"Movement at the station"...?

Mad Teddy's web-pages

"Movement at the station"...?

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray...

I first heard these stirring words (as I recall) as a primary school kid in 1962. My family had come to Australia the previous year, and we were gradually becoming acclimatized to the Aussie way of life (quite different from anything we'd ever experienced before!).

They're the first few lines of a poem by Australian poet Andrew Barton Paterson, 1864-1941 (better known as "Banjo" Paterson.) The poem, entitled "The Man from Snowy River", is a bush ballad about life in 19th Century rural Australia. To read the entire poem, click here or here.

In 1982, a film was made based on this poem; click here to read more.

(Banjo Paterson is probably best known internationally for his poem "Waltzing Matilda".)

The tale of "The Man from Snowy River" takes place in a mountain range called the Snowy Mountains, the highest of which is Mount Kosciusko, the highest mountain in Australia. As mentioned in that link, the Snowy River is one of a number of rivers which originate in the Snowy Mountains.

In 1949, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Authority was set up to begin work which would divert the Snowy River inland to join up with some other rivers. The purpose of this was to produce a large hydroelectric scheme which would provide power to regions of both New South Wales and Victoria. The scheme eventually reached its designed capacity in 1974.

To read more, click here. (Warning: this seems to need Javascript turned on. )

It was a big project, and the engineers and other workers who made it all happen could be justifiably proud. Indeed, the entire Australian population understood the nature of the achievement and the benefits it provides. It has a certain symbolic significance; and until such time as conventional 20th-century power sources are replaced by zero-point energy in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future, clearly it has important practical significance also.

Okay: that sets the stage. So what's the big deal?

Over the last couple of weeks, there have been rumblings in the media about the possibility of the Australian federal government's stake in "The Snowy" being sold off (i.e. "privatised").

Permit me to take a small amount of your time to explain a bit about the Australian political scene.

Australia is comprised of six states (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, and Tasmania), and two territories (the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory). Each state and territory has its own government. There is also a federal government, to which the state and territory governments are to some extent beholden. (In general terms, the state governments have somewhat more autonomy than their territorial counterparts.)

There are two main political forces in Australia: the conservative parties, known as the Liberal Party (with a capital L, much as the word "democratic" as used in "German Democratic Republic" had a capital D) and the National Party; and the party originally set up to represent workers' interests, the Labor Party. The National Party was originally called the Country Party; it basically represented rural interests. (Some people rather cheekily refer to the National Party as "Liberals in gumboots".)

The National Party has a much higher profile in some areas than in others. Traditionally, it's been seen largely as a Queensland party, although it certainly has adherents in other mainland states and territories. (As far as I'm aware, there is no significant National Party presence in Tasmania.)

At the federal level, the Liberal and National Parties operate together as a coalition. Currently, for example, we have a Liberal / National Coalition federal government.

There are also minor parties, notably the Australian Democrats and the Greens; but basically - so far at least - governments are either conservative (Liberal and/or National) or Labor.

The Australian people have what might be described as strange voting habits. In particular, in recent times we've had federal governments controlled by one or the other of these two main political forces, while most or all of the states and territories are controlled by its opposite number in those areas. This has been going on long enough for it to be seen as a pattern. How can this be explained?

To me, it seems that the Aussie public are - in some ways, at least - a savvy lot. They don't trust either side to have an unfettered hand in running the country, so they elect state or territory governments which are, to a greater or lesser extent, somewhat at odds with their federal counterpart. This leads to a certain crankiness in Aussie politics, usually expressed most forcibly at "budget time" when the state and territory leaders meet with the federal leaders in Canberra to thrash out how federal funds will be distributed among the states and territories. It's expressed in the form of bad tempers on the part of state and territory leaders, who routinely blame a federal government led by their political opponents for the fact that they each don't get a big enough slice of the federal pie; and arrogant stonewalling tactics on the part of the feds.

So, what bearing does all this have on the Snowy River Scheme?

At the time of writing (3rd June, 2006), we have a Liberal / National Coalition federal government, and Labor state and territory governments. The governments of both New South Wales and Victoria (the two states directly involved with the Snowy) are Labor.

The New South Wales government, in particular, has been "crying poor", complaining (quite justifiably, I'm sure) that not enough federal money has been made available for essential services like health and education. ("What's new, pussycat?")

Well!!! This time, the federal government pulled a rabbit out of the hat. All we have to do, to make sure that enough money is available for such things, is to flog off the government's holdings in the Snowy!

- And the NSW government (a Labor government, mark you) thought it was a marvellous idea!

