With just four days to the NSW ALP Conference and the do-or-die debate on electricity privatisation, the news for Premier Morris Iemma just keeps getting worse.

Today’s front page of The Australian carries a Newspoll showing his popularity has plummeted to 28%, the lowest ever recorded for a sitting premier in NSW; The Daily Telegraph’s front page banner-headline story, “Iemma Power Switch – Leaked emails show ALP misled over privatisation”, reveals that three weeks before the March 2007 state election a senior Iemma staffer gave unions a guarantee the electricity industry would not be privatised. The only silver lining for the beleagured premier is that he has managed to avoid any links to chair-sniffing.

At the 11th hour Iemma has issued an appeal to all stakeholders in the power privatisation debate that the door to his office is always open and that he is prepared to negotiate. But the offer was so half-hearted and lame that it was hard to take seriously.

Iemma and his chief lieutenant, Treasurer Michael Costa, seem blissfully unconcerned about the unpopularity of selling the public-owned power assets.

At the 1999 state election, the Coalition then led by Kerry Chikarovski made power privatisation the centre of their campaign and shadow treasurer Ron Phillips sugarcoated the plan with an extraordinary offer of $1,100 worth of shares for every domestic electricity account holder or $1,000 cash in lieu.

History records that the Coalition went down in flames. The Liberal vote crashed to 24.8% of the total and the Nationals dropped to 8.9%. Labor collected a statewide swing of 7% and picked up 10 seats while the hapless Phillips lost his seat of Miranda in southern Sydney.

With the latest opinion polls showing between 60% and 80% of people are against power privatisation, Iemma and Costa are pressing ahead. Why? Perhaps because neither of them plan to be around to face the voters’ wrath in 2011.

Former Opposition leader Peter Debnam, now the shadow minister for infrastructure and energy, told a private lunch at State Parliament on April 11 that selling off the power industry was “political suicide”:

In 2006, the usual suspects (from the city) went to NSW Labor and also came to me as NSW Liberal Leader and again promoted the privatisation of NSW electricity.

My colleagues and I said No – privatisation was not a positive policy and transformation of the industry was a critical objective best done with Government involvement.

They persisted throughout 2006 and we again said No but I also arranged research and confirmed the NSW community’s view that electricity privatisation was political suicide.

Describing Costa as the “wild card” in the privatisation shambles, Debnam said the former secretary of the NSW Labor Council became treasurer in return for helping Iemma get the numbers to become premier in 2005.

Michael Costa became Treasurer in early 2006 and his Labor colleagues have, since then, anxiously awaited his next disaster. It now appears his “crash-through or crash” electricity privatisation will be his parting calamity for NSW Labor.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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