Australia: Privatisation contributes to bushfire disaster

It’s been 18 months since Victoria was rocked by the Black Saturday bushfires which left over 150 people dead and thousands of homes destroyed. But despite government commitments to improve firefighting facilities, serious questions remain over whether the state is prepared for another scorching summer.

In late July the Royal Commission delivered its final report into the Black Saturday bushfires to the government. The Commission pointed towards systematic failure finding that many of Victoria’s bushfire policies needed to be revised. It also revealed that faulty power lines were responsible for causing five of the most devastating blazes, including the Kilmore East fire which led to the death of over 100 people. The replacement of single wire power lines with less fire prone alternatives was recommended by the Commission.

But rather than accepting their part of the blame for this disaster and committing to preventing it from happening again, the electricity companies who own these power lines such as Singapore Power, Powercor and SP Ausnet have opportunistically announced that upgrading this infrastructure could increase the cost of household electricity by up to 20% a year for the next 20 years.

This response shows the true nature of the big business profiteers who own and operate some of our basic infrastructure. While tens of thousands of volunteers, most of them working class, risked their lives, without pay, to protect people and their meager possessions, all the capitalist owners of the electricity companies could think about was their profit margins.

Despite already making massive profits by reducing costs and failing to properly maintain their infrastructure, these companies have said that the cost of these upgrades will be pushed onto ordinary consumers. This will include the same people who had their lives ruined by the fires in February last year.

SP Ausnet, the company who owned the faulty line responsible for the Kilmore East blaze, denied any responsibility despite an extensive police investigation which found evidence of rusted and broken power lines. This included sections of line that were held together with duct tape and breached the companies own safety policies.

This criminal negligence highlights just some of the problems associated with the privatisation of public services. Until the mid 1990s the power industry was in public ownership and run by the State Electricity Commission (SEC). Now, instead of being run to meet public need, electricity generation, transmission and distribution is in private hands where it is run for profit and profit alone.

There is no doubt that even if the State Government forced the private companies to upgrade their power lines, every possible corner would be cut to minimise costs and maximise profits.

It is a tragedy that profiteering contributed to the deaths of so many people. An important lesson to be learned from this disaster is that when we leave important sectors of the economy in the hands of big business the consequences can be devastating.

The Socialist Party (CWI Australia) calls for the electricity industry to be brought back into public hands. Instead of being run privately the sector should be under democratic, public control. By removing the profit motive money could be invested in safety and infrastructure maintenance. This would not only minimize the risk of further bushfires but it would create jobs and ensure accountability to our communities and the environment.

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