However, a great many people around the country didn't. Not only the people you'd expect to be opposed (people of a different political persuasion from that of the federal government), but even members of the federal parliament within the government's ranks.

And guess what? For once, the federal government has taken notice! Just yesterday, pretty much out of the blue, came the news that the sale was off.

This trick, of introducting legislation designed to split the political opposition, is becoming known in Australia as "wedge politics" (warning - Javascript needed. ) To read about some classic examples, click here and here. The current federal government does it at every opportunity - and notably just before a federal election. For the last few times it's worked. We've had numerous crises - carefully stage-managed by the government to wreak as much havoc and confusion in the political scene as possible - timed to ensure that the electorate will continue to re-elect "the devil you know", rather than a befuddled, internally-divided opposition. (Click here to read about the most blatant example of its kind.)

It's the height of cynicism; and there may be signs - finally - that the Australian public is waking up to it. This business about the Snowy is a hopeful sign. If the government's "wedge" starts to stick in its own skull, perhaps "the devil we know" isn't so invulnerable after all. (Click here to gain more insight into this. Note that Mark Latham was the federal Labor Party leader in the 2004 federal election.)

On a related matter:

Since coming to power in 1996, this Liberal / National Coalition federal government has made no secret of the fact that it doesn't consider itself to be in the business of providing services. No: whatever it can farm out to the private sector, it will - even down to the administration of "correctional services" (i.e. prisons), for heaven's sake. This government is all about "the economy"; the only other things that rate a mention are such matters as terrorism, "national security", and keeping "asylum seekers" (read refugees) in horrific conditions in "detention centres" (read concentration camps) - things it can use as wedges to keep the Labor opposition on the back foot, thus continuing to get itself re-elected time after time after time.

In particular, one of the government's main aims has been to privatise the national telecommunications system, now known as Telstra.

A bit of background about this:

When my family came to Australia in 1961, there was something known as the "PMG's department". "PMG" stood for "Postmaster General". Basically, the PMG's department was the national Post Office system, which included the national telephone system.

In 1975, the postal and telecommunications sections were separated. The former became the Australian Postal Commission ("Australia Post"). The latter was given the name "Telecom"; it was incorporated in 1991 and changed its name to "Telstra" in 1993.

In 1997, the year after the current federal government came to power, Telstra was partially privatised. In 1999 there was another share float; the company is currently a bit over 51% owned by the government, with the rest owned by private shareholders. (Click here to read these details and more.)

The government would very much like to fully privatise Telstra. So why doesn't it?

There are plenty of people in Australia who view the company askance. Over the years, there have been media reports into how its services sometimes haven't measured up. The company has had a reputation for being difficult to deal with. Many a customer has a horror story or two to tell.

There's really no comparison between Telstra and the Snowy. Telstra is basically a revamped ex-part of a government department which no longer even exists. It doesn't have anything remotely like the iconic significance of the Snowy.

So why would anyone want such an outfit to remain in public hands?

Simply because that way there is someone to blame when something goes wrong. A properly-functioning communications system is absolutely vital these days; and as long as it's a government department, the "buck stops" with the government - there's no excuse for unsatisfactory service. Governments can be voted out by a disgruntled public.

Governments don't like being voted out. So what's the best way to minimize the chance of that happening? Offer the public ownership of government instrumentalities through the share market! Then, people will have a feeling of ownership; and (so the theory goes) enterprises always perform better when privately run.

Let's cut the crap. The sole purpose of private enterprise is to make a profit - not to provide services!

Once a government business is privatised, whom do you complain to when you get messed about? Who are the owners? If you are one of the owners through having shares, do you just complain to yourself? - Or do you go to the expense and bother of travelling to a shareholders' meeting, and try to get a hearing?

And - excuse me: while a business is in government hands, in a democracy that means it's already owned by the citizens, with no need for them to buy shares! Believe me - I'd much rather be a stakeholder than a shareholder, any time.

Of course, if you have shares in a company, then you also share in that company's profits by way of dividends. That's fine, as long as there is a profit. But what happens when a company's profitability decreases? (Note that Telstra has not performed to the expectations of the late 1990's, when the company was partially privatised; click here to see a Labor Party take on this.)

I'm not suggesting that Telstra is likely to go "belly up", even if it is ever fully privatised. In these days of multiple phone companies banging on one's front door with monotonous regularity, trying to get one to sign up to their "telecom" (the word is now used generically) and making a damned nuisance of themselves in the process, the fact remains that Telstra still owns the infrastucture which makes all this razzamatazz possible. So the very fact that there needs to be that infrastructure in a developed country will ensure Telstra's survival.

So - as I asked before: why doesn't the government fully privatise Telstra?

