New South Wales Premier Mike Baird has earned dubious fame by offering voters the largest bribe in state election history –$20 billion to be spent on roads, tunnels, trains, bridges, schools and hospitals.

It also inflicts on the Labor opposition the most painful wedge (wedgie?) it has ever experienced.

Opposition Leader John Robertson, a former electrician and head of Union NSW, is committed to fighting the Coalition’s plan to privatise half of the power industry’s poles and wires, which would raise the $20 billion needed for Baird’s grand plan for public-private infrastructure.

Labor’s frontbench, the parliamentary party, the ALP conference and the trade union bureaucracy are all committed to oppose the sell-off. Theoretically, that is.

But what do NSW voters think? When they vote in the next state election on March 28, will they be attracted to Baird’s building bonanza or will they support Robertson’s belligerent opposition to the sale?

The wedge really hurts because Baird has tied the success of his re-election to the roll-out of the Rebuild NSW strategy. If you don’t vote for me, Baird says, then not a cent will be spent on all those goodies.

When former Labor premier Bob Carr and his treasurer Michael Egan first promoted electricity privatisation in 1998, they were routed by their party and public opinion. Another former Labor premier Morris Iemma and his treasurer Michael Costa fared no better in 2008 when they tried to re-mount a power sell-off campaign.

Fresh in voters’ minds were the sale of the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Telstra, which had awarded juicy wealth to executives and shareholders but led to job losses and harsher conditions in the workforce.

At that time, it was clear that Thatcherite privatisation remained on the nose among Labor and Greens voters and many who occupied the middle ground. However, Baird’s re-election team has calculated that opposition has dwindled in recent years and that if they provide a sufficiently attractive benefit voters will support the Coalition for a second term.

To quote the political adage: if you’re punting on a two-horse race and one of the horses is called Self-Interest, back it. Although it expresses the ultimate in political cynicism, Team Baird hopes it will work for them.

Labor’s hostility to the poles-and-wires sale is flawed by the simple truth that few Labor MPs or candidates actually believe they are worth keeping in public hands. The majority faction, Centre Unity, supports privatisation while in the “hard Left” it is a sterile slogan rather than an on-the-barricades policy.

If the ALP is genuinely committed to no sell-off, it has a responsibility to argue the case for maintaining the power industry in the public sector, but so far no argument has been forthcoming except the tired negative response that power bills will go up.

In any case, Labor’s opposition is fatally compromised by the actions of the last Labor government, led by premier Kristina Keneally and treasurer “Electric” Eric Roozendaal, which conducted a partial sale of the supply industry. To make matters more deplorable, Robertson was transport minister in that government.

After Labor’s stunning win in Victoria last weekend, excitable NSW activists were claiming on Twitter that Baird may follow Denis Napthine and become the next Liberal premier to be a one-termer.

As Darryl Kerrigan, aka actor Michael Caton, might say: “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’.”

Peter Fray

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