North coast National Party MPs, who went into a party-room meeting yesterday vociferously opposing a sell-off of the state’s electricity distribution assets, have failed to can the plan but now argue they have achieved a reasonable compromise.
Under Liberal premier Mike Baird’s ambitious proposal, 49 per cent of the state’s electricity distribution assets would be leased for 99 years following the next election to fund a one-off $20 billion infrastructure building boom.
Essential Energy, which is responsible for electricity distribution in the northern rivers, will not be sold.
Centrepiece of the plan would be a new rapid transit rail network for Sydney, including a second Harbour rail crossing and Western Extension, which the premier said, ‘will unblock a major train bottleneck and transform [the] city’.
Funds for regions
But up to 30 per cent of the sale funds would be earmarked for the regions, the premier said, including a $1 billion Regional Roads Fund, a $1 billion Regional Water Fund and a statewide $2 billion Schools and Hospitals Building Fund.
Deputy premier and NSW Nationals leader Andrew Stoner said, ‘This reform protects jobs in regional NSW, puts downward pressure on electricity prices and secures a record investment into regional infrastructure from the lease of metropolitan assets’.
‘Building this infrastructure will create jobs as well as ensuring future generations in regional NSW have safer roads, better schools, world-class hospitals, and high quality water infrastructure to protect communities from drought,’ he added.
Clarence Nats MP Chris Gulaptis, who like his Ballina counterpart Don Page, went into yesterday’s meeting firmly opposing the sale of the assets, said the outcome was a reasonable compromise.
‘I walked into the party room opposed to the sale of poles and wires, I emerged opposed to the sale of poles and wires but at the end of the day there have been some compromises made that will ensure regional people are protected,’ he told ABC radio this morning.
‘I’m optimistic that in this case we will see some benefits. Certainly there will be $20 billion realised out of this sale, of which one third will go to regional communities. That’s a considerable largesse to spend in regional NSW,’ he added.
But Labor and the Greens have lashed the plan, saying it will provide a one-off benefit.
Opposition leader John Robertson described the premier as ‘trying to con the public into believing that the privatisation of electricity was a magic pudding to fund infrastructure’.
‘Mike Baird has not announced a single cent for any extra infrastructure – instead he has announced that a committee will look at a range of added infrastructure,’ Mr Robertson said.
‘Mike Baird has simply put forward an infrastructure mirage that will come at the cost of every family across NSW through their electricity bills.
‘What we do know is that privatisation has driven up electricity prices in South Australia and Victoria.
‘In fact, according to the independent energy regulator, South Australia now has the highest electricity prices in the whole country – despite the then Liberal Government promising to reduce prices.
‘No private company will spend billions of dollars buying the electricity network and then give families a reduction on their electricity bills. Any private company will make NSW families pay for their profits.’
‘The more than $1 billion the state currently receives from the electricity network that it reinvests to fund essential services like our hospitals, nurses, schools, teachers, police and infrastructure will now be lost,’ Mr Robertson said.
Greens MP John Kaye said the coalition had, ‘failed to learn the political lessons from Labor’s sell-off [of electricity generators] ’.
‘They have misjudged the sophistication of voters and their ability to see through the shiny new projects to the reality of higher bills and a future without the income from ownership of the assets,’ he said.
‘The 49 per cent sale is nothing but a commercial convenience on the way to full privatisation of the wires and poles.
‘Just like the 99 year lease, this is nothing but spin to create the illusion that the public will have some say over the future of their electricity supply.
‘Wires and poles are a natural monopoly.
‘The National Party has rolled over and left their constituents and the rest of NSW facing higher power bills, job losses and rising carbon emissions.
‘They have sold out their communities for a handful of shiny new projects to announce at the next election. It is hard to believe that the bush will fall for the oldest trick in the book.
‘Rural and regional MPs are kidding themselves if they think that public ownership of Essential Energy has any long term future in a privatised industry,’ Mr Kaye said.