The road to electricity privatisation in New South Wales is a long one, strewn with political corpses. Most notably, former Labor premier Morris Iemma watched the beginning of the end of his administration as he tackled the industrial base of his party, which opposed privatisation.
The various campaigns for and against the privatisation of electricity presented in the current NSW election provide some insights into modern Australian democracy.
Even though the Baird government is one of the most secure in Australia, facing an opposition with a new, relatively unknown leader, the privatisation issue has gained significant traction, potentially swinging votes back to its opponents, including Labor, the Greens and the Shooters and Fishers Party.
Both the pro- and anti-privatisation campaigns have been well-funded and resourced, with business backing the Liberals on one side and the unions backing Labor on the other.
The Baird government has presented a case of asset recycling where money from the sale of the electricity supply infrastructure will be directed towards much-needed roads, rail and buildings.
The Stop the Sell Off group has campaigned on claims of higher power prices, decreased reliability, job losses and foreign ownership. Money will no longer go to schools and hospitals. Unions NSW have adopted a similar set of messages, as has NSW Labor.
The playing field for selling competing ideas in an election is now far more even than it has been in the past. It is no longer just about election war chests.
The growing power of social media can undercut bigger budget campaigns. A carefully considered, community-based social media campaign can derail even the largest advertising effort.
Emotions rule in advertising
In terms of presentation, the pro-privatisation, business-backed campaign appears to be much slicker. It has, however, mostly lacked a strong emotional message. Advertising is most effective at the emotional level; it simply does not work to bombard people with facts and figures.
The business lobby group Repowering NSW has made the mistake of largely presenting a business case. Arguments such as the NSW economy will be boosted by A$300 billion over the next 20 years are meaningless to most people.
Too much of the business campaign has been talking to itself – not to swinging voters. It has taken too long to shift to more emotionally compelling messages about cutting Sydney’s notorious traffic congestion.
In comparison, the recent Labor campaign in Victoria linking the leasing of Melbourne’s ports to specific level-crossing upgrades worked a treat. If you are going to use facts and figures, make them real for people.
One of the main pro-privatisation messages in this NSW election has been about the urgent need to renew infrastructure.
Here, the pro campaign has finally focused more clearly on an issue close to people’s hearts – urban congestion.
However, while traffic jams are an important issue for people, especially those living in Sydney, job security is also a key driver. The anti-privatisation campaign has pushed the idea that this will lead to job losses very hard, and made a lot of impact because of it.
On balance, while both campaign strategies have been reasonably effective, the anti campaign has been better at speaking more directly to people’s concerns, giving it a stronger emotional edge.
Who do you trust?
There is one area where, from both a marketing and political perspective, you would have to say both sides of this debate have failed.
No doubt most campaigners on all sides would believe in what they’re selling. However, from the public’s perspective, none of these interest groups can be seen as acting purely in the community’s best interests.
For example, unions will always fight prospective job cuts to protect their members – but also to protect their own influence. Reduced membership means less power, money and votes within the ALP.
Similarly, business talks in the disinterested language of improved efficiency. But many of the business groups behind the Repowering NSW campaign stand to benefit from the government’s plan, so their stance is equally unsurprising.
Each side of this debate, and each of the major parties, has worked hard to try to persuade the public that their interests are the same as the broader community’s interest. This communication technique is called “framing”.
Part of this framing is the appeal to the “science” of public opinion – polling. All groups commission polls to cast the illusion of broad-based popular support for their side of the issue.
Every poll that claims the public will accept privatisation if the money fixes roads is countered by a poll that questions if you may hypothetically want the Chinese to own your electricity. Polls are part of the communication process.
Recent history favours the status quo
Forced to choose between contesting appeals to sectional interest, the public invariably defaults to the status quo. This is a particularly strong force.
A 2014 research paper from Princeton and Northwestern Universities has shown that the cards are stacked against any government undertaking a wide-ranging initiative. In a study of 1779 cases, even when 80% of the community favour an initiative, a government will get the change through in only 43% of cases.
Here in Australia, in almost any political fight, the supporters of the status quo have almost all the cards.
A highly unpopular Paul Keating defeated John Hewson when the Liberals advocated a GST. The Howard government almost lost office after one term when it introduced the same measure.
After a massive electoral landslide, the Victorian Kennett government, which instituted a raft of privatisations, lost 3% in its first term and government in its second. Earlier this year, Queensland’s Newman government lost office after a raft of radical reforms, including its own privatisation plans.
The Gillard government introduced the carbon tax and suffered as a result of that reform. Tony Abbott campaigned on restoring the status quo, with “a grown-up, adult government that thinks before it acts”. But since being elected, the prime minister concedes his government was “too bold and too ambitious”, and now finds his own agenda under assault.
The NSW privatisation campaign is another chapter in a long list of governments advocating major reform and meeting widespread opposition from a community that is attached to the status quo.
Any party that advocates sticking with the status quo has a huge advantage. So given the long history on power privatisation in NSW, and facing a more emotionally powerful campaign from his opponents, the Baird government is actually doing pretty well to be closing in on polling day in a winning position.