These are perilous days for NSW Premier Morris Iemma and his Treasurer Michael Costa. There’s a Cabinet meeting tomorrow followed by a Caucus meeting and then state parliament resumes at 2.30pm for question time, ministerial statements and the resumption of the debate on the legislation to privatise the state’s power industry.
Overshadowing proceedings is the sin-binning of Education and Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca and its impact on Iemma’s ability to steer his power sell-off bill through both houses. He doesn’t have the numbers in the upper house where possibly five Labor MPs — Ian West, Lynda Voltz, Helen Westwood, Penny Sharpe and Mick Veitch — will join the Liberals, Nationals, Greens and Christian Democrat MP Gordon Moyes to defeat the Bill.
This has prompted speculation that Iemma will postpone the vote. That would mean putting the power sell-off in limbo during parliament’s long winter break which ends on September 23.
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Delaying privatisation for three months would make a mockery of Costa’s budget announced on June 3 because all his calculations were predicated on the bill reaching the statute books by July 1 and the sell-off being completed by the end of the year.
By walking away from a vote, Iemma would be tacitly admitting that his government is no longer in charge and he faces being labelled a lame duck premier. This would be an acknowledgement of the political reality: Iemma has a popularity rating of just 28 per cent, he lost the support of the NSW ALP at its annual conference on May 3 when it voted overwhelmingly against the sell-off and he no longer has the support of the trade unions who worked exhaustively for his re-election in March 2007.
If he forces a vote on the floor of both houses and loses, he will attempt to shift the blame onto the Opposition and the unions — an odd combination! — and accuse them of preventing a $10-$15 billion jackpot falling into the NSW Treasury. The argument will be hard to sustain with opinion polls showing between 60 and 80 per cent people oppose the sale of the publicly-owned power utilities.
The government’s internal crisis is so grave that party chieftains are searching for Iemma’s replacement. John Della Bosca, who would have been obliged to shift from the upper to the lower house to be a candidate, is no longer in the frame. Transport Minister and deputy Premier John Watkins remains the front-runner but his ability to rebuild Labor’s fortunes are tarred by the chronic calamities in public transport which have damaged his once high credibility.
This leaves the so-called “dream team” — former education minister Carmel Tebbutt, wife of federal Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Minister Anthony Albanese, as premier, and Water and Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees as her deputy.
Both have dismissed the speculation — but that was before the party heavies came a’calling.