Taking Back Control

  • 20 October 2017

I want to talk about how members and delegates can get involved and take back control of the public debate about the value of quality Public Services and they role they play in our lives be that through the dignity of work or by providing the dignity of universal access to public services when in need.  Before we look at what we can do we need to take stock of what has happened to our services and what this has meant for real people who work in them or who need them.  A delegate once said to me, during a dispute over the privatisation of their jobs, why is that public servants are always costed but never valued ?  It is a question that we thought we should test by talking to communities that are reliant on public sector jobs and the services they provide and find out what people, not politicians really think.  So began the Peoples Inquiry .......

State governments all around the country are privatising public services.  Privatisation includes not just selling off or leasing assets, but also outsourcing to for-profit and not-for-profits organisations, public-private partnerships (PPPs), social impact bonds.  The word ‘privatisation’ itself has been made unpopular, thanks to years of union and community campaigning against privatisation, so now politicians talk about ‘asset recycling’, ‘commissioning’, or ‘partnering’ with the business and community sector to deliver services.  But these are all different words to simply mean the shifting of our common wealth into private hands; giving control of our public services to private interests.

As Federal Secretary of CPSU, I see all of our branches fighting against some form of  privatisation – whether it’s the brazen privatisation agenda of the Liberal Baird/Berejiklian government in NSW, who have privatised their whole disability sector and their land titles office; or the S.A. and Victorian Labor governments short-sighted attempt to balance state finances and provide funds for other initiatives by privatising their land titles offices.  An initiative now being openly canvassed by the WA Labor Government.  Or in the case of Tasmania, a more subtle ‘creeping’ privatisation agenda which involves cuts and starving services of funding, then bringing in not-for-profits to run services that should be run by government.  Whichever way governments choose to privatise, whatever their political persuasion, the result is the same: job losses for our members, diminishing wages and conditions, less transparency and accountability for how public money is spent and how services are run, and poorer quality services for the community, and people who are left behind because they can’t access services they rely on.

Coupled with this is the privatisation agenda at the national level, with the Turnbull government directing the Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into extending ‘competition and choice’ into ‘human services’. ‘Competition’ and ‘choice’ are two more words for privatisation !  The Productivity Commission have identified six (6) human services areas which they think would benefit from more marketisation and privatisation: social housing, public hospitals, dental, palliative care, family and community services, and services in remote indigenous communities. They are due to release their final report this month where we will see their final recommendations for government.

So privatisation is clearly on the march; our opponents have a coordinated, ideological agenda for attacking public services – and so we need a coordinated fight-back.

This is why our union initiated the People’s Inquiry into Privatisation.  Rather than the Productivity Commission’s sham inquiry which is seeking the input of business and those with vested interests about the future of public services, we wanted to talk to the people who actually rely on public services – the people who use services every day, and the people like you that are working on the front lines serving the community.

Working with other public sector unions in Australia under the banner of our global union federation, Public Services International (PSI), we appointed an independent panel to lead the People’s inquiry: Chair David Hetherington from progressive think-tank Per Capita; Archie Law, former CEO of human rights organisation Action Aid Australia; and Yvonne Henderson, former WA Equal Opportunity Commissioner.  The panel travelled around the country last year to capital cities and some regional areas to hold public hearings to speak to communities about how privatisation has impacted them, and the inquiry received written submissions by organisations and individuals.  From that evidence, the panel have formulated their recommendations and a written a report, which will be released this Monday.

So I can’t tell you yet what the recommendations are, but I can tell you they are recommendations for governments about setting safeguards around privatisation, to ensure service users and workers are protected.

These recommendations are drawn from the evidence collected by the inquiry panel, and the stories they heard.  The stories were even worse than we expected.  The story that sticks with me, which I heard when I went along to the Sydney public hearing, was one mother, 78 years old, who spoke about her severely disabled daughter, in her 50s, who lives in a government-run group home which was being privatised – handed over to the not-for-profit sector.  The mother was so distraught at the prospect of her daughter being forcibly moved to a not-for-profit provider, and scared at the prospect of her daughter being left without anyone to care for her - government disability will care for everyone, whereas not-for-profits can pick and choose who they take.  She said she didn’t know what was going to happen to her daughter when she’s no longer around to advocate on her behalf, and said, to a silent room of over a 100 people:  “I hope my daughter dies before I do.”  The silence in that room was the chasm between politicians who make these decisions and what it really means to people who rely on the services.

