Somewhat lost in the noise surrounding yesterday’s High Court decision on the equal marriage survey was Bill Shorten’s statement that privatisation of the electricity industry in the 1990s was a major contributor to the current disaster. He’s essentially correct, though ‘privatisation’ has to be taken as shorthand for ‘the process of disaggregation and market reform of which privatisation was a central part’. I’ve been over this ground many times, including here and here, and have argued that renationalisation is the only solution.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been pushback from the Oz, which ran a piece headlined ‘Bill Shorten’s power play debunked” with the lead ‘Bill Shorten’s claim that the electricity crisis has been driven by privatisation has been dismissed by business leaders and energy experts,’.
It’s remarkably lame job.
The only business leader quoted is Tony Shepherd, formerly of the BCA, and last seen heading the disastrous Commission of Audit. Next up is Labor deserter, Michael Costa, followed by Jeff Kennett. Both Shepherd and Costa are climate denialists, which instantly destroys their credibility. Costa and Kennett have already had their privatisation policies rejected by voters, so it seems unlikely that their criticism will scare Shorten. In fact, he’s already hit back*
The only serious expert quoted is Tony Wood, but he doesn’t really help the Oz. He’s quoted as saying “Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood rejected privatisation as the cause of the energy market crisis. He said 15 years of political disagreement on climate change policy and regulated monopolies in the electricity distribution networks were contributors to the current electricity crisis. He also pointed to the fact that in Queensland, the Palaszczuk government in June was forced to order its state-owned power generator Stanwell to pursue lower profits during heatwaves because of spikes in power prices.”
The first point is accurate enough, but the point about Queensland proves the opposite of what the Oz wants us to believe. It’s only because Stanwell is publicly owned that the Palaszczuk government can order it not to exploit the mess that is the National Electricity Market.
Turning to the politics of the issue, Shorten’s recasting of the debate is going to cause Turnbull a lot of problems. He’s made energy a central issue,, and is convinced that it’s a winner for the government. And, having attacked Shorten as wanting to turn Australia into North Korea, they can scarcely leave the privatisation debate.
This is likely to be disastrous for the government. Not only is privatisation politically toxic, but the government has already undermined any possible credibility on the issue with speculation that it will finance a new coal fired power station, along with Snowy 2.0 and other interventions. Once the debate moves on to the real issue of the failure of market reform, the culture war rhetoric on which the government has relied so far will be totally irrelevant.
* We shoudn’t pay too much attention to comments threads but it’s notable that even the Oz commentariat, almost uniformly made up of rightwing climate denialists, is far from united in support of privatisation.