The political stakes in the NSW power privatisation confrontation between Premier Morris Iemma and the NSW Labor Party were high. Now they have been notched even higher.

Before leaving for Beijing on a trade mission on Thursday night, Iemma took his own backbenchers by surprise by tabling the Electricity Industry Restructuring Bill which will be debated when parliament resumes for the Budget session on June 3.

Having toyed with the idea of a compromise negotiated with the ALP’s 10-member joint campaign committee, Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa have returned to their original “crash or crash through” strategy.

Their thinking goes like this: we won brownie points from the media for sticking to our guns at the ALP conference on May 3 even though we were humiliated by a seven-to-one vote; we won further media cheers after we faced down the caucus meeting on May 6; and the city has applauded the way we wedged Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell and forced him to support a sell-off.

The unions have reacted predictably to Iemma’s decision to cut short the negotiations and unveil his privatisation legislation by threatening industrial action, possibly as early as next week.

And Costa has also responded predictably by throwing some petrol of his own, accusing the unions of embarking on the “ultimate act of stupidity”.

Asked how the government would handle any power strike and its impact on supplies, Costa replied: “We have powers under essential services legislation.”

So with Iemma hardly out of the country, Costa is on the warpath, clearly enjoying the prospect of a law enforcement, strike-breaking response to any industrial action from the unions.

The irony of Iemma’s China visit is that he and Energy Minister Ian Macdonald will be trying to persuade comrades from the Chinese Communist Party to buy into the NSW power industry while comrades from his own NSW Labor Party are seven-to-one against it.

A possible headline for their first Hall of the People reception should be: “Chinese Stalinists welcome Sydney capitalist roaders.”

Between now and the resumption of parliament in June, the government’s headkickers and arm-twisters are patrolling the Labor ranks like enforcers from The Sopranos. “I have never seen pressure put on people like this, and I’ve been here 20 years,” said one Labor MP.

The two Shooters Party MPs are suddenly flavour of the month with the Premier’s Department and they have been invited to submit a shopping list of their wishes. The Rev Fred Nile, of the Christian Democrats, who is already a regular closet supporter of the government, will be returning from South Korea to back the government’s sell-off legislation.

The wild card is Opposition Leader O’Farrell who has submitted a list of five conditions in return for backing the plan. O’Farrell and Nationals Leader Andrew Stoner have it in their hands to sink the legislation and blow the government out of the water, but will they do it?

Just imagine if the roles were reversed and either Neville Wran or Bob Carr were in Opposition and had the voting capacity to bring a Liberal Government to its knees. Would they do so? Of course they would!

The final piece in the jigsaw is the trade union movement. Will it use its influence to halt the sell-off or will it cave in — as many observers are predicting?

With the situation so volatile, the best advice to citizens of NSW is to rush out and buy some candles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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