|Apparently being a customer is doing better than being a citizen, according to the so-called Labor politicians in charge of New South Wales, Australia. Public utilities like electricity, gas and water supplies are corporatised with new upmarket names. Poor old pensioners in Britain died of cold one winter under Margaret Thatcher because the gas was cut off when they owed gas money. Privatisation's effects on people's ability to obtain service. Asian Economic Crisis -- Could it happen here? April 1998 seminar: Phillip Anderson, Dr. George Aditjondro, Associate Professor Charles Harvie. 'Good Government,' April 1998, pp 1-2|
Mr Howard had a mild case of privatisitis, a common complaint these days. We may define it as an obsession with the commercialisation of government. We see it every day in government offices where signs invariably tell the public they are its customers.
Apparently being a customer is doing better than being a citizen. But, if so, won't it be even better if public utilities and whole departments are corporatised and make profits? How else can we measure their efficiency? So public utilities like electricity, gas and water supplies are corporatised with new upmarket names.
Now some may half remember poor old pensioners in Britain dying of cold one winter under Margaret Thatcher because the gas was cut off when they owed gas money. Some may recall services to marginal areas cut because they were unprofitable, or billion dollar profits made by Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank. Now we all know what such large profits mean: government has ripened another public utility for sale. By now, we also know how government sells the idea: "At last these corporations can be owned by ordinary Australians!"
'Hey presto' we are customers and not citizens. Suddenly these utilities are remote and unaccountable. The idea that some regulatory body or other is going to "Keep the bastards honest" does not sound convincing. After all, regulatory bodies all over the world have a reputation over time of adopting the ethos of those they regulate.
The trail is now too obvious to miss. Government starts talking the language of commerce, the next thing public utilities are being corporatised, the day after that they are sold.
But there is more. Those private corporations which have already acquired public utilities, without looking back, seem to go on finding ways to acquire more and bigger public utilities as if they are playing Monopoly rather than supplying a basic service. While they wait for Sydney Airport or the New South Wales electricity grid to come up for sale, they make do with buying public utilities in South Australia or some other smaller state.
The efficiency of transferring public utilities into private ownership came into question when both Brisbane and Auckland CBDs [Central Business Districts] blacked out. The allegation in Auckland [New Zealand] was that the company had "taken its eye off the ball". This was a polite way of saying it was playing Monopoly. It had gone off collecting more public utilities it was said rather than look with the practised and professional eye at its public duty to maintain the electrical cables. The electrical engineers on the board had been transmuted into businessmen!
Suddenly many in Auckland started to find out what privatisation was all about. They discovered they had lost an entitlement to the supply of electricity. That entitlement no longer existed. They were no longer dealing with a public utility whose sole business was supply power to citizens. Thanks to Government they were customers. And their redress was no longer through the ballot box it was through the courts.
In the longer term the story of privatisation may be like the story of a prodigal son we have heard of who sold his entitlements and very nearly ended up with a 'mess of pottage.'
It is not hard to see why privatisation is occurring: a chance to acquire a virtual monopoly which, with luck, may be left to regulate itself; and a chance to usefully invest all that economic rent which is now growing so enormously.
Concerning this last point it is peculiar that the people of Australia first allow this rent to be appropriated by private persons, then complain when it is used to buy up the whole Monopoly board. But who is to blame?
Asian Economic Crisis
Could it happen here?
A seminar on the causes and implications of the
Asian Economic Crisis with particular
reference to the case of Indonesia.
2pm-5pm Friday 24 April, 1998
UTS Room 405, Building 6
Harris Street, Broadway
FREE Admission and Refreshments
Dr. George Aditjondro
Associate Professor Charles Harvie