Revel in the details – Newcastle Herald

IAN KIRKWOOD

STATEWIDE, the impending NSW election is effectively a referendum on the Baird government’s proposed ‘‘poles and wires’’ privatisation.

Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion either way, because I doubt it will make too much difference, in the long run, to power prices.

But if governments are going to the voters, seeking mandates on big-picture policy changes, they are impelled, more than ever, in my opinion, to be upfront and honest about all aspects of their proposals.

And if you ask if I am worried the government might be less than transparent over the poles and wires, my answer is yes, for two reasons.

The first is the description of the sell-off as 49 per cent of the system, implying that the state will retain a controlling 51 per cent.

As I noted in this space on December 22, the 49 per cent sell-off is achieved by including the inland NSW power company Essential Energy (formerly Country Energy), which is staying in government ownership.

As it did when it privatised the three major ports – Newcastle, Botany Bay and Port Kembla – the government is offering the power assets on long-term lease.

The government is offering 100 per cent of Transgrid, which operates the state’s main high-voltage networks, and 50.4 per cent each of Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy, the local poles and wires operators left behind when the retail ends of EnergyAustralia and Integral were privatised in 2011.

Somehow, selling all of the high-voltage network and all of the coastal distribution system equates to keeping 51 per cent of our poles and wires in public hands. It might do so on paper, but I am struggling to see how.

My other concern lies with any confidential assurances that the government may give the new owners of the system – assurances that might make it harder for any new players to enter the market, or protect the new owners from a major drop in power demand, caused, for example, by the closure of an aluminium smelter.

And why am I worried about such noncompetitive assurances?

Because they were given in the privatisations of Botany, Kembla and Newcastle.

In the late 1990s, BHP’s major parting gift to the region (beyond cleaning up after 84 years of steel-making) was a plan to convert the steelworks site into a multipurpose terminal that would compete with, and conceivably rival, Botany as the state’s premier container port.

It never happened. Longstanding caps on the size of Botany were lifted, and then scrapped altogether, and Newcastle lost its place as the ‘‘next’’ container port to Kembla.

The Newcastle plan had its critics from the start, and they might be right.

But if a Newcastle container terminal is such a dud idea, why has the Baird government gone out of its way to ensure it never happens? It has done this by protecting the company leasing Botany and Kembla and penalising the Newcastle lessee with a series of secretive conditions that mean Newcastle must pay the Botany/Kembla lessee to run anything bigger than a boutique operation.

In the months since Newcastle was privatised in May, 2014, the Newcastle Herald has asked every relevant Baird government minister, from the Premier down, a series of questions about this subject.

At every turn, we have been stonewalled, or answered with an impenetrable mixture of bureaucratic jargon and Delphic riddle.

We have published as much information as we can piece together by joining the dots, and not once has the government contradicted us, even when we accused it of potentially ‘‘illegal and unenforceable’’ behaviour.

So I take it we are right.

In a perfect world, the government would put all of the details of these multi-billiondollar transactions squarely on the table for all to see.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where the businesses buying stateowned assets are privy to confidential information that we voters never see.

And the government wonders why it is having trouble convincing people that the power privatisation is a good deal.