NSW Premier Mike Baird was today’s first witness at the start of a three-week inquiry into the Coalition’s election pledge to long-lease 49% of the state’s electricity distribution network.

He was followed by Baird’s two most senior bureaucrats, Blair Comley, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, and his deputy, Simon Draper.

Fred Nile, founder-leader of the Christian Democratic Party, chaired the hearing, and riding shotgun as deputy chair was fellow upper house MP David Clarke, prominent leader of the NSW Liberal Party’s hardline Christian faction.

Naturally, the hearing opened with prayers for wisdom and reason, but they were superfluous. A deal has been done in advance: the Liberals and Nationals will support the committee’s ultimate recommendation, approving the transfer of electricity assets to the private sector.

Instead of fact-finding mission, the inquiry is little more than a choreographed stitch-up. Labor frontbencher Walt Secord nailed the Coalition’s duet with Nile when he said during last week’s debate: “This proposed select committee inquiry is simply a rubber stamp to the Baird government’s agenda to privatise.” This is how it works …

On March 25, three days before the state election, Nile said he would use “our balance of power in the upper house to oppose any government proposal to sell off our poles and wires”.

It was a direct appeal to electors who, according to the polls, were uneasy with Baird’s sell-off project.

A few days after the Coalition’s convincing victory, Nile changed his tune. He now called for a “short, sharp inquiry” to settle public misgivings and confidently told ABC Radio: “I don’t see the inquiry as blocking privatisation, but putting to rest some of the scare talk from the Labor Party.”

In Parliament last week he said his select committee was essential: “I genuinely believe this will be of assistance to the government as it seeks to proceed in this direction.”

He also declared publicly: “You could be optimistic and say the inquiry will confirm the government’s position. I hope it does, because the government’s infrastructure program is of tremendous benefit to this state. We need it.”

In barely seven weeks Nile had moved from an opponent of Baird’s power plan to a locked-in supporter.

As a clear sign of appreciation, Nile was allowed to give notice in the upper house of a raft of bills covering most of the grotesque and divisive campaigns of his odious 30-year parliamentary career. They include laws forcing women wanting abortions to “undergo counselling” and view an ultrasound of their foetus and a ban on abortions when there is a “detectable heartbeat”.

He wants a legally enforceable ban on “facial coverings” and for NSW upper house MPs to be known as “senators”.

None of the bills are ever likely to be debated, let alone passed. They are the “last hurrah” of the 80-year-old morals campaigner who has already crowned his CDP leadership successor, Rev Dr Ross Clifford, and is dogged by ill health.

Having won the March 28 election on a platform advocating the partial sale of “poles and wires”, the Baird government is supporting Nile’s inquiry to seal the deal in advance of legislation to be introduced in June.

When Duncan Gay, leader of the upper house, told MPs on May 6 that the government would be supporting Nile’s motion for a select committee inquiry, Greens MP Dr John Kaye interjected: “What a surprise!”

Kaye and Adam Searle, Opposition Leader in the upper house, moved a number of amendments to Nile’s proposal last week, but all were defeated by the Coalition and the Christian Democrats.

Instead of finalising the report by June 2, opponents wanted the inquiry to sit until the end of June. Searle told the house: “We think the time frame is wrong. A two-to-three-week turnaround is not sufficient. We propose adding an extra three or four weeks, taking the reporting period to 30 June. Surely the sky will not fall in.” The extension of time was defeated.

Searle objected to Clarke as deputy chairman, saying: “We think that the appointment of the parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Justice — a member of the executive — as the deputy chair sends the wrong signal. We believe that Mr Borsak [Shooters and Fishers MLC, and sell-off opponent] should be the deputy chair.”

Kaye, the only upper house MP with workplace experience in the power industry, branded the Baird sell-off plan as a “loss of income and a loss of control of the energy future of this state”.

As an electrical engineer, Kaye worked on the grids in both NSW and Victoria and on the national electricity market. “Passing the grid over to the private sector will rob it not only of capital but also control in the common interest,” he said.

One controversial objective of the select committee is to discover whether Premier’s Department interfered with the wording of a UBS report on electricity privatisation originally titled “Bad for the Budget, good for the State”. Written by David Leitch and Andrew Lilley, it was re-released 24 hours later under the new title, “Good for the State”.

The original heading was a stuff-up. It was later corrected. End of story. The real story is Nile’s duplicity on electricity privatisation.

Peter Fray

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