At this morning’s mass demo outside NSW Parliament by anti-privatisation protesters, Blacktown MP Paul Gibson offered the best quote.

“I’m not a rebel MP,” he declared. “I’m here because I support Labor Party policy.”

He’s right. It is Premier Morris Iemma and the Treasurer Michael Costa who are proposing to violate ALP policy and partially sell off the State’s power industry.

Along the way they have also violated the trust of the electorate: during the March 2007 state election campaign Iemma specifically and repeatedly ruled out any power sale if Labor won. Now, less than 12 months back in office, he has broken his promise and put the government on a collision course with the broader ALP and the trade unions. Not to mention the general public who, in today’s Herald/Nielsen poll, opposed the power sell-off by a thumping two-thirds majority.

The Macquarie Street demo attracted about 4,000 ALP and union activists and, predictably, the government and the media immediately declared it “a fizzer” thereby ignoring the depth of wider public opposition to the sell-off.

Iemma and Costa’s next hurdle appears to be the NSW ALP conference in May which they appear to regard as an advisory body whose decisions are non-binding. In fact, the state conference is the NSW party’s supreme body and its policy decisions are mandatory – not optional — for all Labor MPs.

In early morning interviews Iemma was insisting that privatisation may be unpopular with the public but he would forge ahead regardless because tough decisions were needed. Without being alarmist, his belligerence is a recipe for a split in the NSW Labor Party between Cabinet’s free marketeers and the rank and file faithful.

Already, Unions NSW telly ads are depicting potential big business buyers as unscrupulous, uncaring and greedy. The campaign will only intensify after Costa’s legislation is placed before parliament and picked over by the Coalition parties, the Greens and jittery Labor backbenchers. Just as Iemma needs to present himself as the “iron premier” to make his privatisation gamble succeed, his approval rating has dropped to 34 per cent, the lowest for any NSW leader in a decade.

And with the Coalition’s primary vote picking up to 42 per cent and Labor trailing on 38 per cent, Iemma’s faltering leadership is starting to slide towards terminal decline.

“They want us to work harder and they want me to work harder and get going,” he told ABC listeners this morning.

Working harder won’t solve his problems. Maybe he should give serious consideration to “get going”.

Peter Fray

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