Another conservative government has been knocked off trying to sell power assets. And once again, the ETU was in the thick of it, defending the public and the power industry by taking the fight against privatisation to the streets.
A toxic proposal
Going into the 2016 election, the Barnett government was deep in the hole. They had badly overspent during the mining boom, behaving as though a once-in-a-generation high watermark was the “new normal” and they were looking for a quick fix.
Despite having previously promised to keep the state’s ports and power assets in public hands, the Liberal Party started looking for things to sell. After their coalition partners the Nationals vetoed any sale of the port of Fremantle, the government took a platform of privatising Western Power to the state election.
The ETU gears up to fight
We were ready for this. ETU WA members and officials knew that this was the fight of our lives, and that many of our jobs depended on it.
Nearly a full year out from the election, we launched the Use Your Power campaign, urging people to vote against any sale of Western Power.
Selling Western Power was a terrible idea. It would drive bills up, cost jobs and apprenticeship opportunities, and increase the risk of bushfires due to under-maintained infrastructure as a cash-hungry owner scaled back on maintenance.
We hit the streets
In the months and weeks leading up to the March poll, ETU members and officials knocked on tens of thousands of doors.
Members in Western Power depots whose jobs were on the line if the company was sold stood on the side of highways and at high-traffic intersections urging commuters and motorists to oppose the sale and show their support by sounding their horns.
Nearly everyone we spoke to opposed the sale. Some had family who worked for Western Power, or wanted to get into an apprenticeship. Some were sick of seeing conservative governments sell off state assets. Many told us that this election would be the first time they ever they didn’t vote Liberal.
On the night, it was all over very quickly. The election was called against Barnett within 90 minutes of the count beginning. There was a nine percent swing away to labour, and Barnett lost more than 15 percent of the vote he’d got at the last election. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a rout.
The seats where the ETU campaigned against Western Power privatisation showed just how unpopular it was. The neighbouring seats of Bunbury and Collie-Preston, south of Perth, were places where the ALP were considered rank outsiders, with a swing of more than 12 percent needed to secure Bunbury.
But ETU members had done the work on the ground, and there was a massive 24 percent swing against the Liberals.
The story was repeated across the state, and a poll that had been taken, but not released, during the lead-up to the election showed just how influential the ETU campaign was.
The Reachtel/West Australian poll showed that among Labor voters, Western Power was the number one issue for more than 25 percent. But among Labor-leaning undecided voters, the Western Power privatisation was the main issue for a 47 percent - nearly half.
Where to now?
ETU members in Western Australia, and around the country can congratulate themselves for keeping our power assets in public hands.
But this isn’t the end of our fight. Our national energy policy is still a mess, and cleaning it up is made harder by the creeping piecemeal privatisations that have been executed by conservative governments at a state level over the last few decades.
In a recent editorial in the the New Daily, ETU national secretary Allen Hicks called for governments across the country to take their power assets back into public hands and run them for the public good.