The decision by the government to sell off €3 billion worth of state assets is arguably the most economically and socially criminal of the many criminal policies implemented in this State over the past three years in the interest of salvaging the financial system in Europe from the consequences of the speculative activities of its big players. It is the wrong policy at any time but most especially at a time of major crisis in the Irish economy due to a collapse of demand and a related collapse in private investment in job creation.
This country’s experiences with a number of high profile privatisations over the past fifteen years should be enough to warn the Fine Gael and Labour parties of the detrimental consequences of taking this road.
The debacle of the selling off of Telecom Eireann is probably best remembered because so many ordinary people got badly burned in the process, having been conned by a government media propaganda campaign into buying shares which rapidly collapsed in value. This was the cynical ploy used by the government and its big business backers to channel this crucial infrastructural enterprise into the hands of vulture capitalists. It was then sweated for short term profit and left unable to meet the critical investment that was necessary in areas such as broadband communications. As a result important areas of the Irish economy suffered serious consequences.
It was, perhaps, in the case of Team Aer Lingus that the destructiveness of the privatisation process for jobs and society is most dramatically seen. This began in 1997 shortly after Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats formed a government and eventually finished up with this strategic aircraft engineering and maintenance facility falling into the hands of a multinational corporation based in Switzerland. The country was shocked when the boss of that company arrived in Dublin airport early in 2009, and having assembled the workers in a massive hangar, told them that the company was closing down and that all 1,300 jobs were going. This was a criminal loss of highly skilled employment in an industry essential to an island nation.
A senior Labour Party Minister, Brendan Howlin, will be the chief enforcer of the privatisation agenda. This is a grotesque betrayal of what the Labour Party said during the General Election campaign just one year ago. Labour’s manifesto was unambiguous in its rejection of the selling off of public assets. Its election programme declared, ‘Labour is committed to the concept of public enterprise, and is determined to ensure that semi state companies play a full role in the recovery of the Irish economy. Labour is opposed to short-termist privatisation of key state assets, such as Coillte or the energy networks.’
What a different tune Labour Leader Gilmore was singing yesterday in the Dail when he advanced discredited Thatcherite arguments in favour of the assets sell off, asserting that there would be price benefits for consumers due to competition in the energy markets. He didn’t allude to the farcical situation of the Energy regulator insisting on the Electricity Supply Board keeping its prices high so that competitors would find it attractive to enter this market and sometime in the future competition would bring prices down!
We have a disastrous unemployment situation in this State. This is due to the dire effects of austerity involving deep cuts to the incomes of working people and the poor which means a sharp fall in the demand for goods and services that maintain thousands of jobs in the domestic economy. Related to this is a massive fall in private investment as capitalists are not confident of making profits.
If ever there was a time when the State should be instrumental in creating jobs this is it. The semi state enterprises that are being targeted for privatisation should instead be tasked with drawing up major job creation investment programmes that would take tens of thousands off the dole. There is crucial infrastructural work that needs to be done in the State ranging from water supply to alternative energy generation. A progressive tax on the huge assets of very wealthiest in society would be just one of a number of sources of funding for this.
Instead the government is intent on repeating the old right wing dogma that the State cannot create jobs, it can only help create the conditions in which business will invest. This flies in the face of the history of the poverty ridden Irish State in its earlier decades when significant public projects were created supplying crucial infrastructure and tens of thousands of jobs. This of course is anathema to the neo liberal doctrines of the EU/IMF/ECB troika which have relentlessly driven an anti public enterprise agenda for decades.
The government should face a massive campaign of opposition to its privatisation plans.