The Iemma Government’s chaotic plan to privatise the State’s electricity industry has claimed its first political victim – the shadow spokesman on energy, Peter Debnam, the former Opposition leader.

Debnam has resigned from the Opposition’s front bench, paving the way for current Liberal leader Barry O’Farrell to announce a shadow cabinet reshuffle this morning (11.30am).

In an unexpected dummy-spit which has annoyed many of his colleagues, Debnam has sent a private email explaining his action:

I have been opposed to Michael Costa’s electricity privatisation and despite lacking the numbers in Parliament to stop it, I’ve argued for the Coalition to take a strong stand against the privatisation and in favour of clean renewable energy. However, in my view, the conditional acceptance announced late last week by the Coalition effectively surrenders to Costa’s privatisation. Given my strong views, it is untenable for me to continue as the Shadow Minister for Energy and remain on the frontbench simply biting my tongue.

Debnam has given an undertaking to stay in parliament and contest the next election in 2011 as the MP for Vaucluse – so there will be no embarrassing by-election.

While most observers thought the first casualty of the privatisation debacle would be inside the deeply divided government, the Liberals have taken the first collateral damage and given Iemma an unexpected gift. The premier is certainly hoping that the breach in the Coalition’s ranks will make life a bit easier for him at tomorrow’s Labor Caucus meeting, the second since the historic ALP conference decision.

Debnam, the former naval officer who collected a four per cent swing in the 2007 campaign but failed to win the winnable election, believes that Costa’s privatisation plan is little more than a fire-sale which will do hardly anything to ease the State’s future energy needs.

Like his Liberal colleague Malcolm Turnbull in the neighbouring federal seat of Wentworth, Debnam is a big fan of clean renewable energy, especially solar. He pointed out that both he and Iemma ruled out energy privatisation during the 2007 election campaign but that the premier “betrayed” the electorate by placing it on the agenda last December.

He felt further betrayed when O’Farrell announced conditional support for the government’s proposal at the end of last week and decided to return to the backbench. This reprises a previous detour in his parliamentary career: in 2000 then Coalition leader Kerry Chikarovski sacked Debnam from the front bench when he told her she was travelling so badly in the polls she should stand down, a message which she did not really wish to hear.

The significant new face in O’Farrell’s front bench is Lane Cove MP Anthony Roberts, a former senior adviser to John Howard who handled liaison between the PM’s office and broadcaster Alan Jones, earning him the dubious title of “Minister for Alan Jones”.

Roberts, who recently became engaged to teacher Alicia Bush, will be the shadow spokesman for juvenile justice and emergency services.