Jenny Leong speaks on the importance of Sydney water staying in public ownership

On behalf of The Greens, I contribute to debate on the Constitution Amendment (Sydney Water and Hunter Water) Bill 2023. I acknowledge that my colleague the member for Ballina led for The Greens on the bill and made our position very clear in relation to both the bill and the Opposition amendment that has been foreshadowed. The bill amends the Constitution Act 1902 to insert new part 10, which ensures that Sydney Water Corporation and Hunter Water Corporation and their main undertakings remain in public ownership. It prevents any sale of a water corporation or a main undertaking of a water corporation but does not prevent a sale that would occur in the ordinary course of business of a water corporation or result in the main undertakings of the water corporation remaining in public ownership.

Since this debate started, we have seen an interesting shift in the discussion. I recall that we started off with the new Premier's delivery of an election commitment to make sure that we would not see the privatisation of Sydney Water or Hunter Water. That was in response to 12 long years of the Liberal-Nationals Coalition Government doing nothing but privatising anything that it could possibly get its hands on. In fact, during my time in this place, that Government built entire motorways and managed to privatise them, because it was so obsessed with the idea of privatisation. We saw an endless sell-off of public housing under the former Government, whose members are now sitting behind me. The only bad news about the new Labor Government stepping in and moving to the government benches is that it means I have to sit with the members behind me. I mean no offence to the member of Port Macquarie, who just left—I made sure I said that after she had left.

It is critical that we remember that the reason we are putting protections in the Constitution is that nobody trusts Coalition governments when it comes to privatising things. The Greens stand 100 per cent in support of the new New South Wales Labor Government's attempts to stamp out the privatisation agenda of the Liberal Party and The Nationals. We stand in support of this bill, and we call out the enormous hypocrisy of the now Opposition members. I could not quite believe it when I heard the former Nationals leader and Deputy Premier, now in opposition, crying out and begging for the Government to care about the public interest. Which public interest did Opposition members care about when they were in government, flogging off public assets, flogging off public land, and flogging off and contracting out every service they could think of? Their privatisation agenda involved consultants and individuals, and if something did not stand still for a second, they wanted to privatise it. One of my favourites was when the then water Minister, Melinda Pavey, who was also the housing Minister, announced the New South Wales housing strategy. The flagship announcement was an easy-to-access website for developers to put in pitches to buy up public land. That was their approach then, and now they pretend to care about issues of privatisation.

I have full faith in the current Minister for Water and her commitment to work collaboratively regarding the concerns that have been raised as a result of the wedge politics and hypocrisy that have come from the Opposition, in a way that will genuinely address those concerns. She has committed to consulting with Local Government NSW and regional mayors. The Greens look forward to being part of any process that allows that consultation to occur and that puts in place any mechanisms to ensure no further privatisation in this State. When it comes to the now Opposition, we know that we can never have enough scrutiny of our legislation to try to protect it, in the future, from the sort of privatisation that has been inflicted on this State in the past 12 years. If additional changes and improvements can be made, in consultation with mayors, experts, Local Government NSW and others who have a say, then we should absolutely make them. The Greens look forward to being part of that process.

I return to the fact that this bill is a real win; it is a commitment to stand against privatisation and the threat of Sydney Water and Hunter Water being privatised by a future government. I congratulate and acknowledge the Australian Services Union [ASU], which is my union, and its secretary, Angus McFarland, for all the campaigning and work that they did around this issue in the lead-up to the election. As the ASU has said, a major issue for the community at the recent State election was the privatisation of public assets in New South Wales, and, in particular, there was a very real concern about the potential for New South Wales water assets to be further privatised, corporatised and outsourced. The ASU has made its position very clear when it comes to the public interest, and it is the position of our community. It is not the public interest that the former Deputy Premier and Nationals leader was talking about, and not one that might give them a free shot in the media, but it is a genuine commitment to public interest.

Privatising our essential assets—our public land or public housing—and selling them off to the highest bidder is a very short-term view of future needs. I see in my electorate the demand for housing, health care and schools. We know that in the dark days of the previous Labor Government, a public school and a public hospital in Redfern were sold off. There were threats to Erskineville Public School, an amazing local public school which is now at capacity. When governments have an agenda and get a taste for the idea of making money from privatisation, the community interest disappears and we see private interests and private profits corrupting those in power. That is why it is so critical to make this change, and The Greens are absolutely supportive of it.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the broader issue of privatisation and whether the sell-off of public land and public housing is included within a privatisation agenda. I urge the current New South Wales Government to do whatever it can to make sure that we do not sell off public land or public housing and that what is called surplus public land is not used to fund the building of public and social housing. It is absolutely critical, when we take a stand against privatisation, that we stand against it in all its forms. At the end of the day, we cannot compromise on holding in perpetuity land, assets and things that are critical to looking after the people in this State. Once we sell those assets off, it is so difficult to get them back. Not only is it costly, but the political argument needed is strong.

We have seen commitment and determination from the new Labor Government to protect Sydney Water and Hunter Water from privatisation in our Constitution. I hope to see a similar, ongoing commitment not to sell off any public housing or public land. I hope to see an absolute commitment to bringing things back into public control. I hope that we start having a conversation about getting under control some of the horrific shifts that we saw under the last Government towards contracting out, privatising and tendering everything under the sun, which decimated our public service and removed its expertise. It also decimated the public housing, public land and public assets that are so critical to delivering for the people of New South Wales.

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