SYDNEY is gridlocked so should we offload old poles and wires to pay for new transport infrastructure? Here, the two sides go head-to-head.

YES: PATRICIA FORSYTHE

Executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber

TWENTY billion dollars is a figure that rolls off the tongue easily enough, but as few of us will ­neither see nor touch that amount of money, its significance may be difficult to comprehend. In NSW it has taken on particular significance as the figure that the NSW Liberals and Nationals are committing to spend on infrastructure projects based on their policy to lease 49 per cent of the state’s electricity grid.

Broken down, the projects include ­extension of the Sydney Rapid Transit Line, incorporating a second harbour rail crossing thus extending the new North West Rail Line through to Bankstown and funds for major road projects.

Other funding priorities include a sport and cultural fund and funds for the construction of new schools and hospitals.

For business, the transport commitments mean everything and explain why apolitical organisations have put a stake in the ground in support of the ­so-called “poles and wires” plan of the Baird team.

he Sydney Rapid Transit line project is not off the table for the state Opposition but, operating with one hand tied behind their back because they have locked themselves out of supporting the energy reforms, the best that Labor can promise is to commence the project four years later.

Traffic congestion costs our economy about $5 billion a year in lost productivity (2012 figure).

Labor says retaining the poles and wires as a public asset keeps the asset on the budget bottom line, yet for business, the measure they will notice is the $20 billion in congestion costs over those four years.

There is no easy fix to congestion.

However, as a University of Wollongong report to Infrastructure NSW in 2012 noted, multiple policies may be needed to resolve congestion, including pricing ­policies but, “(the policies) must be complemented by increases in road capacity — particularly de-bottlenecking and by-pass investments — and increases in public transport capacity”.

For business, leasing the poles and wires is a means to an end — that of ensuring they can compete on a level playing field with like organisations that are not challenged by freight that fails to meet on-time principles or staff who are late due to peak-time delays.

The cost of congestion is a cost that we all bear in the prices we pay for goods and ­services.

A productive efficient economy must challenge and resolve those things that hold it back.

Twenty billion dollars will go a long way to achieving that efficiency.

 

NO: MARK LENNON

Secretary of Unions NSW 

WE’RE short-sighted and self-interested and it’s killing ­reform. That’s the narrative we’re being sold as ­conservative governments sway and topple all over the country. Proponents of this theory have set up Premier Mike Baird’s plan to privatise NSW’s power assets as the grand litmus test of whether voters today still possess the intestinal ­fortitude to do the right thing.

It’s not going well. The latest Fairfax/Ipsos poll showed just 23 per cent of NSW residents support the proposal. Suspicions automatically turn to the union movement and their supernaturally effective “scare campaigns”.

According to this logic, unions are so adept and wily in the dark arts of propaganda they are able to convince an overwhelming majority to reject things that are clearly in their best interests. I have to admit a soft spot for this theory. However, logic has led me to a more mundane conclusion: millions of people just genuinely and reasonably don’t like the idea of privatising public power assets.

People in NSW have had a very long time to look at this idea. It has been floated, in one form or another, for the better part of three decades. Every argument — for and against — has been made many times over. Minds have been made up and they have been ­resolved overwhelmingly on the side of ­retaining public ownership.

People don’t buy the idea that it’s better to pocket one-off money from a sale than it is to receive $1.7 billion of revenue each year.

They may have heard that South Australia’s electricity network, which was privatised by a Liberal government, now charges the highest prices in Australia. They may have seen the McKell Institute report that predicts electricity bills under a private NSW network would rise by an average of $100 a year.

Maybe they have read that privatisation remains on the nose long after it is ­introduced, with a Reachtel poll finding 67 per cent of Victorians and 74 per cent of South Australians think they are worse off under a privatised electricity network.

The simple fact is Australians don’t like the privatisation of vital public assets, and a steady stream of sell-offs over the past three decades has only reaffirmed that belief.

This theory is also supported by every successful union campaign being an ­authentic articulation of public sentiment. Unions are, by definition, mass ­organisations. Their very reason for ­existing is to enable ordinary workers and their families to speak with a loud and influential voice. People are not against “reform”, they are against big changes they think are stupid. They believe the privatisation agenda of the 1980s should have gone the way of shoulder pads and A Country Practice by now. They want a 2015 version of reform.

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