The Guardian 7 September, 2005

Greens offer policy alternatives:
Interview with candidate Sam Byrne

The surprise resignation of NSW Premier Bob Carr and two of his senior ministers in August has resulted in three by-elections being called for September 17. All three seats are "safe Labor", and with the NSW Liberals in disarray the ALP is favoured to be returned. However, former Deputy Premier Andrew Refshauge’s seat of Marrickville might pose a problem for Labor — it stretches across the Greens’ heartland of Sydney’s inner west. In the 2003 state election the Greens scored a decisive win in a number of booths and followed that up with a strong performance in the federal election last year. Andrew Jackson talked to Greens candidate Sam Byrne about the Greens’ policies and prospects in Marrickville.

Andrew Jackson: How do you see the Greens prospects in this by-election and what role can the Greens as a minority party play in the current parliament?

Sam Byrne: At this stage we are still very much an outside chance in Marrickville, I have no illusions about that.

I think one of the things the Greens can do at the moment is push the Labor government in the right direction. Two examples of where we have already been effective were the government’s plans to sell off former hospital land at Callan Park and some public housing in Erskineville. As a result of the Greens taking up community concerns and campaigning strongly on those issues the government was forced to back down prior to the last state election.

So I think our role is to put forward our policy alternatives and our ideas and that pushes the Labor Party.

AJ: In a recent issue of The Guardian we outlined a number a number of acts over the last 10 years of the Carr Labor government which angered left and progressive people in NSW. For example, in 2001 the Carr government severely curtailed the rights of workers to claim compensation for work-related injuries.

SB: That change in the law was outrageous. The Greens certainly campaigned strongly against it at the time and voted against it in parliament. We will be making workers’ compensation an issue in this campaign; it is a crucial issue and our stance is clear — the right of all injured workers to compensation must be restored.

AJ: There was also the Labor legislation — heartily supported by the Liberals — to "reform" the NSW electoral laws.

SB: The new law requiring a party to have 750 members in NSW in order to register for elections is a big hurdle for smaller groups; it was a big hurdle for even the Greens at that time. We are certainly still against that rule, we would like to see it changed and then take electoral reform further — implementing proportional representation and moving away from single member electorates.

We need a broad spectrum of forces in the parliament which truly reflects the community’s views. With those changes minor groups would have a much better opportunity of being represented.

AJ: One feature of the Carr administration has been to strip local councils of their planning powers — often by setting up new planning "authorities" responsible only to the premier. We’ve seen this in Sydney City, Leichhardt, Auburn and now in Redfern.

SB: We are yet to see what this new Labor ministry will do in this area. However, the new Planning Minister is Frank Sartor — who has even added "Minister for Redfern Waterloo" to his title — so I don’t see any change. These authorities shut out the community and local government, therefore shutting out any democratic input to decision making

What we are seeing is big business talking through the Labor Party — big developers making big donations, and this is Labor giving them what they want.

Corporate donations is something the greens have strongly campaigned on for years now and in NSW the greens do not accept corporations’ donations.

AJ: One major issue that is sure to provoke a backlash against the current Labor government is the state of Sydney’s rail services.

SB: I used to work on the railways as a signaller so I have some knowledge of the system. Initially Minister Costa tried to blame the staff — in particular the drivers. However, the current problems — the late running trains, the weekly maintenance shutdowns, the across-the-board cut in services — are the inevitable result of years of chronic underfunding of the system.

To have one of the world’s major cities with train services only once every half hour and a train considered "on time" even if it’s five minutes late is a joke.

In addition, pensioners have had their fares more than doubled from $1.10 to $2.50. Sure, ticket prices need to rise from time to time but a price hike of that magnitude is outrageous and must have hit pensioners hard.

Then there are also the issues of Sydney’s premium-priced privately run train stations, and the state government handing out contracts to private bus companies which offer only limited services to residents in Sydney’s west.

The state government has a lot of rhetoric about environmental concern, about how we need to get out of our cars and onto public transport. These failures are just pushing more people off the system.

What we need is massive investment to provide a strong, fully public transportation system to win back the confidence of the public.

AJ: Two elections ago Bob Carr promised to halve hospital waiting lists. He did, and then they immediately sprang back to record levels.

SB: There are funding issues at both federal and state levels. The $3.5 billion private health insurance rebate is a scandal — that money is subsidising private health insurance companies when it should be spent supporting our public health system.

The NSW state government also doesn’t seem to regard our public hospitals as a priority. They’ve recently announced that it will be cutting 4000 public service jobs in NSW — 1000 of those in the health sector. We can’t see how that will reduce hospital waiting lists or improve services, and we will be certainly pressing the government to outline exactly where those cuts are going to be made.

AJ: We’ve read in the news that the Liberal Party is "doing the Greens a favour" by withdrawing from the Marrickville by-election.

SB: Certainly the Liberals want to do as much damage to Labor as possible in these by-elections. However, the Liberal Party candidate polled 12% in Marrickville at the last state election and I suggest one of the reasons the Liberals aren’t running this time is because they don’t want to face another humiliation like that.

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