By Stephen Mayne

What should an embattled Labor Government do when trying to flog a
politically sensitive monopoly energy asset without drawing too much
attention? Simple really: give the story to The AFR
to attract buyers and prey they don’t highlight who owns the asset such
that journalists, unionists and politicians might cotton onto a hot
story.

The strategy worked beautifully on Monday when AFR reporter James Hall produced a story which began as follows:

DirectLink, a high-voltage electricity cable
linking NSW and Queensland, is to be put up for sale by its owners,
prompting a tender process that might raise up to $175 million. It
comes amid a flood of deals in the utilities sector as international
companies take advantage of high prices to sell out of Australia and
local operators compete to lead consolidation of the sector.

It wasn’t until the sixth paragraph that we got this:

DirectLink is a joint venture between TransEnergie, a subsidiary of
Canada’s Hydro Quebec, and EmmLink, a subsidiary of the NSW
government-owned utility Country Energy. It operates the high-voltage
180 megawatt cable linking the NSW and Queensland regions of the
national electricity market.

Hello! Does anyone else think this is a big political story in NSW?
Just two weeks after getting rolled on the controversial Snowy Hydro
privatisation, the cash-strapped Iemma Government is going further down
the electricity privatisation path.

With the Beattie Government flogging gas distributor Allgas and its two
electricity retailers, it’s clear that the two states with the most
government ownership of energy assets are prepared to embrace power
privatisation to fund unprecedented infrastructure programs which will
require a staggering $35 billion of new borrowings over the next four
years.

Meanwhile, it might make sense for the NSW media and various
politicians to jump on the issue and have a decent public debate about
the sale of this latest strategic asset. NSW refused to explain its
position on the Snowy float, so let’s see if Kremlinesque Treasury
Secretary John Pearce is prepared to be a little bit more open this
time.

Peter Fray

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