Friday, March 27, 2015

Poles and wires: who's misleading us about what

The politicians' decades of bad behaviour may have caused them to lose our trust, but not our mistrust - making us suckers for scare campaigns.

This election campaign has been dominated not by reasoned debate but by Labor and the power unions' almighty scare campaign over the sale of the state's electricity poles and wires.

It's the most successful scare-job since all the dishonest things Tony Abbott said about how the carbon tax would destroy the economy.

The truth is it doesn't matter much to electricity users whether the state's power transmission and distribution businesses stay government-owned or are sold off. That's because, being natural monopolies, the prices they charge are controlled by a national body, the Australian Energy Regulator.

The standard of service they deliver - blackouts, for instance - is also tightly regulated.

It is true that private owners would attempt to increase their profits by reducing overstaffing and other inefficiencies - which tells you what the power unions are so excited about - but the regulator has announced its intention to force all the nation's public and privately owned poles and wires businesses to raise their efficiency and to ensure the savings are passed on to consumers as lower prices.

It's clear that, whoever owns the poles and wires, those businesses will be doing it much tougher in coming years. That's because the demand for electricity from their grid will keep falling, with households and businesses moving to solar and the introduction of smart meters helping households cut their usage, especially at peak periods.

This is why the dividends the state government would lose by selling the businesses would be a lot lower than the present $1.7 billion a year Luke Foley keeps claiming. (A characteristic of scare campaigns is that you stick to your wrong claims even after you've been caught out.)

This is not to say we can believe everything Mike Baird has been saying, of course. He describes his plan as "the long-term lease of 49 per cent of the NSW electricity network". This is highly misleading, an attempt to fool us into believing he isn't really privatising the network.

There's little practical difference between a 99-year lease and an outright sale. And that figure of 49 per cent - making it seem the government would retain majority ownership of the network - is highly contrived.

Baird plans to sell 100 per cent of TransGrid, the state-wide high-voltage transmission business, and 50.4 per cent each of Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy - which distribute power locally to about 70 per cent of the state's population living between Ulladulla and Newcastle, and inland to Scone, Lithgow and Bowral.

How does that add up just 49 per cent? By taking account of the plan not  to sell any of Essential Energy, which distributes power to the state's backblocks. Convinced?

A separate question is: is selling the electricity network the only way we would be able to fund the $20 billion in new public transport, road and other infrastructure Baird promises?

Yes - if you think it matters that the state keeps its triple-A credit rating. No - if you don't. I don't.