By accepting the NSW Corrective Services portfolio, former NSW Unions secretary John Robertson has taken a poisoned chalice.

The Cabinet has given its newest recruit the job of privatizing two major prisons — Parklea and Cessnock — in contravention of the NSW ALP platform.

Overnight, “Robbo” had a significant victory when the party’s legal and constitutional committee agreed to bend the policy allowing the Rees Government to go ahead with its privatization plans.

The committee has accepted Robertson’s bizarre interpretation that by merely selling private contract management of the two facilities — and not the bricks and mortar — that the party’s platform has not been breached.

His view was backed by the cabal of right-wingers on the committee — Finance Minister Joe Tripodi’s brother Richard, Wollongong MP Noreen Hay’s son Mark and Anna Collins, wife of Robertson’s chief of staff Chris Minns.

They outvoted the two left-wingers on the committee, lawyer Cameron Murphy, son of the late Lionel Murphy, and James Shaw, son of the former Supreme Court judge and NSW Attorney-General Jeff Shaw.

But Robertson is not out of the woods yet. The committee’s recommendation now has to be discussed by the all-powerful administrative committee at its next meeting which will be held on either May 1 or May 8.

Although the committee is controlled by the right, there are grave misgivings about handing over prison management to private companies. A basic conflict arises:

  • Private jail contractors are out to make profits to satisfy the greed of their shareholders and directors;
  • The state and society have a duty of care to offenders who have broken parliament’s laws, to rehabilitate them so they don’t re-offend.
  • The profit motive is stronger than the motivation to rehabilitate. Indeed, the profit motive will have a tendency not to worry about re-offending because it will mean repeat business.

Even if the admin committee approves the pro-privatisation line, it is only the annual conference which can change party policy. In other words, the private jails debate will eventually end up on the floor of conference when Robertson and his Cabinet backers (Treasurer Eric Roozendaal and Joe Tripodi) will be flayed by delegates from branches and the left unions.

The prison privatization is the thin end of the wedge for Cabinet’s manic privateers. If they succeed at the two jails then the policy will be extended to other sectors, i.e. transport, hospitals, schools, emergency services.

If Robertson believes that his carriage of the privatization issue is part of a longer-term strategy to take the party’s leadership he is kidding himself. This privatization episode will hang around his neck for the rest of his political career.