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.