Of the four candidates put forward by NSW ALP general secretary Karl Bitar to succeed Premier Morris Iemma, only one is left standing – Water and Emergency Services Minister Nathan Rees.

The other three — Transport Minister John Watkins, Planning Minister Frank Sartor and former education minister Carmel Tebbutt — have ruled themselves out of the race.

In the case of former Sydney lord mayor Sartor, the question is still being asked: “Who ever ruled him in?” Most MPs and commentators believe the source of the 24-hour speculation was Sartor himself who has never been averse to self-promotion.

Meanwhile, the idea that Watkins may yet be the party’s white knight beggars belief. The deputy Premier and member for Ryde is tarnished by his years of obedient service to the policy-free Carr and Iemma administrations.

He rescued the education portfolio after years of Carr-inspired warfare with the teachers’ federation, he put the NSW police back on track after Michael Costa tore though the senior ranks and then he was given the poisoned chalice of Transport to repair the damage after Costa’s mishandling of the portfolio.

His once buoyant popularity has collapsed to the point where he is electorally unsaleable as the next premier. What’s more, he will be flat out holding his marginal Ryde electorate at the state election in 2011 and Liberal head office has already flagged it as a “possible win”.

This week’s farcical demolition of Iemma’s $16 billion metro project – a fantasy-inspired rail link between the city, Watkins’ electorate and Sydney’s north west — has driven the final nail into any remaining leadership hopes he may have harboured.

Watkins’ position is so desperate he is likely to quit politics in the next 12 months to find a new career.

Today’s meeting between Iemma and the ALP’s governing body, the administrative committee, offers the last opportunity for a way to resolve three issues which have paralysed the government, destabilised the premier and produced a split between the ALP and the government:

  • Will the premier refocus his administration by sacking or gagging its most damaging passenger, Treasurer Costa?
  • Will the premier agree to postpone the privatisation of the state’s power industry until more agreeable economic conditions prevail?
  • Will the premier accept the constitutional obligation that the supreme policy-making body of the NSW ALP is its conference and not caucus?

Iemma has indicated in advance that his answer to all three demands will be “No”.

He has given interviews to declare that he is a “a man of steel” who won’t walk away from a fight with the party organisation, that he won’t roll over to his critics and that he is sticking it out until the next election.

He is counting on his newly-enhanced, Channel Nine-led media unit to flash the message of “Iron man Iemma” across the TV screens. With the closure of Nine’s Sunday and Nightline programs, he suddenly has a surfeit of talent on which to draw although most of them will require clothing, make-up, hair dressing, travel, car and entertainment expenses.

PS. Iemma’s new director of state strategy, former Channel Nine news director John Choueifate, is the brother of Michael (Mick) Choueifaite, chief of staff to federal Transport and Insfrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, husband of Carmel Tebbut.

They’re an incestuous lot.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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