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.