Days before the March 2015 NSW election, tensions over the Baird government’s proposal to privatise the state’s electricity assets were running high.
Unions had unleashed a TV ad warning of the national security implications of selling assets such as transmission company Transgrid to Chinese government-owned State Grid Corp.
Then-NSW Treasurer Andrew Constance slammed the ad as a “racist rant”, while Mike Baird declared it a “disgraceful scare campaign”.
The slagging match over StateGrid continued after the election.
In Parliament the following June, Trade Minister Stuart Ayres attacked Opposition Leader Luke Foley.
“He has said that no one wants you to come here – if you have the wrong colour, you do not want to invest in our state,” Ayres said, effectively branding Foley a racist.
Ayres refused to withdraw the remark. “I will not withdraw that statement because they ran their election campaign and took it to the gutter,” he said.
On Thursday, after federal Treasurer Scott Morrison announced his preliminary decision to block bids from StateGrid and Hong Kong-based CKI for a controlling stake in distributor Ausgrid on precisely the grounds in the union ad, Foley pounced.
“Is [Mr Baird] calling Scott Morrison a racist today?” he asked.
“He either calls Scott Morrison a racist or he ought to do the decent thing and retract those scurrilous slurs of racism that he had his ministers hurl at me.”
Baird’s overblown campaign rhetoric has been exposed, which is a win for Foley but not for NSW in revenue terms.
Foley is probably right in saying that having State Grid and CKI knocked out of the process will mean the government will get billions less for Ausgrid if it is eventually leased to others.
Even NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian acknowledged that their presence scared off other potential bidders, who presumably felt they could not match what they would offer.
The decision is not the state government’s fault. It’s down to Morrison, who is either genuinely acting in the national interest or, as Bob Carr would have it, bowing to the concerns of Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon and Bob Katter.
Baird and Berejiklian will likely get their Ausgrid lease completed eventually – but not without losing some credibility in the process.