The Guardian 22 June, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Restoring Public Ownership

The NSW government, like other state Labor governments, is eagerly looking for ways to hand over publicly-owned enterprises and even whole govern≠ment departments to capit≠al≠ist corp≠orations and entrepreneurs to run for their private profit. This, we are assured, is more efficient and more economical.

How this could be is never satisfactorily explained. Years ago there were a series of Liberal Party ads that held up the post office as epitomising the inefficiency of public enterprises.

But the post office has always been an amazingly efficient and economical way of sending and receiving personal or business communications. And, despite all the hindrances and encumbrances that capitalism imposes on the post office, it still is.

The most efficient ó and economical ó way of sending parcels to the country or interstate used to be by the government-owned passenger train system. It was cheap, it was fast and reliable and it was very efficient.

However, it did not produce profit for private companies, so it was shut down in favour of private road hauliers. Now sending a parcel interstate is expensive and highly unreliable.

Capitalists would no doubt claim it was more "efficient" however, because fewer people were employed to do it and private profits were generated.

Adding a private profit to the expenses of an enterprise does not make that enterprise "more efficient". Nor does cutting the staff to the bone and reducing their wages and conditions while increasing their hours of work.

Capitalismís only measure for efficiency, of course, is whether the rate of profit goes up. Whether the enterprise is a pleasant place to work, or a satisfying one or even a safe one, is of little concern to the boss class.

In socialist countries, enterprises are also responsible for such things as employee health, child care, local public housing, employee (and sometimes community) sporting facilities, local environmental matters, and so forth. By capitalist reasoning they could not be anything other than "inefficient".

From a community and employee point of view, however, such enterprises are anything but inefficient.

Capitalismís chaotic, unplanned, dog-eat-dog way of organising production and commerce is the truly inefficient system. Contrary to fascist myth, Benito Mussolini never actually made the trains run on time.

Neither, it seems, can Britainís privatised rail companies. So great is public disillusion with the privatised rail system in Britain that the (British) Labour Party Conference earlier this year agreed to renationalise the rail industry. Although the Conference decision (supposedly made by the peak policy-making body in the Labour Party) has predictably been ignored by Tony Blair & Co, itís a demand supported by the overwhelming majority of British rail passengers as well as the workers in the transport industry.

Blair and the rest of the leadership of what they like to call "New Labour" claim that nationalisation is inefficient and out-of-date. However, Britons only have to look at the state of their railways today to see the consequences of privatisation.

The British Communist weekly New Worker noted recently that "Nothing could make the case for public ownership better than the bail-out of [British car-maker] MG Rover by the Chinese publicly-owned Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation or the fact that Russia is moving to restore state-control over its oil industry, following the collapse of the scandal-ridden, privatised Yukos corporation."

In NSW, the Labor government has flogged off the frail freight system, the Commonwealth government has done the same with the National Rail. The NSW Carr government is clearly preparing the way for selling off the Sydney and Newcastle passenger services as well.

But the question of public ownership has to go far beyond the pressing case of preventing the sell-off of any more of our passenger train system. The entire public sector sell-off by Liberal and Labor governments ó ever since Menzies began the process in 1950 ó needs to be restored, including Telstra, Qantas, power and water utilities and much more.

Through their state and federal governments, Australians once owned companies and utilities that broke or prevented private enterprise monopolies in a multitude of areas: Commonwealth Oil Refineries kept a break on the price of petrol and diesel fuel. The NSW government even owned its own petrol distribution outlet, Purr-Pull.

Commonwealth Portland Cement kept building costs down, AWA did the same for electronics. Commonwealth Engineering built railway carriages for state government railways.

The Australian National Line competed with the foreign shipping monopolies and TAA did the same firstly with ANA (the airline owned by the private shipping companies) and then, when ANA went bust, with Menziesí mate Reg Ansett who bought it.

In addition to the savings these publicly-owned enterprises brought to the Australian people by keeping prices down, their substantial profits funded government services. It is time to reject the capitalist propaganda about the supposed "inefficiency" of public enterprises so that once again public enterprises can be used for the service of the people.

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