Despite laughable attempts by the Sydney metropolitan media to turn Premier Morris Iemma into a latterday Metternich, Talleyrand or Bismarck, the reality is that he has been humiliated by the state Labor conference at the weekend and is now in political isolation.

Tomorrow morning, hours before the resumption of the NSW parliament, he will face a caucus meeting which has been freshly mandated to support the party’s policy of outright opposition to the privatization of the power industry.

The caucus, however, is split down the middle. It comprises a wondrous collection of nervous Nellies and tired Tims.

They are torn between supporting Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa or supporting the party which has given them almost everything they treasure – a well-paid job, perks of office and social status.

The weekend conference voted not once, but TWICE, to show its explicit rejection of the privatization of the publicly-owned energy industry. According to the ALP’s rules, that gives all members, premiers, ministers, MPs and ex-premiers (Barrie Unsworth and Bob Carr included), the clearest riding instructions: they must have no truck with private ownership of power.]It is not an optional issue. Membership of the ALP is voluntary but it carries the basic requirement that all members are bound by current party policy.

Members who break ranks and oppose the platform are in violation of the party’s rules and risk being reprimanded, suspended or expelled.

Yet this is the course that Iemma, Costa and a small minority of party members have chosen. Their status has been conflated by editorial writers from the Tory media, the big end of town and a cheer squad of corporate lobbyists, including Bob Carr who is now a valet at Macquarie Bank.

Rather than force a caucus showdown tomorrow, factional leaders may try to postpone any vote pending the outcome of the deliberations of the party’s campaign committee which has been called into service to provide an escape route for the premier.

The obscure but highly influential campaign committee will start meetings today to thrash out a way forward for Iemma, his government, the Labor Party and the trade unions.

It has a strict deadline of less than a week to overcome the impasse and report back to the ruling administrative committee as a matter of urgency.

Its members are the four parliamentary leaders, Iemma, his deputy John Watkins, upper house government leader John Della Bosca, and his deputy Michael Costa; party general secretary Karl Bitar, and his two assistant secretaries Rob Allen and Luke Foley; and state president Bernie Riordan and two vice presidents Michael Williamson (health employees’ union) and Andrew Ferguson (construction workers’ union).

As ALP members, all of them are bound by the weekend conference decision to oppose the sell-off. In other words, the committee’s deliberations are strictly circumscribed: they can consider any policy outcome provided that it does not include the private sell-off of power industry components.

The compelling virtues of the campaign committee are that it is small enough – 10 members – to be manageable and that it has representatives from both sides of the political equation – Macquarie Street (the parliamentary Labor Party) and Sussex Street (the party machine and the HQ of Unions NSW).

Now that the conference rhetoric has receded, the only hope for Iemma’s survival is that the centre position occupied by Della Bosca, Watkins and Bitar prevails. This would see some kind of public-private partnership in charge of the industry along with guarantees on jobs and future pricing.

However, this form of compromise is totally unacceptable to treasurer Costa who stunned conference delegates and the media with his extraordinary rant from the platform and his colorful abuse of opponents during behind-the-stage meetings: “You blokes can get f-cked. You’re going to look like dickheads on Monday morning.”

Is Iemma so desperate for a lifeline that he is prepared to ditch privatization which would lead almost inevitably to the exit of his treasurer?

Or is he taking his lead from the likes of Roads Minister Eric Roozendaal, Ports Minister Jeo Tripodi, Unsworth, Carr, factional fixer Eddie Obeid and howling right-wingers like Kristina Keneally, MP for Heffron, Michael Daley, MP for Maroubra and upper house MP Amanda Fazio?

Finally, the editorial writers who fill columns giving stern lectures on democracy (in China, Burma, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Zimbabwe, Lebanon etc) have a very different line on the NSW ALP conference.

Apparently, the party’s seven-to-one vote against privatization – followed by an almost unanimous second vote on Sunday afternoon – are signs of vile “union power” and “dictatorship”. They urge their hero Iemma to show “courage” and “conviction” and soldier on regardless.

This completely ignores the fact that the vote was carried overwhelmingly by rank and file delegates from party branches as well as those from the unions. Iemma’s pathetic 107 votes came from party hacks on policy committees, right-wing MPs and smalltime functionaries.

How odd that only recently the same newspapers were denouncing the Iemma government as the worst in the state’s history and calling for it to resign to put NSW out of its misery.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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