On February 20, 2005, Michael Egan wrote officially to the NSW Legislative Council’s president Dr Meredith Burgmann to inform her that he had resigned as treasurer and would be leaving parliament.
In a typically cheeky farewell he said: “I am a realist, and I now reluctantly concede that it will be some time before our great Party changes its name to the Australian Labor (electricity privatisation and upper house abolition) Party. Therefore, I have gone fishing.”
And he signed the letter: “Michael Egan, A very happy little feather duster.”
If only he had left things that way. But few politicians ever can. Regrettably, Egan is attempting to re-invent himself as a rooster and give egregious advice – via the pages of The Australian – on the Iemma Government’s tragically inept plans to privatise the State’s power industry.
Egan’s argument was summed up in the headline and strap line: “Who runs the country? Unless Labor governments stand up to unions, they will become unelectable.” (The Australian, May 9)
This is the line being flogged by Iemma and his merry band of privateers since their humiliating seven-to-one defeat at the NSW Labor Party conference on May 3. They’ve moved the debate to the new ground of The Government v Union Bosses and/or Democracy v Union Power.
This glib phrase-mongering appeals to the simple minds in the media because it gives them a Good Guy v Bad Guy scenario to write about.
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Former federal treasurer Paul Keating, who spent much of his economy-reforming years in bed with ACTU leaders like Bill Kelty, former premiers Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth (a former NSW Labor Council boss) and Bob Carr, are all beating the same anti-union drum.
In this shallow exercise, they are managing to forget that the anti-privatisation decision in NSW has been ALP policy since 1997, that it was re-confirmed 10 days ago and that it was carried by an overwhelming majority of rank-and-file branch delegates, and not simply union bloc votes.
What’s more, if Iemma, Treasurer Michael Costa and the Cabinet think it’s such a great idea, why have they failed to miserably to educate the general public and win approval for their plan?
Perhaps they don’t have their hearts in it. In private, many ministers will tell you they think the whole enterprise is misguided, mis-timed and probably doomed since there is no buyer mad enough to accept the government’s model, its asking price and its pre-condition of investment in existing power stations and building a new base load generator.
The great irony of the privatising cheer squad is that Egan, recently appointed Chancellor of Macquarie University, has found himself in the same camp as Eddie Obeid, the factional godfather whom he loathes.
The two so despised each other that they rarely exchanged eye contact or pleasantries when they served in the Carr Government. But now they are both barracking for the big end of town over the democratic rights of their party and the voice of public opinion. You see, they had more in common than they thought.