Relief has arrived for the besieged NSW Premier Morris Iemma in the form of a cavalry charge by Sydney’s media supported by an assortment of pensioned-off Labor statesmen.

“Power to the Premier,” screamed the front page of today’s Sydney Morning Herald, “Iemma’s caucus triumph” trumpeted The Australian and “Iemma’s grin of victory over power industry sale” boomed the Daily Telegraph.

The headlines represent a case study in the phenomenon known as “spin creating a new reality”. Some eager young PhD student should write a thesis on it.

In the real world, the situation is somewhat different. Last weekend’s ALP conference voted by a seven-to-one majority to oppose privatisation of the State’s power industry, and Iemma has announced he wants to go ahead with the sell-off by the end of the year.

The two positions are poles apart (no pun intended!) and today’s meeting of the ALP’s joint campaign committee in the premier’s office is the start of reaching a compromise.

To help find a workable solution, Iemma has told his Treasurer Michael Costa to keep his big mouth shut. That’s progress.

He’s also told his opponents in the Cabinet and on the backbench not to force the issue to a premature vote because he’s committed to finding a solution. Hence no bloodletting at yesterday’s caucus.

Iemma has pinned all his hopes on negotiations within the confines of the joint campaign committee at which Unions NSW secretary John Robertson and ALP president Bernie Riordan of the electricians’ union are ready to deal. But will Costa?

It should be noted that while Iemma is painfully uncomfortable in the media spotlight, he is tremendously skilled in the ALP’s backrooms, his natural home.

Observers have been puzzled by Iemma’s post-conference demeanour – grinning and quietly confident. He is relaxed because he understands that there is no leadership among his opponents and no alternative policy.

In the old days, Labor premiers had formidable left-wing factions to contend with and they had leaders of the calibre of Jack Ferguson, Frank Walker, Rodney Cavalier, Jeff Shaw and Andrew Refshauge.

No such opposition exists today. The nominal “left” leaders are John Watkins and Ian Macdonald, both Cabinet ministers, who support privatization anyway. This means that there is no organized opposition to Iemma and Costa in the Parliamentary Labor Party.

In the ALP at large, the anti-privatisation figures are senior trade unionists who get no credit for their stand because the media has a genetic dislike of trade union leaders. So do most Labor MPs whose main aim in life is to follow in ex-premier Bob Carr’s footsteps into Macquarie Bank or other palaces of greed.

One of the hugely enjoyable sideshows of the privatisation debate has been the sudden emergence of the ALP’s “super delegates” – ex-premiers Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and Michael Easson, the former NSW Labor Council boss – to shout their support for privatisation and oppose the democratically reached decision of the ALP conference.

Hilariously, in their own day, no opposition to party policy or orthodoxy was brooked. For example, in 1991 two Labor Council researchers wrote a challenging paper on the state election which sharply criticised the then Opposition leader Bob Carr.

Carr threw a tantrum and called for their expulsion. So did Easson. One of the authors – Mark Duffy – was expelled but Easson relented on the other anti-party wrecker. His name was Michael Costa and he’s now the treasurer and he’s in breach of the party’s platform and its rules by running the privatisation agenda.

To sum up, we have a Labor Government led by a Premier and a Treasurer who appear determined to impose policy in flagrant violation of the NSW ALP conference, the party’s supreme decision-making body.

Under the newly revised Iemma-Costa party rules, eagerly supported by the editorial writers, ALP members can pick and choose which part of the platform they like and which part they don’t.

At this point the NSW ALP ceases to be a political party and becomes a free-for-all. No wonder Coalition Leader Barry O’Farrell is refusing to be stampeded into signing the Iemma-Costa’s blank cheque on privatisation until he sees any legislation or a sell-off model. As O’Farrell has observed: “Would you buy a used car from this crowd without first inspecting it?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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