Blunders of our governments revisited

For many decades Australian political parties slavishly followed British party policies and rhetoric and then those of the US.

The only real difference was that Liberals in Australia first got into line behind the Tories, and nowadays the Republicans, while Labor was more likely to follow Labour or the Democrats.

Now the Tories, at least, are following Australia’s example with a policy which has backfired largely because of the succession of UK Governments blunders.

The Tories are very keen on the Liberals turn back the boats policy – in this case in the Channel rather than the Indian ocean. That’s not been going that well with more than 100 migrants crossing the Channel every day.

So, like Australia they decided to imprison migrants in a barge moored off Dorset. The only problem was that the water piped to the barge from one of the UK water companies contained a lung-infecting bacteria. To be fair though, it was not entirely a lift from Australian policy as it is reminiscent of the convicts housed on prison hulks before being sent to Australia.

There is also possibly a significant difference with Australia in that Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton may well have left the migrants there and denied there was a problem.

All in all it was a prime example of the sort of thing the blog wrote about back in June about blunders of the UK Government when it specifically mentioned the privatisation of English water companies.

Since then, things are getting spectacularly worse and provide a case study of everything which has been wrong in widespread UK privatisations.

Thames Water is England’s largest water company and provides water to 10 million customers and wastewater treatment to 15 million customers.

Well, they didn’t actually do much waste treatment as most of it gets dumped into rivers and waterways. It currently has 14 billion pounds in debt and needs 10 billion pounds to get its infrastructure up to regulatory standards. It’s not alone with water companies as a whole having taken on 60 billion pounds in debt.

The Guardian (29/6) reports that the Thames Water CEO has departed after telling shareholders how bad the situation was and that it may not be able continue operating without a multi-billion-pound injection of funds.

It reports that water companies in Yorkshire and Portsmouth are also in deep trouble.

The Thames water problem started with its ownership by Australia’s very own Macquarie which owned the company from 2006 to 2017. It has been accused of asset stripping, tax-avoidance, ripping out billions in dividends, and loading the company with 10.8 billion pounds in debt.

Thames Water is not the only privatised English company having to be bailed out as the abortive Railtrack plan in the early 2000 ended up costing 33 billion pounds to upgrade infrastructure after the company collapsed. Other rail companies are renowned for unreliable service and sky-high fares.

Energy companies throughout the country have suffered the same fate and have had to be bailed out after huge losses.

It didn’t have to be thus. In Scotland, for instance, Scottish Water is owned by the taxpayer and has invested nine billion pounds since 2002. Although it should be said the Scottish government record on building the ferries essential to getting around the country are as big a blunder as anything in the UK.

Brexit, the gigantic blunder, has also had an impact on the water industry and land development. In 2017 the Secretary of State, Michael Gove pledged that Brexit would strengthen environmental protections.

When Brexit occurred the “conservation of habitats and species regulations” were among thousands of pieces of retained EU law copied on to the statute books.

The Guardian (6/9) reported that the law “set out rules on how to prevent this contamination, by requiring local authorities to refuse development of sites that could lead to such dirty water; or by making polluters either pay for their behaviour or offer mitigating measures, such as creating new wetlands.”

It also reported that government ministers this year “assured parliament seven different times that any subsequent rules they introduced around ecological standards would not only protect standards but enhance them.”

Now Gove has put forward plans to scrap these rules altogether. The reason: it would enable the building of some 100,000 new homes although whether the homes would get clean water and, if near, enjoy sewage free waterways.

Arguably things aren’t as bad in Australia although the big Morrison Government COVID bailouts managed to enrich a wide variety of companies and their executives just as they did in the UK. One major difference, however, was that COVID procurement in the UK was deeply corrupt whereas in Australia it was simply incompetent.

For instance, one of the companies which got a billion-dollar bailout from the Morrison Government, Qantas, is now enjoying similar coddling from the Albanese Government despite Qantas’ appalling performance after the CEO retrenched staff and outsourced services with disastrous impacts on standards. For all of which he has been rewarded with millions of dollars.

If UK privatised water companies’ customers would be hard pressed to think of any benefits of privatisation. It would also be hard to find any Qantas customer that would spontaneously say the airline is better today than it was in the past. Ditto Telstra.

It should be noted that the UK does though sometimes punish companies – if not their bosses. Anglian Water has faced multi-million pound fines for discharging sewage into waterways.

Bad luck for the communities polluted by Anglian Water but good luck for Anglian CEO, Peter Simpson, who was paid an annual salary of more than a million pounds in the years the discharges occurred. Good luck too for his former chairman, Sir Adrian Montage, who has recently been appointed Chairman, of all places, Thames Water.

It is said that nothing succeeds like success, but in the UK it seems nothing succeeds quite like successive failures. Australia seems to be on the same path if Qantas is any indication.