Despite the fact that the NSW ALP has been tearing itself to pieces over the last week on electricity privatisation, it still does not seem that the Opposition can take a trick. Brian Robins reports for the SMH today that the former Opposition Leader Peter Debnam has resigned from the shadow ministry, reportedly in protest at the Opposition’s decision to support the controversial privatisation. Because Debnam still holds that neither the government nor the opposition have an election mandate for the sell-off, it would seem he feels that his position as the Opposition infrastructure and energy spokesperson has been critically undermined.
The sell-off is an interesting policy issue for the NSW Liberals because it is plain for all to see that they are desperate to capture the sort of wave of public interest and support that enveloped Kevin Rudd and Federal Labor in the year leading up to last year’s federal poll. The Howard Government may well have been on the nose, but the Federal Opposition did a fairly good job of outlining some positive reasons to vote for a change in government. In contrast, the NSW Opposition is there, but that is about all it is. As much as some punters may be sick of Morris Iemma and NSW Labor, there is no evidence yet of any groundswell of enthusiasm for the only credible alternative. At this rate, there is little danger of that changing. Barry O’Farrell is marching his troops right along side those of the government on this fairly thorny issue, with the end result no doubt being that punters can’t really distinguish between column A and column B.
Large privatisation plans do by their very nature arouse strong emotions in people. There are likely great numbers of people out there in the electorate who would strongly support the NSW Liberals if they elected to oppose the privatisation. By supporting the privatisation, the Opposition is probably being true to its principles, but I am not sure it is playing the politics of this potential goldmine as well as it could. Peter Debnam was wrong about a number of things during his stint as Opposition Leader, but he alludes to something worth latching onto when he suggests that neither NSW Labor or the NSW Liberals have a clear electoral mandate for privatising the state’s electricity industry.
Perhaps a more nuanced stance for the Opposition to take would be to announce its own plans for privatising the industry, but to promise voters that it would not proceed with the privatisation until it received an electoral mandate at the next state poll. By taking such a stance the Liberals would stay true to both their principles and the electorate and be one up on the government. As it stands, they are foolishly portraying themselves as the Iemma Government’s complicit accomplices on this issue. Everyday people who oppose the privatisation have been shut out of the debate completely.