This is the mother of all “wedges”: NSW Premier Morris Iemma is demanding that Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell support his (Iemma’s) incompetently managed firesale of the State’s power industry.

There is no parallel in NSW political history. The Labor Premier is relying on the conservative Opposition to save him, his Treasurer Michael Costa, the electricity privatisation legislation and his government.

Why? Because the Premier is out on a limb. He doesn’t have the support of his own party, the NSW ALP, Unions NSW or the general public.

He doesn’t even have the full support of his own backbenchers. With parliament due to be recalled late next week for a special sitting to pass the privatization legislation, voters are about to see which MPs — Labor, Liberal, National, Christian Democrat and Shooters — stand for keeping the electricity assets in public hands and who wants to see them transferred to what used to be called “the big end of town” but which is now a funeral pyre of bad debt and trashed corporate reputations. Only the four upper house Green MPs are “definites” in the opposition camp.

O’Farrell has been placed in the firing line by Iemma, the Sydney editorial writers and a collection of high-paid spruikers for big business — David Elliott of the Civil Contractors Federation (the infrastructure lobby), Kevin McDonald and Nigel Blunden (ex-Brendan Nelson media spokesman) of Australian Business Limited, Patricia Forsythe (of the City Chamber of commerce) Chris Brown of the Tourism Transport Forum and Ken Morrison from the Property Council of Australia (the developers).

In a speech given in Sydney one week ago, amusingly entitled “Now Morris Iemma has electrocuted himself”, former Opposition Leader Peter Debnam was in no doubt about the political toxicity of the power sell-off:

Australia’s experience with electricity privatisation began in earnest when Jeff Kennett sold Victoria’s gas and electricity businesses for $29 billion over the course of a few years to 1998. The following year, Jeff Kennett’s Government was defeated at the 1999 election.

In 1998, the NSW Coalition was approached by investment bankers amongst others and convinced of the net positives of privatising electricity – all that money to spend!

So the Coalition went to the 1999 state election proposing Electricity Privatisation and with the help of a few other problems we suffered a 7% swing against us.

While Iemma and Costa will be long gone from their jobs before the 2011 election, Labor MPs will be left in the frontline to take the heat at the ballot box.

Meanwhile, what of the NSW Nationals? Karl Marx once remarked that England was saved from rural idiocy by the Industrial Revolution, but can anything save the Nats?

They are lining up like lemmings to commit mass political suicide by backing the power sell-off.

For starters, it will hand the federal seat of Lyne to Independent Robert Oakeshott in the by-election on September 6, and may cost them Port Macquarie, Oakeshott’s vacated state seat, when the by-election is called in October.

Meanwhile, in the seat of Tamworth, held by Independent Peter Draper, the Nationals are supporting the coalmining giants that are ripping up precious farmland in the Gunnedah basin and bagging angry farmers, their core constituents, as “hippies”.

Tamworth is a “must-win” electorate at the 2011 election if the Coalition is to take office for the first time in 16 years and the Nats are gifting it back to Draper.

Incidentally, the recently-appointed Nationals state director is Ben Franklin, who has spent the past four years working for Country Energy, one of the power instrumentalities which is on Iemma and Costa’s chopping block. He, Nats leaders Andrew Stoner, Andrew Fraser (MP for Coffs Harbour) and Duncan Gay (upper house leader) have to decide whether to vote against privatisation, irrespective of what the Liberals decide to do.

It’s a terrible newspaper cliche, but this one is going to be a cliffhanger.

Peter Fray

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