Almost half of Liberal voters in WA Treasurer Mike Nahan’s safe seat of Riverton are against the proposed privatisation of Western Power, according to ReachTel data.
The utility is the centrepiece of the Barnett government’s asset sales list as it strives to repair its ailing finances, and is expected to fetch $12 billion.
About 1000 people in the southern suburbs seat were canvassed last month, with 49.35 per cent of respondents who signalled they would vote Liberal at the March state election saying they opposed privatising the electricity poles and wires operator.
Only 21.41 per cent of Liberal voters supported it while 29.24 per cent were undecided.
“There is no doubt that the Liberal Party’s plan to sell Western Power is not supported by the community, even in Dr Nahan’s own electorate,” opposition energy spokesman Bill Johnston told said on Monday.
Among Labor voters, 77.7 per cent were against the sale.
Overall, 62.7 per cent of respondents responded negatively.
Labor says the sale is a one-off, short-term `sugar hit’ that will deny the state recurrent income, given Western Power paid $400.9 million in dividends to the state government during the 2015-16 financial year.
Premier Colin Barnett has previously opposed selling the utility, saying in 2013 that reliable electricity could only be ensured in WA – which had a small, isolated grid that couldn’t be connected to other states – by keeping it in public hands.
As the state’s debt and deficit mounted, however, Dr Nahan convinced him of the financial necessity, but Mr Barnett recently said he needed public support to proceed.
The premier has now flagged selling Western Power’s $7.6 billion in debt to Australian superannuation funds, saying paying dividends to superannuants sounded better than paying interest on loans to banks.
Political analyst Martin Drum says Mr Barnett could just be “flying a kite” to gauge reactions.
“I think that was to try and smooth the rhetoric around a potential sale by talking it up as a win-win for everyone concerned,” Mr Drum said.
Opposition leader Mark McGowan said the debt was not a concern because it was manageable and serviced by the utility, which was an essential service and should not be turned into a private monopoly.
“Most major businesses carry debt,” Mr McGowan said.
“Have a look at FMG – it carries huge debt yet it services its own debt and can produce significant dividends for its shareholders.”
Dr Nahan said the state government was finalising the privatisation options.
“We’ll go through a whole range of issues in the next few weeks,” he said.
Mr Drum said privatisation was a sensitive issue that tended to not be popular among voters and would be a major point of difference between Labor and the Liberals as they campaigned over coming months.
Unions cite Victoria’s deadly Black Saturday bushfires as an example of why such important infrastructure should remain public.