Fighting for Publicly Owned Electricity in Western Australia

The Australian Services Union, Western Australia branch (ASU) has sustained a successful community campaign to ensure electricity remains a quality public service owned and operated by the state.

On 13th March 2021, the McGowan Labour government (center left) was returned in an unprecedented election victory, winning 41 of 59 lower house seats. The McGowan government took to the election a renewed commitment to maintain public ownership of all electricity assets, whereas the liberal opposition planned to deregulate the electricity market.

Mr. Wayne Wood, Branch Secretary ASU explains the genius of the campaign. In 2013, the then Liberal Barnett government (center right) started to “trim the fat” to get the publicly owned electricity utility, Western Power, ready for private sale. The Barnett government was looking to replicate the privatisation which had already happened in the eastern Australia states and stopped hiring apprenticeships and sacked 501 workers. The ASU, representing workers across the state’s electricity sector was quick to act.

“We don’t want to see our utilities divided up and sold to the free marketeers of the world,” said Mr. Wood.

“We don’t think commercial companies should be making profit for essential services like electricity.”

The ASU consulted with its delegates to discuss the issue. The Barnett’s government jobs cuts and traineeships reductions was hurting workers and communities. They had seen the impact that electricity deregulation had on the price of electricity for households in other states. After the sale of electricity was deregulated in the state of Victoria in 2002, prices more than doubled and household disconnections rapidly increased. The union decided to undertake a massive door knocking campaign to target key seats in the lead up to the 2017 election. They created t-shirts with the slogan Stop Barnett’s fire sale of Western Power and ran stalls at community and sporting events across the state. Energy workers were at the front of the campaign, speaking to households on the importance of their jobs and how they did not want the community to pay more for electricity. The message strongly resonated with the community, including in regional towns where many had personal connections to those who had lost their job. In 2016, the then opposition Labour party adopted a motion to oppose electricity privatisation.

Mr. Wood remembers an infamous radio interview during the 2017 election campaign, where the pressure on the Barnett government was palpable. He was live on air with the Energy Minister who started using expletives against him and the ASU for campaigning for public ownership. The Minister’s approach backfired; “the next day we have 600 volunteers sign up to door knock for our campaign to protect publicly owned electricity.”

The McGowan Labor government won the 2017 in a landslide on a platform to keep electricity public.

It was a great win for the ASU and testament to strong community campaign. During the first term of the government, however, rumours began to circulate that there were some moves to deregulate the electricity sector. As a result, the ASU affiliated with the Labor party in order that they could be “inside the tent” and pass resolutions to ensure essential services were kept in public hands.

In the lead up to the 2021 election, the McGowan government was riding unprecedented popularity due to the government’s strong and effective respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept the state’s boarders closed, COVID out and allowed life in the state to return to normal. The ASU, however, did not sit idle and seized the opportunity to cement the states commitment to keep electricity public.

Mr. Wood explains; “We will continue to fight off privatisation and fight for government to invest in our public assets to provide jobs and training opportunities as long as there is a breath in our bodies. Free marketeers will never stop as they are driven by greed, but we are the opposite, we believe the government must invest in the public good.”

They created the Use Your Power Campaign which encouraged candidates to pledge to not sell or lease any electricity assets.

In response to COVID restrictions they took a creative approach to campaigning, which included a focus on social media, television advertising and public billboards. When restrictions eased, they were able to undertake door knocking, and reached 600 households in just over a week. Early in the campaign, they were able to get all the government members to sign the pledge and appear in a photo outside of parliament.