-thinking politicians in power, not political leaders who only thought as far ahead as the next election.

"Eighty five per cent of the public of NSW said we do not want the sale of electricity. We're talking about an essential service here."

But Mr O'Farrell said that perhaps Mr O'Connor's views and his own were really not that far apart.

"But if we have a point of difference it's that Mr O'Connor isn't a keen supporter of the existing private sector involvement in the energy industry which we think is a matter of fact and is going to continue."

He said the Liberal/National parties wanted to "assure people like Danny O'Connor and the people he represents" that any decisions they made would be in the interest of the entire public.

"We want the support across the board, so coming here today was just about insuring that people understand that we don't have an ideological view about unions, non unions, workers, bosses and the like.

"We will always do what's in the public interest.

"And whilst I understand why people like Danny O'Connor will be sceptical, what I've assured him today is that he can expect the same public interest from us in government."

Mr O'Farrell said the private sector's involvement in the energy industry would provide competition and choice for people, just as it already did in hospitals and schools.

"So currently in energy whether in retail or generation, the private sector is involved alongside the public sector. That provides competition and choice.

"In schools we have no problem with the public system, no problem with the non public system. That provides the public with choice, the same with hospitals.

"We're not a party that's totally committed to only privatisation."

He said his party would release a detailed energy policy before the next election "so people can see where the party sees the future of the industry" that is currently undergoing massive change.

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