There are 94 years left on the secret contract that gives a private consortium the rights to operate the port of Newcastle.
But already the contract is in dispute. The consortium claims the contract unfairly impedes its efforts to attract a container terminal operator.
One can only assume the consortium – a large Chinese state-owned enterprise and a private investment fund – knew what it was buying. Unfortunately, the public knows only a miniscule bit of the contract, such is the secrecy of privatisation deals in New South Wales.
Secrecy is never good in public matters, which is why transparency – the opposite of secrecy – is on everyone’s list of how to do good government.
Transparency underpins our justice system, for instance. A person charged with a crime has the case heard in the full gaze of the public.
Likewise, what is taught in public schools is open to public view, as are the results awarded in public exams.
In commercial matters the law requires transparency in the awarding of government contracts and the disclosure of information about them.
But when it comes to the biggest contracts governments can enter – the sale of infrastructure – the iron curtains are drawn.
“Commercial-in-confidence” is the answer to every inquiry about what is in a privatisation contract.
The history of this matters. In 2011, our state was a rarity. Few governments in the world still owned and operated a full platform of infrastructure assets like NSW did.
In the 1980s conservative British prime minister Margaret Thatcher had led the world with the mass sell-off of UK public companies and utilities.
New Zealand, led by Labour’s David Lange, followed enthusiastically.
In Australia, the Hawke-Keating Labor government was more constrained, although it did cash out the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. But with the arrival in 1992 of Victoria’s Liberal premier Jeff Kennett the sell-off of infrastructure gathered pace.
Privatisation in NSW commenced much later, delayed in the main by concerted union opposition.
Efforts to sell parts of the electricity sector by Morris Iemma’s Labor government in 2008, for example, were derailed by trade unions.
But since 2011 much has changed.
A succession of Coalition governments has dispatched the state’s three major ports, its coal fired power stations, the electricity grid, the electricity trading houses and retailers, a giant water desalination plant, ferries, bus services, a vast portfolio of state-owned land, and the information service that underpins the state’s property register.
The proceeds have gone in two directions: on paying down state debt, and on building new infrastructure assets, especially in Sydney. As these are finished, like the WestConnex motorway, they are sold off. The government calls this capital recycling.
It’s breathtaking stuff. In less than a decade our state has transformed itself from a great custodian of publicly-owned infrastructure into a laboratory for private sector financing and management of the essentials of daily life.
So how’s the experiment going?
You’d think given the scale of what has happened that some agency would have responsibility to monitor and assess these extraordinary government actions.
But no. We know very little about the sell-offs – just the billion-dollar price tags splashed across newspaper headlines atop photos of grinning premiers and treasurers.
The public is denied details of each and every contract. Read in Hansard the record of debates over the enabling legislation for each sale and you hear voices begging for access to details.
Journalists, researchers, whomever, the thick documents that have turned our public services into vehicles for profit are hidden from scrutiny.
Secrecy abounds: How well placed are we to face a future of economic disruption, rising population and climate stress?
Are the private operators of the port of Newcastle entitled to compensation when east Asia says enough to coal?
Will Transurban allow driverless battery-powered buses to replace hundreds of thousands of toll-paying cars on its motorways?
The answers to questions like these depend on what is in the infrastructure contracts.
The answers will heavily influence our future in a world threatened by climate change.
Our infrastructure assets – our energy, water, transport, communications systems – are vital in forging prosperity in years hence.
We need to harness them for the greater good, not as profit-making, secret businesses for the very few.
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