Their comments have drawn condemnation from senior party figures, with former Labor state treasurer Michael Costa slamming the CFMEU campaign and pointing out that its members in the coal industry are reliant on Chinese money.
“It’s disgraceful, it’s completely disgraceful. It’s just absurd,” Mr Costa said.
“Every day there are ships going out of the port of Newcastle that have had CFMEU labour involved in loading, and delivering that product, heading off to China. It’s not only disgraceful advertising, it is damaging to the national interest and, more importantly, they are shooting themselves in the foot. They are damaging their own members.
“It smacks of desperation, hypocrisy, and ultimately shows they are not fit, in their current state, to govern.”
The CFMEU campaign highlights the alleged interest of China’s State Grid Corp in buying NSW electricity assets and alludes to a “secret” meeting with NSW Liberal Treasurer Andrew Constance.
Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner and former speech writer for Labor NSW premier Bob Carr, tweeted his displeasure with the CFMEU ad yesterday: “It’s disappointing to see some NSW political adverts using inflammatory language about foreign investment. “Let’s not licence xenophobia.”
Mr Foley’s anti-privatisation campaign has been attacked by a series of former Labor senior figures, including Martin Ferguson, who said it made him ashamed of his own party.
The Baird government has given no indication of any intention to sell the poles and wires to Chinese or other overseas interests, and has stressed that normal scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board would apply.
The anti-Chinese campaign followed a series of other concerns raised by Labor about the power sell-off, many of which have been debunked by experts.
Originally, Mr Foley claimed that power prices would rise under privatisation, but then endorsed the draft ruling of the energy regulator, under which prices would fall.
He has also campaigned that the budget needed a claimed $1.7bn in dividends from the electricity businesses, but this week he accepted Treasury figures showing a decline in dividends to $400 million a year within three years but, even with this, still plans to keep the budget in surplus.
Tony Wood, head of the energy program at the Grattan Institute, says that when one argument against privatisation falls over, Labor invents another one. He said of its original argument that prices would rise under private ownership, “well that’s a load of rubbish’’.
He said prices would fall, for two reasons. Firstly, the regulator would enforce its demand for lower prices no matter who owned the assets, and secondly, because the evidence suggested that private owners would run the network at lower cost.
The anti-Chinese investment argument was “getting to the bottom of the barrel’’. Mr Wood said that there had been Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese and Singaporean Chinese investment in the power industry for almost 20 years.
“They are very clever and canny and they have made a lot of money out of it, but there is no evidence that they have behaved in any way which would give you reasons for concern,” he said.
“I would argue almost the opposite — they tend to be people who take a very long-term, stable view of these businesses.”
Despite allegedly misleading statements in Labor’s advertising campaign, regulators have little appetite — or power — to compel political parties to tell the truth.
The Advertising Standards Board says there is no legal requirement for political advertising to be factual. It suggests taking complaints to the political party or to a member of parliament.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says the Trade Practices Act, which outlaws false, misleading or deceptive advertising, does not apply to political advertisements because they are not in trade or commerce.
Nick Economou, a senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, said political parties had very wide discretion to say anything they liked. The judiciary had traditionally been very reluctant to involve itself in the political process.
Rod Tiffen, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Sydney, said political campaigns seemed to be less about debating issues of substance and more about “colliding claims”.
“It is quite strong and misleading stuff,” Professor Tiffen said. “This election is very much like what was said about the carbon tax before the last federal election. Electricity is a sensitive issue because prices have gone up over the past five to eight years, so everyone notices it.
“The Liberals want to portray Baird as a popular, competent, likable — and think that will get them across the line; whereas Labor wants to highlight this issue of electricity in the hope that fear of things will go their way.”
Grahame Morris, a political commentator and former adviser to John Howard, said NSW Labor’s privatisation ads were giving its own supporters something to talk about.
He said the election was always going to be a tough one for Labor against a popular Coalition state government. “They almost needed a Kevin ’07 campaign if they were to get up to where Premier Baird’s credibility is,” Mr Morris said. “As it gets closer to polling day, the ‘learner plate’ tag (for Mr Foley) is closer to what voters see than privatisation.”
Greg Rudd, a business consultant who has campaigned for higher standards in democracy and truth in political advertising, said “the whole thing about privatisation has been two-thirds bullshit”. Mr Rudd, the brother of former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, said all sides of politics struggled to talk with a straight tongue. He was concerned voters were being given simplistic messages to complex problems. “I’m assuming the Liberals will win and Baird seems like a good premier,” he said.
Malcolm McKerras, the well-known psephologist and election commentator, said he believed Labor’s anti-power sell-off ads would have “no effect at all” on the NSW election result.