In a private diary entry in 1990, former premier Bob Carr described the position of New South Wales opposition leader in despairing terms: “This job’s too tough: what a job description … unlimited functions, early morning media, public derision.”

When the NSW parliamentary Labor Party holds its first post-election meeting tomorrow, Luke Foley will be chosen unopposed as Opposition Leader and handed the poisoned chalice.

Since Carr stood down as premier 10 years ago, there have been five Labor leaders — Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally, John Robertson and now Foley.

At last month’s election, Foley successfully moved from the upper to the lower house via the seat of Auburn, despite a 2% first-preference swing to the Liberal candidate and a statewide swing of 9% to Labor.

Foley, who took the opposition leadership in January, fought a commendable campaign against the odds and collected 14 extra seats. But how many more seats could Labor have won if the campaign hadn’t been white-anted by a group of Labor elder statesmen?

Not only did Labor have to withstand remorseless attacks from Rupert Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph and The Australian, but also public attacks from former federal cabinet minister Martin Ferguson, former NSW premier Iemma and former NSW treasurers Michael Egan and Michael Costa.

Costa’s gratuitous attack made front-page headlines in the Tele: “LABOR’S BIG LIE — Ex-ALP treasurer accuses his party of $10b taxpayer betrayal in opposing power sale”.

In the shadows, other right-wing Labor heavyweights were briefing hand-picked hacks and telling them Labor’s campaign was “doomed” because of its opposition to privatisation.

With the election out of the way, the action now shifts to Parliament, where Foley’s caucus is being urged to abandon its anti-privatisation policy and to vote for (or abstain) when Premier Mike Baird’s legislation to lease 49% of the power distribution network is presented for approval in both houses.

Already the armchair urgers are bombarding him with free advice. They want Labor to support the Coalition’s election mandate — or else. What can the “or else” threat mean? Surely they are not suggesting that a climbdown by Foley is a condition of their support for Labor and his leadership? It sounds like it.

In 2008, Egan was so furious with the ALP’s treatment of Iemma by the party’s anti-privatisation majority led by John Robertson, the Unions NSW boss who subsequently entered parliament and became party leader, that he didn’t renew his party membership.

Former prime minister Paul Keating was incandescent with rage writing to Robertson accusing him of “destroying the political lives” of Iemma and Costa:

“If the government goes down [as it did in 2011], the lethal tally of seats will be to your account and that of the party officers who were complicit in this melee: namely, [electricians’ union leader Bernie] Riordan, [party general secretary Karl] Bitar and [then assistant secretary] Foley.”

He concluded: “I am ashamed to share membership of the same party with you.”

Keating sent a copy of the letter to Foley to make certain that his unambiguous message was read and understood.

Since then, Keating has not changed his view on privatisation, but he has modified his loathing of Robertson and his anger with Foley.

There are three ways that the politics of this “melee” can work out:

  • Foley and Robertson change their views on power privatisation and support Baird’s election mandate in Parliament;
  • The Labor caucus stands by ALP conference policy and opposes Baird’s legislation in both houses;
  • The Right-dominated caucus takes the decision out of Foley’s hands by voting to overturn the current anti-privatisation policy; or
  • Baird carries the vote in the lower house, where the Coalition has a clear majority, and sneaks it through the upper house with the support of minor-party MPs;

Foley is likely praying for the success of the final option. He probably hopes that upper house crossbenchers will support Baird’s legislation and the ALP will avoid having to revisit the privatisation issue as it would inevitably re-open many old wounds.

The passage of the bill would delight Keating, Iemma, Costa and Egan (as well as the CBD and the Murdoch press), and Foley would live to fight another day.

But the leader of the “hard Left” faction would not be able to escape the verdict of history, namely that the NSW ALP’s opposition to privatisation finally collapsed on his watch.

Peter Fray

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