Just what is it about privatisation and the Labor Party? Whenever a Labor government, either State or Federal, expresses an interest in selling anything, an outcry develops. The rivers will run red with blood, one tonne hailstones will fall out of the sky and card-carrying Party members are heard to say things such as, "I will never forgive Keating for the sale of the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas."
The fact that both organisations had huge capital needs which could not, as a matter of priority, responsibly be outlayed by a Labor Government, does not seem to occur to them.
The debate at the NSW Labor Conference on the weekend therefore seemed to me a combination of Groundhog Day and a nasty family dispute.
As the chair of the NSW Branch’s Finance and Economic Policy Committee, it is my task to present a report to the conference on economic matters, which apart from exciting the interest of a few ambitious zealots straining to move amendments, usually encourages an exodus to the canteen for a coffee.
This year was different. The opponents of the Iemma Government’s plans to partially privatise the electricity industry were to move an amendment to our report calling on the government to abandon those plans.
Former Premier Barrie Unsworth kicked off the debate in support of the Government and I was due to present the report next. A few minutes before I had been asked to keep my speech to a couple of minutes due to time constraints, which I took as a gentle hint that no one would be interested in what I had to say.
One thing I do know however is the detail of NSW Labor’s privatisation policy set out in the "Platform", having drafted the most recent amendments to that policy in the Economic section of the document.
I therefore proceeded to tell a startled conference that the Iemma Government’s decision to lease the State’s coal-fired power generators was consistent with, and not in breach of, the current State Platform, a copy of which had been supplied to each conference delegate in their conference materials. This went over quite well but jeering commenced when I suggested it was not the role of the NSW Conference to govern NSW, this being the responsibility of elected MPs who had already approved the privatisation.
A full-on debate then ensued. In one corner you had the unions, led by the avuncular and courteous Bernie Riordan, the State President, who also doubles as Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union. Riordan has been critical of the State Government, claiming it does not pay enough attention to the decisions of the Annual Conference of the NSW Party. I think that is a fair criticism.
Joining him on this issue was the determined, fearless John Robertson, head of Unions NSW, who has turned that previously faction-ridden body into a united force.
In another corner was the Premier, Morris Iemma, a quick-witted rather humorous individual in person, but whose public utterances are often stilted and appeal more to conservative working class mums and dads than middle-class Labor/union activists.
At his right hand was another character altogether, Treasurer Michael Costa. Costa is an excitable, creative, driving individual who hates wearing ties and was kicked out of the Labor Party in 1979 after Peter Costello (yes, that Peter Costello) found out that he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in addition to the ALP. However, the hard left ideas have long been replaced by a free market disdain for privilege or rent-seeking.
In a third corner were the non-union faction leaders. Karl Bitar is the new general secretary – a friendly, watchful individual who is the real meat-in-the-sandwich in this debate. His traditional role is to provide rock hard support for an incumbent State Labor Government, but in this situation his loyalties are divided. The base of his Centre Unity (Right) faction are the trade unions lined up against the Government. As the result of a power sharing arrangement, one of the two assistant general secretaries in NSW is Luke Foley, the nominee of the "Socialist Left" – although in NSW the adjective is hardly used. Bitar and Foley usually cooperate well, but Foley’s supporters’ strong opposition to privatisation made his life difficult over the weekend.
Speaker after speaker stepped to the microphone. The Premier had spoken earlier in the day. He had put his case in a simple, understandable fashion, but without the cut-through passion which the best orators can employ. He wisely stayed out of the debate that followed, leaving the heavy lifting to his Right faction supporters in Cabinet. The exception was Deputy Premier John Watkins, a Left-winger, who spoke strongly with a persuasive speech in favour of the government line. Among Government supporters, there were murmurs of "good to see this", affirming the Right’s view of Watkins as a respected factional opponent who has the difficult task of not appearing too conservative, too often to his own grouping.
At 6:30pm, the normal finishing time of the conference for the day, the debate was still in full flight and passions mounted. Sitting behind the speakers at the stage microphone, I reflected on the frankness of the speeches and wondered where else in the democratic world you could hear a long public debate like this. When the short, bespectacled figure of Michael Costa grabbed the lectern with both hands, there was a real air of expectation.
The whole conference wanted him to do well, knowing that his excitable nature, overlayed by the effects of his bipolar disorder, sometimes prevents his best performances. Regrettably, he went over the top and did not make a good impression. I sensed a disappointment, even among the majority who love to hate him.
It was well known that the vote would be a defeat for Iemma even before the debate started. After Costa’s unrestrained performance though, there was no doubt it was going to be a crushing defeat.
At the end of the vote, it was my role to speak briefly in reply. I told the conference that three of the four amendments were acceptable to the committee. The main amendment moved by John Robertson was a resolution cast as an amendment of the report. It did not attempt to amend the Platform of the Party – not surprisingly because Platform amendments require 4 weeks notice. This subtlety may have been lost on most delegates, but not on me. Reading it, I realised that not being a Platform amendment, it would not have the binding status of a Platform inclusion.
It has never been seriously suggested that ordinary resolutions of conference which do not become part of Platform are binding on the State Government. There are some State ministers who do not even concede that the Platform is binding – I could give you an example of a current minister who in recent times has conducted a public campaign against a crystal-clear Platform plank.
I told the conference the committee would put no position on the Robertson amendment but would leave it to the conference to make its decision. I added just before I sat down that I noted it was not a Platform amendment, and that in my view, it was not binding on the Iemma Government.
It had been a tough debate and I felt it was a fairly obvious point.
As I sat down however, all hell broke loose. A senior Left-winger on the stage blew his cool and directed a tirade of abuse in my direction. It slowly dawned on me that the Party officers may have done some sort of deal to disguise the nature of the amendment to the conference, possibly to bring some greater resolution to the debate. If so, they had not told our committee.
A count was taken and the decision of the conference, ordinary resolution or not, was emphatic with a 702 to 107 vote. The delegates did not want privatisation.
It may sound arrogant to say so, but I think this decision is wrong. The NSW Government has a desperate need for funds and does not wish to borrow them. The Iemma Government has a fine record of increasing infrastructure spending and I see absolutely no reason in principle why they should not lease power stations to get the money to complete the job.
What possible good reason is there for opposing mere leases when two power stations have already been leased? Is anyone suggesting that those leases be cancelled? Of course not.
Even a kindergarten Marxist should know that control is much more important than ownership. That the State Government will retain control of this industry in an iron grip is clear. There is no issue that cannot be fixed by negotiation and the arguments about employment loss are nonsense.
Make no mistake: this is a struggle about union power. There is nothing wrong with unions. I have been a union member for 30 years and strongly oppose the diluting of union influence in the Labor Party. However, that influence must be exercised responsibly.
Iemma is right, but he’s made a hash of selling the decision so far. If he wants to bring this thing off, he and his ministers, Right and Left, must tour Party branches. They should talk to members directly and thereby earn back the respect they have lost by seeming to ignore the views of those who last year worked so hard to re-elect them in NSW, and to throw out the Howard Government nationally.
Give them that respect, Morris, and you will get it back in spades.
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