The NSW parliament is buzzing with reports that Premier Morris Iemma is planning a major reshuffle of his lacklustre Cabinet. The Sydney media first predicted a Christmas reshuffle, later it became a New Year makeover and now it is being billed as a clean sweep to mark the first anniversary of the premier’s election victory on March 24, 2007.

The portfolio changes will be designed to kickstart Iemma Mark II since the first version became waterlogged in scandals, the stepping down of “star” recruit Phil Koperberg, the former Environment Minister, crises in the health, transport and family services departments, the s-x-for-developers soap opera at Labor-controlled Wollongong City Council and the ongoing battle to secure the controversial privatisation of the electricity industry.

Health Minister Reba Meagher is likely to be replaced by Deputy Premier John Watkins, the only government minister with any street cred with the voters; Planning Minister Frank Sartor will be the new Transport Minister; and Kevin Greene will be rescued from the Department of Family Services to succeed Graham West at Gaming, Racing, Sport and Recreation.

The Cabinet has no lower house MP from the crucial Hunter region which is most affected by the sale of the coal-fired power industry. (Treasurer Michael Costa, a member of the upper house, is Minister for the Hunter and the only Hunter MP in the Cabinet). Iemma is attempting to overcome this anomaly by promoting one of the Hunter’s lower house backbenchers. It might also help to ease the incalculable electoral damage wrought by the conviction of former Aboriginal Affairs Minister and Hunter left-wing operative Milton Orkopoulos on child s-x and drugs charges.

As much as anything else, the premier’s reshuffle is designed to buy support for his $12 to $15 billion electricity privatisation scheme which has run into a wall of opposition from the unions, left and right, and the ALP rank and file.

His advisers believe that he can gain critical backing within the parliamentary party by rewarding factional hacks with seats at the Cabinet table.

And speaking of factional hacks — what will happen to Ports and Waterways Minister Joe Tripodi, who has become a tranche of lead in the premier’s saddlebags?

If he sacks Tripodi he will lose a long-standing political ally with dwindling but nevertheless significant authority in the parliamentary party. If he keeps him in the ministry he will be crucified in the anti-Tripodi media and by the Coalition for lacking intestinal fortitude.

The next issue is timing. Iemma can announce his bloodbath changes:

  1. Before state parliament resumes next Tuesday, April 1, to rally his bedraggled troops and win allies for his embattled power sell-off plan;
  2. Wait until after the ALP state conference on May 3 and 4 when he can dismiss the anti-privatisation recalcitrants and steer his new course for draconian state reform.

Or he can wait until after the Pope’s visit for World Youth Day in July, assess his chances of political survival and simply chuck in the towel, allowing Watkins to do the necessary bloodletting.

Reshuffles aren’t an administrative or technical process. They are an art form combining benevolence and malevolence in equal measure. This one — when it happens — will be a beauty.

Peter Fray

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