The Guardian December 6, 2000

No alternative?

The captains of industry and their lap-dog politicians, backed up by the 
media and sections of academia, never tire of telling us that private 
enterprise is the most efficient form of production and the best way to get 
things done. They would have us believe that capitalism is the pinnacle of 
human achievement and that there is no alternative.

The entrepreneurial spirit is upheld for all to emulate. Business courses 
are run in schools and universities to educate the rising generation in the 
merits and the ways by which to make money. It follows that all publicly-
owned enterprises should be turned over to these same entrepreneurs who 
will give us reduced prices and a more efficient service.

The reality is much different, as one case after another demonstrates.

A recent example is the revelation that Sydney's privately owned airport 
rail service is going belly-up, having miscalculated (deliberately?), the 
number of commuters who would use the service and leaving taxpayers' a $900 
million bill. Far from providing cheaper fares, a ticket on the airport 
link costs about four times that of the publicly-owned rail network.

The Liberal Government that negotiated the commercial-in-confidence deal in 
1996 put the onus on the taxpayer in the contract should the forecast 
commuter patronage not eventuate.

It is obvious that the expected number of passengers  from 48,000, to 
grow to 68,000 per day  was a wild overestimation. So what is to happen? 
Will the service close down? Will the present Carr Labor Government dole 
out more millions so that the private owners can carry on with their 
nefarious rip-off, or will the Government buy out the railway and make it a 
part of the rest of the rail network?

Whatever path is taken it is obvious that the private owners expect to be 
bailed out by taxpayers.

Even with this example before them, the Carr Government is planning to make 
yet another deal with a private enterprise group to build a rail extension 
from Bondi Junction to Bondi Beach. We can be sure that this will be 
another commercial-in-confidence arrangement, the terms of which will only 
become public when the private for-profit rail venture also runs off the 
economic rails.

* * *
Behind the ballyhoo
As the debacle of the US Presidential elections continues it is instructive to look at the history of the franchise in the US in order to push aside some of the clutter of legal wrangling and the claim and counter-claim of the billionaire contenders, Gore and Bush. As big property owners and slave holders themselves, those who wrote the American Constitution ensured that its fundamental tenant was the protection of private property, at that time consisting mostly of land and slaves. Only the rich, the propertied, were given the vote. So, what has changed since the American Constitution was written? The great struggles of America's working people during the more than 200 years since have brought big changes, including the abolition of slavery, the right of former slaves to vote, the right of women to vote and the elimination of the property ownership voting qualifications. Today the issue is more who votes and who doesn't, and it's very much tied to income. Just one-third of voters with incomes below US$15,000 voted in the November 7 Presidential poll. Voter participation increased with the level of income. Those on US$100,000-plus were four times as likely to cast a vote as those in the under-US$15,000 bracket. The reasons are directly tied to the marginalisation of those at the lower end of the economic scale. Low income groups are more likely to be barred from voting because they are immigrants or because they have a prison record. The falling rate of unionisation in the US also affects the way people perceive collective action and leaves them open to the idea that it's useless to try to change things. Those on low incomes are also more likely to be transitory, making it more difficult to maintain a valid voter registration. And the list goes on. Such are the fundamental inequities behind the television debates on democracy and the ballyhoo glitz and glamour of the presidential election campaigns.
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