Earlier in this page, I mentioned how the National Party is largely based in the northern state of Queensland. Up there, distances are large, and communication is not always easy, even in these technological times. Farmers are now forced to use the internet and/or mobile phone technology to do business in order to keep up - even if they don't particularly like the idea.

However, because of the rural nature of much of the state, and the lack of up-to-date infrastructure in remote areas, this isn't necessarily a reliable option.

So there's still plenty of "movement at the station", thank goodness - and guess who's putting pressure on the government to keep Telstra in public hands, so that its customers can get a hearing? - And guess who's got most to lose if rural Queenslanders stop voting for the National Party?

I rest my case.

For the record:

I'm not a member of the Australian Labor Party - or any other political party, for that matter - and I have no intention of becoming one. (As far as I'm concerned, it's the ALP's fault that we are stuck with the present federal government; they handed it to them on a plate in 1996.)

If the ALP are going to be worthy to win government next time around (probably at the end of 2007), they're going to have to get their act together a lot more than they have done in recent times. For the moment, as far as I'm concerned they're still the devil we don't know.

If they are ever going to get back their credibility, they have a lot of work to do. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.

There's just a bit more to say about all this.

On a TV current affairs program, I heard some commentator say that the non-sale of the Snowy is going to put downward pressure on Telstra shares. Quite probably! Guess who's really pleased that he didn't buy the government's line, in the late 1990's, about how wonderful it would be to own shares in Telstra?

That's right - li'l ol' moi!   

UPDATE, 4th July 2006 (Independence Day, again!)

As I prepare to upload this website, hopefully before 10th July (visit my home page to see why, if you haven't already), I find that there's still just enough time to include an extra snippet here. (If you're not an Aussie, this may not perhaps have any direct bearing on you; however, please feel free to read on anyway if you'd like to know a bit more about the funny things that happen "down under".)

Almost exactly a year after the London bombings, Australia's federal treasurer, Mr. Peter Costello, has dropped a little bomb of his own.

Earlier in this page, I've explained a bit about the Australian political landscape: how we have a federal government and a number of state and territory governments. This was established in 1901, when the British colonies gave up some (not all!) of their independence to become states in a federation.

Previously, the colonies had grown from their 19th century roots in various ways, not always seeing eye to eye. The introduction of a federal constitution created Australia as a unified country.

The constitution enshrines the relationship between the federal government and the various state and territory governments. As I've mentioned, it's often a rocky road - with the "feds" on one side, and the states and territories on the other, often at odds.

Well! Mr. Costello has decided to "stir the pot" a bit by announcing a new vision: the federal government controlling the entire country's "economic" matters, while the states and territories provide "services", like health and education!

To save me the bother of spelling out all the details, please visit this ABC page to read more. (Actually, unless you're an Aussie, you may find this a bit scanty on detail, and perhaps won't know who all the "players" are; just have a look at it to get the gist of what's going on.)

Also, check out this page on the Sydney Morning Herald's website. Written only this morning, it's predictably a somewhat right-wing take on the whole issue, urging readers to take Mr. Costello seriously and give some credence to what he's saying.

My point is, that Mr. Costello has put the cat among the pigeons in a way that gives lots of fuel to his political opponents and at the same time puts his own colleagues and supporters on the spot, as they try to find a way to back him up without looking too flummoxed.

What does it all mean? From my perspective (and, I suspect, from the perspectives of some media commentators), it all looks a bit like a Punch and Judy show - with Federation, taking the part of the baby, about to be thrown out of the window as the states and territories lose every last vestige of their independence.

It's well-known that Mr. Costello wants John Howard's prime-ministerial job; but it continues to appear that Mr. Howard has no intention of retiring any time soon. What better way for Mr. Costello to add a line or two to his CV than by dropping a "clanger" or two?

Well, if "wedge politics" (see above) has now spread to the point where it's occurring within federal government ranks, at least it's entertaining for us mere mortals. What'll happen next?!

- - - - - - - - - -

This federal government has been taking some very big risks of late. By far the biggest is its ideolgically-driven "Work Choices" legislation, which claims to give individual workers lots of "choice" in how they relate to their employers. However, it's causing quite a ruckus in Australia. Suddenly, the unions are again becoming popular with workers as they see their rights, hard-won over generations, about to be swept away. (You can download information on this legislation here.)

I believe that the federal government strongly suspects that it really has bitten off more than it can chew this time. Is it in self-destruct mode? Is Peter Costello's "new federalism" a sign o' the times? We can only wait and see.

Return to Why is Mad Teddy mad? page

My home page     Preliminaries (Copyright, Safety)