There is a disconnect.  This story is representative of one of the main themes coming out of the inquiry: that privatisation is not an abstract policy issue – it is deeply personal.

The inquiry also found that the people who rely most on public services include women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, low income households, and households with long-term health problems and disabilities. They found, therefore, that privatisation impacts these groups the most, and so privatisation contributes to rising inequality.

Despite the direct impact of privatisation on people’s lives, decisions about privatisation have been taken out of the democratic realm, and are inaccessible and opaque. Language is used to obfuscate the real meaning of privatisation.  A buzzword that the panel heard a lot during the inquiry was ‘choice’.  This was often a reason given by politicians about why privatisation is better – it means more ‘choice’ for service-users.  But actually, particularly in the case of disability services privatisation, choice is a myth when there is no option to stay with the public sector – no option for people to keep what they already have.

As you might also suspect, the panel found no evidence that privatisation had any cost benefits for either the government or the service-user – the financial benefits that supposedly automatically flow from privatisation are mythical.

Privatisation is not something people have asked for, and the opinion polls repeatedly show that the community is against privatisation.  The inquiry panel found that, actually, there is more, not less, demand for government services than in the past.   Yet there is reluctance for politicians to provide them, preferring to build infrastructure rather than employ people in service delivery.  People and communities are suffering in silence – so the goal of the inquiry was to give voice to these stories, and weave these into the bigger story of privatisation.  That is, privatisation is something done TO communities without their consent.

The other goal of the inquiry was to draw out the alternatives to privatisation.  If we’re saying ‘no’ to privatisation, then what are we saying ‘yes’ to?

What should be the role of government in our community?  

Should they merely be a commissioner of services, as the  Productivity Commission suggest, or should government play a central role in delivering quality services, developing policy, and building infrastructure and technology for the future?

The recommendations of the inquiry also provide a way forward here – what does government look like in 21st century Australia?  How can we rebuild the services that have been eroded by privatisation?  We need proactive government investment in our future and to build public sector capacity in new areas – in new technologies, infrastructure, and services.  The inquiry found that there is a clear demand for governments to address failed privatisations, and, more than that, there is a demand for governments to build capacity in new areas. Governments must build as well as rebuild.  We cannot face the challenges of our future – climate change, automation – unless governments are prepared to intervene and take a leading role.  That is why we need to be bolder about our expectations of government as a place where people come together to solve problems.  We need to articulate a positive role for government that offers our community the confidence to face the future.

On Monday we will release the independent report and recommendations for governments. 

But we know that a report by itself can only start the conversation – to make change, we need to build a powerful community movement against privatisation, and for public services.  We need to take back control of our communities from the politicians and the corporations. We need to restore democracy. We need a government that responds to our needs, that delivers quality, accessible public services and policy solutions for the problems we face.  So when we release the report, we – working together with other public sector unions under the banner of PSI - are also launching our Agenda for Taking Back Control.  Based on the recommendations and findings from the People’s Inquiry, the agenda for Taking Back Control is our policy agenda for governments – based on what workers, service-users, and communities have told us they want for their public services.  We are asking other unions and civil society groups to join with us and endorse this agenda, and to join us in lobbying and campaigning for political parties to endorse this agenda and commit to implementing it.  And then we have to hold them to account.

This might seem like a big task – and it is - but it isn’t impossible.  Around the world, people are saying ‘enough is enough’ to the privatisation agenda and its associated free-market, neoliberal ideology.  We have seen the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who are inspiring people with their bold visions for a democratic alternative.  And through our global union, Public Services International, we know that the fight against privatisation, and for taking back control of public services, is picking up steam all around the world.  So join us in our movement to fight back against privatisation, and Take Back Control of our public services and communities.

At this conference over the next 2 days think about how you can make a difference, get involved speak up and join your union and its fight against the destruction of Tasmania’s civil society where the value of a person’s contribution is measured by what they offer society not what they take from it or what they make from it.

I wish to thank Tom Lynch, Thirza White and Grant Ransley for extending to me an invitation to address you today.

Thank you

Presentation to CPSU's Tasmanian Branch Delegates Conference in Hobart on Wednesday 18th October 2017.