The flaming rage of neutered warlords and right-wing unions about their loss of influence within the NSW ALP will blow itself out. Their protests are irrelevant. The old Right is going, going, gone. A new coalition is emerging in NSW Labor.

Last weekend, NSW Premier Nathan Rees argued for and got the Lang powers back for a Labor Premier: the right to personally hire and fire ministers.

Ably guided by Left ALP assistant secretary Luke Foley, with the complicit support of the new ALP Right machine men, the Premier completely outclassed his opponents.

For the old, bullying ALP NSW Right, it must be dreadfully frustrating that it lost control of its party. Perhaps even this author has been too praising of ALP Left strategist Foley in all this.

The truth is closer to this reality: the Right self-destructed. It continues to do so.

Last year, amiable Premier Morris Iemma was too thick to work out a compromise on electricity reform. His indecisiveness was legendary. The unions united in regicide.

Iemma thought his 2007 election victory was his doing alone. He stopped listening. Former NSW ALP secretary Senator Mark Arbib decided Iemma didn’t have it and had to go. The privatisation debate was a means to that end. The NSW Right unions could be relied upon to bellow stupidly. The Left locked in behind a strategy creating massive pressure from which Iemma could never recover.

It’s an iron-law of politics to help your enemies flounder, especially when you yourself are weak. So the NSW Left, admittedly guided by ideological fervour, as well as cunning, stoked the flames in 2008.

We in the Left couldn’t believe our luck. Just over one year ago, a divided NSW Parliamentary Right collapsed allowing the selection of a novice Left MP and minister as Premier.

Surprising also was the brittle, weak position of Arbib’s successor as NSW ALP secretary, Karl Bitar, now national secretary, who looked and acted frightened right through the turmoil. Foley, experienced, folksy and deadly, orchestrated the key plays.

When Rees became Premier, NSW party president and state Electrical Trades Union secretary Bernie Riordan was presented with a fait accompli. Riordan met Rees for the first time as Premier Rees. No one thought to introduce them beforehand. Riordan might have helped tighten the noose for Iemma, but so far as the real action was concerned, he was way out of the loop.

Which brings us back to Saturday, November 14. Rees’ speech to the conference changed everything. Of course, he had no choice. The Right unions were about to gang up on the Premier. At one stage they appeared to back Della. “What!”, “so that Belinda could walk down the aisle”, as Thistlethwaite put it. Then they hesitatingly looked to Sartor, Kenneally and others. A few MPs took this seriously. The potential for bad publicity was immense. Something had to be done. The Premier spoke. The noise stopped.

Already discipline is returning to the government. One week after the changes, not a leak. Unity and resolve has never been stronger. The federal government is sounding nice to NSW. The Left has rallied Albo and Gillard and through them, Rudd, to do the right thing. This is a tremendous change of mood. NSW MPs know like never before that they need to toe the line if they are to expect any advancement.

The influence of the old “power brokers” is broken: they have nothing to broker. In these circumstances, the Left has more to offer to aspiring candidates for the ministry. Influence and, therefore, power will ultimately follow.

Arguably for the first time in memory, a seismic change in control is possible. Though this will take years to play out. The Right is demoralised and still divided. A stronger Left is emerging from the mess. Certainly, this faction will be less strident or ideological compared to their forbears. Because of that, this grouping potentially could govern a dispirited party.

Right now the task is to maintain the coalition of the new Right (leader: the PM’s man, Senator Arbib) and the new Left (around ALP Left assistant secretary Luke Foley). They need to hold their nerve, break the old Right and forge a new coalition, freer of old ideological conflicts and more independent of the clumsy, right-wing union bosses.

The Left is a coalition — militant unions, such as the CFMEU; social progressives and civil libertarians; socialists (fewer and fewer); radical activists (tinged by green, feminist and gay hues); their own tribal leaders in discrete pockets of Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and the north coast, urbane professionals and a smaller number of opportunists. The political complexion of some inordinately turns on the area they live in! But as a general rule, the Left believes in something. Increasingly, there’s no depth to the Right. The Left, though presently outnumbered on the floor of an ALP conference, is the stronger, more effective, strategic faction.

The Right is also a coalition of various forces, including Labor traditionalists; Catholics and Christian do-gooders; essentially tribal leaders such as Joe Tripodi, boss of Fairfield, and other, essentially local government chiefs; union leaders; a sprinkling of remnants of the old DLP and people such as that; the country ALP types; ambitious, non-ideological MPs and a huge number of opportunists. Bits and pieces of that coalition can be broken up.

The number of hard factional types has diminished as the ageing Cold War warriors die off. Increasingly, both factions are pragmatic and led by people who want to make few mistakes and stay in government for as long as possible.

Thus, the superbly cynical line of Graham Richardson, “whatever it takes” is the first rule of new apparatchiks of Left and Right in the modern NSW ALP. In years to come, expect greater fluidity within and between the factions.

For the old NSW ALP Right, the situation is hopeless, but not serious: hopeless for them, but of little moment to everyone else.

Presently, there are grumblings against the NSW ALP secretary, Matt Thistlethwaite. Within the Right, several threads have united to form a fuse: (a) suspicions about Thistlethwaite’s claim that he was asleep when the Premier called the night before conference and, thus, doubt whether he really was ignorant of the Premier’s rule change plans on the day; (b) concern that a month’s notice was required under the NSW ALP rules to change the rules; (c) whether Tripodi was conned by reassurances; and (d) in the week after the conference, the loss of industrial relations powers from NSW to the Commonwealth, voluntarily surrendered by Premier Rees, thereby strengthening the national offices of unions that are usually more left-wing than their NSW counterparts.

Poor Thistlethwaite. It must drive him crazy to appear to be interested in the bleating of cranky union bosses, most of whom will be retired and gone in a few years. In politics, sometimes the art of appearing to listen is the hardest skill in which to excel. Listen he will. Maybe he was asleep on Friday night. But awake during the day. “Notice would have been preferable, sure. Joe was owed no favours. Didn’t Unions NSW agree to the changes? We did our best, mate”. Combinations and variations of these sentences will be offered. Mea culpas will be sung. Apologies given. The world will stay the same. If there’s any doubt, federal intervention would save him. Matt is safe. He just has to stay awake during the tirades. Anyway, Luke is close by to hold his nerve.

What now needs to be done is clear: dissidents need to lose preselection; out the door they go. Obeid, MacDonald and Della Bosca need to be pressured to give up their cushy Upper House seats. It may not yet be the end of the world, but the losers can now see that far from their non-ministerial balconies. Their careers are over. They are welcomed to go nicely. Or else get hosed out the door. There is no place to hide.

The NSW unions, as is well-known in the ACTU, are the dumbest in the land. Their leaders have delusions of adequacy. They think their roars brought down Premier Iemma. And they think they can do it again. Nonsense. There are few MPs prepared to put up.

Any move on Rees will backfire. It will look like Eddie and Joe getting their revenge — a totally unsustainable message. Nervous MPs already contemplating possible disaster are not going to make that certain. They’ll live in hope, praying that a united party, led by an invigorated Premier, against a lazy, policy-bankrupt Opposition, still has a chance. Not only for the Left, politics in NSW is suddenly interesting again.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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