In just three weeks NSW Premier Morris Iemma will face ritual slaughter at the NSW Labor Party conference at Sydney Town Hall when his plans to privatise the power industry will be debated and chucked out.

Ranged against him are the major right-wing unions, including the Electrical Trades Union whose secretary is Bernie Riordan, the ALP state president, the United Services Union, whose general secretary is Ben Kruse, all the left-wing unions and about 90% of party branch delegates. Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa have a handful of branch delegates (from Kiama on the NSW south coast at last count) and that’s it.

Even the Parliamentary Labor Party has elected two conference delegates who are anti-privatisation – Legislative Council president Peter Primrose and Penny Sharpe, parliamentary secretary to Energy Minister Ian Macdonald. The annual May Day demonstration has been shifted to the same day, Saturday, May 3, to make the historic conference showdown an even more colourful triumph for the party faithful.

In a baleful attempt to raise further support, the Iemma government has launched a “hearts and minds” offensive:

  • A submission to the NSW Industrial Relations Commission for a $20 increase for the low paid;
  • A $272 million safety net package (over five years!) to be spent on electricity workers, the environment and pensioners’ rebates;
  • Establishment of a $100 million clean coal to fund research into carbon-reducing technologies.

But the massaging doesn’t appear to be working: not a single union committed to anti-privatisation has moved a muscle. This has infuriated The Sydney Morning Herald where the editorial writers are growing more desperate to create a “surge” for the sell-off. Iemma’s sorry bunch of inexperienced advisers are encouraging him to take the high moral ground at the conference and tell delegates: “Back me or sack me.”

They believe the tactic of putting a gun to the head of the delegates will bring them to their senses and force them to give him the vote he so desperately needs to survive. Should the tactic backfire, however, Iemma will have succeeded in becoming the first NSW premier to commit political suicide in full view from the stage of the Town Hall.

One of the last cards in Iemma’s pack is a pre-conference Cabinet reshuffle. It would be aimed at convincing the ALP he means business, he’s in for the long haul, he’s cleared the decks, he has recruited fresh faces and he has bought loyalty from those who are already favouring a change of leader before the next state election in 2011.

The key to a Cabinet clean-out is Ports and Waterways Minister Joe Tripodi. He has to go but, of course, it must be with dignity and to spend more time with his family. Tripodi’s departure will be a sad day for the media and the politically savvy general public who have greatly enjoyed Joe’s misfortunes over the years, particularly his encounter with the female leader of the Young Democrats in his parliamentary office in 2000 and his penchant for krispy kreme donuts.

Iemma may well decide that any reshuffle should wait until after the ALP conference. He could announce that he accepts the delegates’ decision and set a new course with a new team.

The biggest casualty would be Treasurer Costa, the ideologue running the privatisation agenda. He would be free to leave the Legislative Council which he despises to join an investment bank, become a multi-millionaire and write regular articles about why the NSW Government is on the wrong track.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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