John Della Bosca is the Iemma Government’s most experienced and astute Cabinet minister. His stature in the Government is derived from his nine years as general secretary of the NSW Labor Party, his many years on the ALP national executive and his dual role as the Government’s chief troubleshooter and election strategist.
When Premier Morris Iemma decided to stand him down last Friday, following the fallout from the so-called "Iguana-gate" incident, a gaping hole was blown in the midships of the Government.
If Iemma thought that sin-binning Della Bosca would somehow make him look strong and in command, he was wrong. The loss of "Della" drastically weakened Iemma’s leadership as he faces the most perilous week of his three-year premiership – the vote in both houses of parliament on his controversial electricity privatisation legislation which has split the NSW ALP from top to bottom.
As Government leader in the upper house where the bill faces its toughest test, Della was scheduled to play a critical role in the arm-twisting and coercion needed to persuade left-wing ALP backbenchers and crossbenchers from the Christian Democrats and the Shooters Party to support the Government. Now that he has been stood down, his capacity to deliver has been undermined.
His suspension from the Cabinet has stunned backbenchers, many of whom owe their seats in parliament to the former party boss. His band of followers tend to be from the pragmatic, non-ideological wing of the Caucus who are comfortable with "old Labor" and resent the economic rationalism and free market approach of "new Labor".
But in the tight circle of ministers around Iemma, the forced departure of Della Bosca while police investigate conflicting statutory declarations about the dinner fracas at Iguana Joe’s restaurant at Gosford on 6 June, has brought scarcely suppressed satisfaction.
Ever since the Premier unexpectedly announced last December that he was going to privatise the State’s publicly-owned electricity industry, Della Bosca has been the Cabinet’s odd man out.
While not ideologically opposed to privatisation, Della Bosca bore the scars of the 1997 attempt by former premier Bob Carr and treasurer Michael Egan to sell-off the power utilities.
Indeed, after the humiliating unanimous defeat on the floor of the conference at Sydney Town Hall, Della Bosca, as Party general secretary, drafted the resolution which put an end to the sell-off project and declared that the issue would not be revisited until "a broad Party consensus emerged". His resolution was passed unanimously.
When Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa blindsided the Parliamentary Labor Party with their power sell-off plan in December no such "broad consensus" existed. To make matters politically and electorally worse, Iemma had explicitly and repeatedly ruled out privatisation in interviews and press conferences prior to the March 2007 State election.
Della Bosca has spent the past six months desperately attempting to bring the Cabinet, the Caucus, the ALP rank and file and the trade unions into a happy compromise over the sell-off project.
His initiatives suffered their biggest reversal at the State conference on 3 May when delegates voted by a thumping seven-to-one majority to oppose privatisation and uphold the 1997 decision.
But as Della Bosca continued to pursue a compromise, the tight group of pro-privatisation ministers around Iemma – Roads Minister Eric Roozendaal, Health Minister Reba Meagher, Ports Minister Joe Tripodi and Ageing Minister Kristina Keneally – began to privately revile him as a "spoiler" and "not a team player".
Coincidentally, the wheels started to fall off his career.
Iemma was furious when Della Bosca, at a joint press conference, failed to support his premiership and even ruminated about his future political ambitions. It provoked destabilising speculation about Iemma’s demise and Della Bosca’s elevation to the premiership.
Della Bosca, the minister in charge of the Motor Accidents Authority, admitted seven speeding offences which would cost him his driver’s licence. He assured MPs he wouldn’t drive again.
When Daily Telegraph photographers snapped him riding his bicycle in Glebe, he shouted at them, "Get a real job, you f***ing c***s," and was reprimanded by Iemma for using foul language.
A YouTube video called "Della’s Downfall", apparently made by Iemma’s chief of staff, Josh Murray (who denies involvement), began doing the rounds satirising the Education Minister as Hitler. The Cabinet’s internal warfare had begun in earnest.
On 6 June, at Iguana Joe’s waterfront restaurant at Gosford, Della Bosca and his wife Belinda Neal, Federal MP for Robertson, became embroiled in an ugly argument with staff and the incident leaked to the media. The following day Costa talked about it openly at the wedding of Daily Telegraph State political correspondent Simon Benson in Mackay, North Queensland.
Della Bosca drove away from the restaurant despite having said he wouldn’t drive again.
Once the media pack began to hunt, Della Bosca and Neal had the opportunity to give a simple, rational and acceptable response. Perhaps something like: "There was an unfortunate and embarrassing incident at a Gosford restaurant on Friday night while we were attending a birthday dinner with friends. We both sincerely regret any behaviour that may have caused offence to the staff and other patrons and we offer our unreserved apologies. We are regulars at the restaurant which is one of the finest on the Central Coast and we look forward to returning again in the near future to reassure the staff personally of our customer support."
Instead of apologising, Labor’s "golden couple" decided to fight. It was a huge mistake. Perhaps they were spooked by the six staff statutory declarations which had been witnessed by Chris Spence, the former One Nation operative who now works for the local Liberal MP Chris Hartcher, and decided that a counter-attack was required. If so, they over-reacted.
It is now known that Della Bosca himself drafted the fulsome apology issued by the general manager to clear the minister, his wife and their dinner guests. More ominously, it has also been alleged that the person who asked Della Bosca’s dining companions to swear statements denying that anyone was drunk, abusive or used swear words may have been Josh Murray from the Premier’s staff. Iemma’s office has refused to comment on the allegation.
In the event, there are now two sets of quite contradictory statutory declarations, so somebody must be lying. Detectives have started interviews while Opposition leader Barry O’Farrell has opened another front by asking the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) whether there has been an "abuse of power" within the meaning of the ICAC Act.
The Iemma Government is now in uncharted political waters. It faces almost certain defeat in the upper house on its power privatisation bill and The Sun-Herald has reported that the Premier may postpone the vote until after the long winter break when parliament resumes on 23 September.
Such a climb-down would signify that he has become a lame duck Premier. Since 3 May he hasn’t had the support of the NSW branch of the ALP or the majority of the trade unions. Now party loyalists are prepared to vote against him on the floor of the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council.
His position has become so untenable that moves to find a new leader and a clean-out the present Cabinet have already started.
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