Voters have always disapproved of privatisation, but that hasn't stopped a lot of it happening. Particularly in recent years, however, voters' doubts have been fed by the dire predictions of those unions whose members fear they will be adversely affected. Let private owners loose and prices to consumers will skyrocket!
So what evidence is there that the prices charged by privatised businesses are higher than those of government-owned businesses? And where's the evidence that privatisation is good for the economy, anyway?
Malcolm Abbott, of Swinburne Business School, and Bruce Cohen, of the Grattan Institute, have conducted a meta-analysis (a study of studies) of the effects of privatisation in Australia, published in the latest issue of the Australian Economic Review.
They estimate that the sale prices of all the privatised businesses since 1987 total $194 billion. The bulk of those sales occurred in the 1990s. The federal government accounted for just over half that total, with Victoria taking a quarter and NSW and Queensland 7 per cent each, with South Australia and Western Australia making up the remaining 8 per cent.
Broken down by industry, communications (mainly Telstra) accounts for a third of the total proceeds, electricity for a quarter, financial services (Commonwealth Bank, state banks and state insurance offices) for 15 per cent, aviation (Qantas, Australian Airlines and many airports) for 9 per cent, gas for 8 per cent and, among the tiddlers, gambling (TABs and lotteries) for 2 per cent.
One thing this list proves is that though many people disapprove of selling off government businesses, once it has happened we get used to it pretty quickly.
The stated reasons for believing privatisation to be a "reform" vary. For the Howard government, the attitude was: "Everyone knows privately owned businesses are better managed than government-owned, so why not sell our businesses and use the proceeds to reduce debt?"
A more sophisticated rationale is that deregulating an industry to foster competition in it is far more important in encouraging productive efficiency (higher productivity) and better service to consumers. Once that greater competitive pressure has been achieved, you might as well sell the business you own and use the proceeds for some more beneficial purpose.
So what do all the studies tell us about how the great privatisation experiment has worked out? The evidence is, in the authors' words, "far from conclusive". Despite the extensive privatisation that has occurred, only a limited amount of research has been undertaken.
In the case of government-owned banks, the industry had been extensively deregulated before they were sold. Their productivity did improve, but not until long after they had been sold.
And it's hard to know how much this improvement was because of deregulation and greater competition, rather than privatisation.
I think it's still true that the banks' interest margin - the gap between what they pay to borrow and what they charge to lend - is lower than it was before deregulation. I doubt if privatisation has made much difference to this.
In the case of aviation, the government deregulated its two-airline policy well before it allowed Qantas to take over Australian Airlines and then be privatised. I don't think there's much doubt that domestic air fares have been lower than they would have been had deregulation not occurred.
The lower international air fares are explained by privatisation and deregulation in many countries, combined with the advent of bigger, more cost-effective planes.
The process of deregulating telecommunications, including the admission of new competitors such as Optus and Vodafone, began long before the staged privatisation of the former monopolist, Telstra.
I think the sale of Telstra could have been done in a way that did more to promote competition - no doubt at the cost of a lower sale price for the monolith - but there's little reason to believe privatisation has made prices higher than otherwise or reduced productive efficiency.
Of course, the spread of mobile phones and use of the internet have transformed the telecom industry. Distance phone calls are cheaper than they've ever been. Technological advance explains most of this, but increased competition would have helped.
It's a similar story with electricity. It's the break-up of the old state-by-state monopolies, the introduction of competition and the formation of the national wholesale electricity market, much more than privatisation, that's done most to affect the efficiency of the industry and the prices we're paying.
Most of us have forgotten the big real price falls achieved in the 1990s, even before the major reforms took place. The more recent series of big price rises occurred despite the success of the national market in holding down wholesale prices.
The rises were caused by failure in the regulation of prices charged by the privately and publicly owned monopolies responsible for distributing the power (the "poles and wires"). But this failure has been corrected and the distribution component of retail prices is likely to fall now.
Studies suggest that, in competitive markets, whether businesses are publicly or privately owned makes little difference. It follows that consumers have little to fear from privatisation in electricity.
So how would new private owners make room for the profit they seek if they have little scope for lifting prices? By removing any remaining overstaffing and workers' perks.
That's why the unions are running scare campaigns about soaring prices.