Privatisation proves toxic at the ballot box

Wednesday 06 Jul 2016

The votes are still being counted and the result is still unclear after the nation went to the polls on Saturday.  But one thing is clear from the weekend’s result: privatisation has again proven to be toxic at the ballot box.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was on the back foot for the last fortnight of the campaign over his government’s plans to privatise Medicare payment processing systems, if re-elected.  The Liberals’ privatisation agenda was brought to the attention of Western Australians on the front page of our daily newspaper in February.

Under sustained Labor attack, the government was forced to abandon these plans, with the Prime Minister defensively declaring that “Medicare will never, ever be privatised. It will never ever be sold."

As Mr Turnbull has since pointed out, the Liberals have a poor record on health, and this will have contributed to the effectiveness of Labor’s Medicare campaign.

Voters recalled Tony Abbott’s 2013 election eve promise that there would be “no cuts to health,” a promise he would subsequently break delivering the 2014 Budget – a budget in which the Liberals also proposed the ill-fated seven dollar GP co-payment.  Cuts totalling $881 million have subsequently been made to diagnostic imaging and pathology, and the Liberals have frozen the GP rebate, which will effectively see the introduction of a co-payment by stealth.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten put Medicare front and centre of Labor’s campaign launch, promising to save the system from privatisation, reverse the Liberals’ cuts and lift the freeze on GP rebates.

But, at the core of this strategy was the promise not to privatise Medicare.  While debate rages about this as a tactic, the reality is voters didn’t like the idea of privatising Medicare and they believed, based on their record, that the Liberals were highly capable of doing it.

If July 2nd was a referendum on Medicare, it was a clear result in favour of Labor and saving Medicare. Even if the current government is returned, Mr Turnbull and the Coalition have lost any mandate for the privatisation of healthcare and other services. 

Across the country, we’ve seen State elections reflect the same result. Campbell Newman met a historic one term defeat in 2015 campaigning on a platform of privatisation.  As Annastacia Palaszczuk declared in the wake of a 14 per cent swing to Labor, “the people of Queensland sent a very clear message and that message was they do not want their assets sold".  Mike Baird’s plan to lease 49 per cent of electrical poles and wires businesses to the private sector for 99 years saw his government lose 14 seats in last year’s NSW election.  And, despite numerous polls showing the WA public disapprove of privatisation, Colin Barnett and the WA Liberals are taking a policy to privatise Western Power and Horizon Power to next year’s state election.

Voters understand what the privatisation of electrical utilities will mean for WA.  Communities will be completely dependant upon private sector providers for their electricity.  Private poles and wires will result in higher electricity prices. Jobs and apprenticeships will be cut, which will lead to less preventative maintenance, less spare capacity, and fewer trained and experienced staff on hand to respond to grid failures and emergency situations, such as bushfires.

On top of all these issues, it’s clear that privatising Western Power won’t be the silver bullet solution for solving WA’s debt issue. Research undertaken by ORION Consulting in the lead up to this year’s state budget found that it was likely to sell for significantly less than Treasurer Mike Nahan’s $15 billion estimation.  More importantly, after paying its own interested bill of $315 million in 2014/15, Western Power delivered an additional $515 million in financial benefits to the state government. Even if the total proceeds from a sale or lease were used to retire state debt, the savings on interest wouldn’t offset the loss of financial benefits and would leave the budget hundreds of millions of dollars worse off each year.

There’s still nine months for Colin Barnett to realise that voters have been loud and clear with a resounding ‘NO’ to privatisation, both on the weekend and in recent years. If he insists on continuing with the rushed and poorly thought out push to privatise Western Power, the people of WA could be sending him a clear ‘NO’ at the 2017 state election.