Ghosts of privatisations past … and future?

Most people won’t recognise the name “Leo Hielscher” unless they regularly cross the eponymous* bridge (better known by its original name, the Gateway). But he is a figure of great consequence in Queensland, responsible for the downfall of two governments. Hielscher ran the state’s finances for decades, and was the architect of the Bjelke-Petersen strategy of an extractive economy based low taxes, low services and low skill. His proudest boast was the state’s AAA credit rating

The low point of his career was probably the leadup to the 2009 election when Anna Bligh announced that, rather than cut infrastructure spending or sell assets in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, she would allow the state’s credit rating to be reduced to AA+. Bligh was re-elected, and promptly announced a massive program of asset sales. This was one of the rare instances where I was directly involved in the policy process, providing advice to the Queensland Council of Unions, and in this capacity I got to observe Hielscher in action. He was very effective in pushing the (economically spurious) case for asset sales and the need to regain the AAA rating.

Bligh, and her Treasurer, Andrew Fraser pushed through the asset sales and pushed the Labor government off a cliff, being reduced to seven members at the 2012 election. Of course, Bligh landed on her feet, ending up as CEO of the Australian Bankers Association. I didn’t get such a ringside view of the process that led Campbell Newman and Tim Nicholls to adopt their catastrophic “Strong Choices” asset sales campaign, but I have no doubt that Hielscher played a significant role in the background. Both Campbell and Nicholls have duly been consigned to well-deserved political oblivion.

Now the rightwing Australian Institute of Progress has staged a reunion.

After denouncing the public debt levels sustained by the Palaszczuk Labor government, Hielscher

received a standing ovation from the high-powered audience that included former LNP premier Campbell Newman, former state Liberal leader and treasurer Joan Sheldon as well as former Labor treasurers Keith de Lacy and Andrew Fraser.

Anna Bligh was obviously too busy defending the massive corruption of the banking sector to make it to Brisbane, and Tim Nicholls is still keeping a low profile. Apart from that, though, the whole team was there. De Lacy left politics before the events I’ve described, but he’s the archetypal  careerist who dumped Labor the moment it had served his purposes. Until now, I was unaware that Andrew Fraser had explicitly followed the same course but his participation in this rightwing exercise in nostalgia is as good as a public announcement.

A truly striking feature of Hielscher’s speech is that, despite spouting the usual case for asset sales, he wants the government to invest in a new coal-fired power station, which would certainly lose public money hand over fist. This is the collapse of neoliberalism in real time. Even when pushing the ideology of privatisation, and with nothing to gain personally, Hielscher can’t avoid the rightwing political correctness of the culture wars. And, unsurprisingly, this earned a standing ovation from the assembled defenders of the free market.

Meanwhile, I have heard suggestions that the current Queensland government is still cowed by the ghost of Hielscherism, and will seek a PPP arrangement for public investment in renewable energy. It’s hard to believe, after the disasters of the last two governments, that they could fall for this. But, even as a zombie, neoliberalism is still eating brains.


  • Apparently, “eponymous” has become a vogue word in the media, like “mantra” in days gone by. Unlike “mantra”, it’s a perfectly good word with no available substitute, so I’m going to keep using it as I have always done.

12 thoughts on “Ghosts of privatisations past … and future?

  1. Sorry John but being a fellow member of Brad De Long’s neo-liberal party me thinks you are distorting neo-liberalism

    It isn’t for privatisation in all cases. Far from it and certainly not for essential industries.
    It certainly does not advocate putting public money into the highest cost alternative for new electricity.

    Members of the neo-liberal party love a competitive market not a free market. Hence it is pointless privatising where you cannot possibly have a competitive market.

  2. More than ever before, it seems government-run services are a necessity to provide a counterbalance to private industry employment conditions and repair what little is left of social cohesion.
    Right-wingers of all types (including the ones who seem to populate the ALP) are all about things like family while they steadily push the middle-class into oblivion spruiking private choice. And just to avoid confusion, I’m referring to the statistical middle class – not the “battlers” who read the Australian and earn six figure salaries.

  3. nottrampis, are there many members of the Brad De Long’s neo-liberal party? I’ve googled the term but can’t find any information about this party but found only a few critiques including and arguments about how “muddled” Brad de Long’s thinking is.

    Do you have any links that would provide some more information about this brand of neo-liberalism? In particular I’d be interested in what a ‘competitive market’ would be like and how do ‘competitive markets’ come about?

    The comment I read while skimming the results of my google search, that I thought made most sense to me was by Ed Conway, who claims that neo-liberalism is “not an ideology but an insult.”

  4. Julie, just so you know, in addition to being a Neoliberal, Brad Delong is also a Social Democrat and a Communist. He’s printed himself official party cards for all three.

  5. Ronald thanks for that now it is clear why nottrampis has joined his ‘party’.

  6. When people talk about “the market” as if it was a person then you know it’s all over.

  7. Maybe Brad Delong is an eclectic economist? As in; “eclecticism shall be understood as a philosophical leitmotif for the individual researcher to be unprejudiced, to have no commitment to a particular school of thought but to treat them all as a priori valuable for the pursuit of one’s research aspiration by deliberately choosing from the available range of historical and modern economic concepts, ideas, theories and practices.”

    Talking about “the market” as if it is a person or even something real is very weird unless you actually shop there like at farmers markets. But at least not much is said about that other weird entity ‘the invisible hand’.

  8. JQ: Purely out of interest, what word would you use instead of “mantra” (which is Sanskrit as far as I know, where it has many shades of meaning as you might expect).

  9. Privatisation has developed a haunting persona. This makes it hard to fight against. Anyone can now use it to scare people into conservative folds.

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