Following an all-day debate, countless amendments and constant unfriendly interjections, the NSW upper house approved Premier Mike Baird’s legislation to lease 49% of the state’s electricity distribution network.
Approval came just before 10.30pm on Wednesday night but only with the crucial vote of two Christian Democratic Party MPs, Fred Nile and Paul Green.
The passage of the Electricity Network Assets (Authorised Transactions) Bill and the Electricity Retained Interest Corporation Bill cement the Baird government’s election victory of March 28, when the “poles and wires” controversy was the major issue.
Two months earlier, Campbell Newman’s LNP government in Queensland was ousted by Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk when it offered a similar message: vote for the LNP’s privatisation program and we’ll build infrastructure and pay down Queensland’s debt.
While Queensland voters did not believe Newman’s message — and kicked him out of his Ashgrove seat — the more engaging Baird persuaded voters to trust him, and he won a convincing victory.
But the real test of his political gamesmanship was to arrange the legislation’s passage through the upper house, where the Coalition lacks a majority.
In a confessional moment during the marathon debate, Nile said:
“I also thank the Premier, the Hon. Mike Baird, for his cooperation and goodwill in this process. I discussed with the government a plan to have the bills put through the lower house and then the upper house, after which I would move amendments dealing with worker protections. That is the formula that was planned, and that has been carried out.”
Adam Searle, Opposition Leader in the upper house, interjected: “Planned all along; is that what you are saying?”
Nile: “Yes, it was planned.”
A string of amendments were moved by Searle and Greens MP Dr John Kaye. The majority were defeated by a unity ticket between the Coalition and Christian Democrats. Two MPs from the Shooters and Fishers Party joined the Coalition and CDP to defeat Kaye’s amendments.
In the final vote, the Shooters and Fishers’ MPs remained true to their election commitment and voted against the amended “poles and wires” legislation. But it was to no avail: the bills passed by 19 votes to 17.
Paul Green of the CDP delivered what seemed like a valedictory speech for his leader during the debate, saying:
“I thank Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, who has been here since day one of this debate some 20 years ago. This wonderful politician will leave a great legacy to this state, particularly on this occasion, in the form of infrastructure for the people of New South Wales.”
Minutes after the bill passed, Green was again on his feet during the adjournment debate to pay further oily tributes to the 80-year-old anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage campaigner.
“I thank my colleague Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, who has been an awesome leader. Tonight he leaves a legacy of infrastructure for New South Wales communities and their people.”
It sounded like “Bye, bye, Fred” time.
Kaye broke up the CDP’s celebrations by pointing out that the Nile party’s votes came at a price. Following the March election, the Baird government “found itself at the mercy of” Nile’s CDP, he said. “This week it is the electricity privatisation bills that are causing the Premier, Mike Baird, and his advisers to wear out the carpet on the way to the CDP’s level 11 office.”
He said that an FOI request on primary ethics classes in classrooms revealed the Premier’s office “inexplicably exerted pressure” on the Department of Education and Communities to hide from parents the existence of the ethics alternative on the school enrolment form.
“The CDP is the parliamentary mouthpiece of the aggressively pushy conservative church groups, who have described special religious education [SRE] teachers in public schools as ‘government-endorsed evangelists’.
“Ever since the Liberals and Nationals swept to power in 2011 and the CDP has held or been part of the balance of power in the upper house, the future of ethics classes has been in doubt. Every time supporters of choice think the ethics debate is over, the Liberals and Nationals bow once again to pressure from the scripture providers. At the same time the CDP continues to provide support for every single Baird government initiative, including public assets sales, slashing workers’ compensation and capping public sector wages.”
And there you have it. It’s politics as usual in the Premier State.