The head-on collision between NSW Premier Morris Iemma and his own party at the annual conference on 3 May at Sydney Town Hall will be one for the history books.

Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa have indicated in advance that they will ignore a conference rejection of their plan to part-privatise the state’s electricity industry and go ahead anyway.

The party’s rules are explicit:

The annual conference is the supreme policy making and governing body in NSW.


The annual conference has the power to alter or change the Rules and Platform (policies) of the party.

And Rule A 35 states:

Any member can charge another member … with not supporting the Platform (policies) and Rules of the party to the best of the member’s ability and any member found in breach of not carrying out the Platform can be suspended or expelled.

Enter the party’s Alexandria branch in inner-city Sydney, which initiated action against Iemma and Costa for breaching the party’s current platform, and which is anti-privatisation of the publicly-owned power industry.

(For trivia buffs, the branch secretary is Ben Aveling. So what? Karl Marx’s third and youngest daughter Eleanor “Tussy” Marx’s lifelong partner was Edward Aveling. Any relation?)

The anti-selloff policy has been in place since the 1997 conference when premier Bob Carr failed to raise a single vote in support of his privatisation plan.

Only one other sitting NSW Labor premier has been rebuffed by the conference: in 1942 Bill McKell was roundly defeated when he opposed Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s plan to impose uniform tax. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to support “Chif”.

But the more interesting historical footnote belongs to Premier William Holman. In 1916 the NSW ALP conference “solemnly pledged itself to oppose conscription by all lawful means” and directed all affiliated trade unions and branches to oppose Labor members who supported conscription.

Holman defied the conference decision and joined Prime Minister Billy Hughes in campaigning for a “Yes” vote in the commonwealth referendum. The conscriptionists were defeated and Labor endorsement was withdrawn from Holman for his seat of Cootamundra at the next election.

On his re-election by a narrow majority, Holman formed a National Government with the conservative Sir Charles Wade, provoking a devastating split in the NSW party and was expelled.

These are some of the skeletons rattling around the cellars of the NSW ALP as Iemma and Costa prepare to do battle with their own party. They seem to be adopting the view of Henry Ford that “History is more or less bunk” and have convinced themselves that they can run a Labor government without the support of the Labor Party. Bigger Labor personalities than Iemma and Costa have attempted that strategy with sobering consequences.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey