The beginning of the end for Iemma?

I am on the other side of the world, but even I can scent a whiff of change in the air for NSW Labor. Setting aside for a moment the disturbing and unacceptable schism between the parliamentary leadership and the rest of the party in relation to electricity privatisation, it would have to be a rare punter indeed who believes that the Iemma Government is doing a stellar job of managing the state. Reiterating this perception, Tim Dick has a frankly unsurprising report in the SMH today noting that a Griffith University study has found that the NSW State Government is the most unpopular government in the country. If that wasn’t enough, Andrew Clenell and Alexandra Smith report that a leadership challenge is imminent, backed by party general secretary Karl Bitar, who has fallen out with Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa over the electricity privatisation issue.

What I think is important at this juncture is for NSW Labor to do some seriously constructive navel-gazing. It’s all very well to talk about changing leaders, but what is really required is a culture shift in the way the party interacts with the electorate and indeed conducts its affairs. It’s arguable that such a shift can only really happen if the parliamentary leadership changes, and on that basis, in the absence of any serious prospects of improvements otherwise, I would support a change in the leadership at this point. Despite his professed loyalty to the Premier, his factional handicap as a member of the Left and his close association (as Deputy Premier) with the current leadership team, I am inclined to think that John Watkins is the right man to take the party forward.

Let’s put the last fifteen months in perspective. The Iemma Government won a fairly strong election victory in March 2007 over an Opposition that was rendered incredible and unelectable by its then leader, Peter Debnam. Thanks to Debnam’s weak leadership and somewhat flawed personage, the government honestly did not encounter the tough electoral challenge it might have expected after four years of decidedly so-so governance. From what I can gather, Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell has not exactly been blazing the trail in the job since obtaining it a month after the election, but nor has he been doing that badly either. I think most voters would agree with me when I suggest that he is a credible alternative leader, even if he is not doing a very inspiring job. This spells trouble for NSW Labor in 2011 unless people’s impressions of the government change for the better and change fairly rapidly.

As a party member, I do feel that Morris Iemma really has tried his heart out to put things right over the past couple of years, thrown into the lion’s den as he was after Bob Carr’s abrupt resignation. Although I tend to disagree with Michael Costa’s views more frequently than I agree with them, I do believe he wants to do the best he can for the party. However, particularly in light of the electricity privatisation debacle, with the party wrenched apart in a recklessly destructive fashion, I don’t think it has been good enough. For many punters, I am sure it has not even been close to good enough. For the good of the party and indeed the state, I think both Premier Morris Iemma and Treasurer Michael Costa should stand aside and let a new leadership team try and steer the government in a fresh direction.

Is Michael Costa piloting NSW Labor on a political suicide mission?

I don’t think I will find anyone in virulent disagreement with me when I assert that the Iemma Government is not exactly loved. It’s therefore quite interesting that the Premier and Treasurer Michael Costa are so keen to expend the scant political capital they have by pursuing the privatisation of the state’s electricity industry. In general it’s probably fair to say that the majority of folks in New South Wales probably don’t have a particularly strong stance on the issue, but that if asked, they would be inclined to oppose the venture. One’s first gut feeling about the sell-off of a public asset is typically negative, particularly for those with a practical or emotional attachment to the current ownership arrangements. But what is even more concerning from the NSW Government’s perspective is the imminent threat of a powerful union backed campaign against the sell-off, which could plunge the party and the state into political turmoil.

Michael Costa’s comments on the matter (as reported by Andrew Clennell in the SMH) seem to indicate that the Treasurer has resolved to push forward with the sell-off, no matter what the political costs or repercussions:

Treasurer Michael Costa has issued a bring-it-on message to the union movement and the rank-and-file of the Labor Party on power privatisation, declaring that the NSW Government will ignore any resolution of the Labor Party’s state conference this year opposing the sale.

Mr Costa issued a defiant “I don’t care” today when asked if he feared expulsion from the Labor Party should the Government ignore a resolution of the state conference in May not to go ahead with the $15 billion sale.

What concerns me is the confrontational way in which the sell-off has been managed by the government. It would seem that Costa has lost patience with the union movement and is not overly willing to bring the proposal to an open negotiating table. Rather than issuing a proposal and opening a round of consensus-focused discussions with the party membership, the electricity industry, and union representatives, the government seems to have issued this sell-off as a directive that is to be pushed through parliament come hell or high water. The union movement is probably well within its rights to do draw comparisons between WorkChoices and this sell-off, and not only because of the potentially deleterious repercussions for some industry workers. Like WorkChoices, this is a proposal that was not honestly and openly put to the people of NSW before the government’s last election, and seems to be motivated by ideology, in this case eminating primarily from the NSW Treasurer’s office.

Unless the way the proposal is being managed and sold to stakeholders and the people of NSW is fixed and fixed quickly, this is going to be an issue that is going to hang around and hurt NSW Labor for months and months to come – potentially all the way to election day, as it was with WorkChoices. As I’ve mentioned at the top and I think will be obvious to everyone, I’m not sure that the government is in such a healthy and vibrant position that it will weather any further political blows very well. The hubris exhibited by the government should it belligerently pursue an unheralded sell-off of public assets may prove to be the metaphorical straw for this particular camel.