Is privatisation next in Labor’s tattered playbook?
As some of us suggested last week, the Prime Minister’s sojourn in western Sydney and her focus on foreign workers and gun crime appears to have delivered some short-term respite for the government.
But the Prime Minister’s difficulty is she needs to keep creating circuit-breakers and knocking the political conversation off-course and onto what she wants to talk about. So what next?
Well, the issue of privatisation remains a potentially potent one for a beleaguered federal government.
Polling yesterday from Essential Research again confirmed the depth of public animosity toward privatisation, with 58% of voters believing privatisation is a bad idea. And while Liberal voters were most likely to support privatisation and Greens the least, in practice there was little difference: 54% of Liberal voters think privatisation is a bad idea compared to 70% of Greens voters. There are few economic issues where there is so little difference between voters of different parties.
And support for privatisation is particularly, and unsurprisingly, low in Queensland, where just 15% of voters think it’s a good idea.
In late 2011, Essential asked voters how they felt about the big economic reforms of the last 30 years, and whether they wanted to reverse any. The responses suggested there were three kinds of reforms: those that the public enthusiastically supported (compulsory superannuation and Medicare), ones they had mixed views on, but by and large supported (the GST, floating the dollar, free trade agreements) and ones they think were bad — the privatisation of Telstra, Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank.
In fact such was the antipathy to those privatisations that there was net support for buying back all three — the only major reforms voters wanted to reverse. Even the once-loathed GST, after more than a decade, has embedded itself in the national psyche. But not privatisation. It’s the economic reform that has never stuck with the electorate.
The basis for the dislike of privatisation is simple: voters don’t think there are any benefits to themselves or even to governments — they think most of the benefits flow to private companies.
At best, this is a huge failure by both the political class and the private owners of major assets like Qantas and Telstra. Privatisations are ostensibly for the benefit of voters, who obtain better services provided more efficiently by the private sector, and indirectly via greater economic efficiency. Voters, however, tend only to see Qantas systematically debauching its services and trashing its brand, or Telstra behaving like a profit-obsessed monopolist rather than just an engineering-obsessed monopolist, or the Commonwealth Bank gouging its customers.
The issue should thus be a fruitful one for Labor to exploit. The federal Coalition remains committed to the sale of Medibank Private (an eminently sensible policy) and the Queensland government has just unveiled a health policy focused on outsourcing and privatising health services, even before Peter Costello’s Commission of Audit spruiked selling everything else north of the border.
Labor’s problem, of course, is its own long history of privatisation. Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank were its privatisations. Its current policy is to eventually privatise the NBN. The NSW party tore itself apart over electricity privatisations. The Bligh government boldly embraced privatisation to shore up its financial position, and was punished with an historic loss. Bligh’s adoption of privatisation remains a sore point within the federal party, where it was regarded as both damaging to Labor’s brand and electorally suicidal.
As with its campaign on 457 visas, a Labor campaign on privatisation would be a partial repudiation of its commitment to an open market economy, although it could rhetorically distinguish between privatisating core infrastructure and outsourcing traditional government services. But this is a government very much in short-term mode at the moment.