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Iemma’s power struggle

20 July 2008 1,117 views No Comment

IN 1957 the Queensland Labor premier Vince Gair, who had comfortably won two state elections, found himself at war with his own party over the issue of union influence. So they sold him out.

As a direct consequence of the rift – and despite Labor’s previous strong performances – the conservatives soon took power and there they remained for 32 years.

The stoush also precipitated the rise and rise of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and all it meant for the Sunshine State and Labor’s electoral future.

It’s with a chilling sense of deja vu that parts of the ALP, 51 years later and 1000km south in NSW, are seeking to target Morris Iemma as revenge for his efforts to modernise the state’s antiquated electricity industry.

Like Gair, Iemma has served three years in the top job, has the support of his cabinet and faces an Opposition which is only slowly turning itself around. Also like Gair, he’s challenging the ALP’s industrial wing by asking, “Who’s running the show?”

Iemma started this fight in the open, staring down the party’s annual conference and its 800 delegates. But he faces the ugly reality that the ensuing battles are now being waged behind his back, by senior members of the party executive who don’t like being ignored.

Vulnerable MPs have already had their preselections threatened, wild leadership speculation makes the daily news, and ambitious MPs are being promised promotions. With such predictable tactics set to continue, prepare to see regular leaks of “internal party polling”, naming scores of MPs who’ll be “wiped out” at the next poll if they don’t join the putsch.

Iemma’s fight is about the future of power in both senses of the word: whether to restructure the electricity industry, and whether Labor MPs should be dictated to by extra-parliamentary forces. The NSW union movement, led by John Robertson, has ideologically opposed any suggestion that the structure of the energy industry be changed.

That’s despite most of the workforce he represents lining up, hands out, for the generous incentives on offer.

Union delegates make up over half of the votes at the ALP’s annual conference.

In the face of an overwhelming majority at the May conference, the recently elected general secretary of the NSW ALP, Karl Bitar, chose to vote against the Premier and with the unions to deliver an ultimatum to the elected Government.

Iemma has pushed on regardless. After such a public showdown, and with their egos now stung, who could doubt that Robertson and Bitar had to be seen to be hitting back.

Ironically, they were the very people who anointed Iemma to replace Bob Carr in the first place.

But like the electricity debate, Iemma’s detractors don’t seem to know what outcome they’re trying to achieve.

Surely they should be worried about where they will end up when the shooting stops?

After all, it is ALP practice in NSW that outgoing heads of the party executive and the union movement wind up with seats in state parliament after their terms end.

Treasurer Michael Costa and former premier Barrie Unsworth both walked into parliament at the end of their reign at Labour Council.

Both have this year played key roles in advocating strongly for Iemma’s electricity package.

Costa and Unsworth entered parliament and shook off their union bias by embracing issues that were in the overall community interest, not just the industrial community.

Many might say that Costa sometimes goes too far, but who can doubt his commitment to reform?

His successor Robertson plans to be the next union boss to enter the NSW parliament. Talk of his premiership ambition runs white-hot within the NSW caucus.

MPs wary of his planned career trajectory, at the expense of their own, say he’s already eyed off several possible seats where he could be inserted.

But with the Work Choices campaign now a distant memory, and a widespread wish that the electricity debate should be over, the credibility gap he needs to jump to get to parliament is wider than his predecessors’.

Robertson’s hostility to any form of electricity restructure has not seen him produce any alternative or compromise.

Further, he actually forced Iemma so far on to the back foot that the embattled premier had no choice but to fight back without new concessions, lest he looked like he’d folded.

Robertson knows his image needs reinventing.

That’s why it’s worth carefully examining his 11th-hour intervention in the threatened Sydney rail strike during this week’s World Youth Day celebrations. Robertson was nowhere to be seen over two days as the strike threat was whipped up, instead allowing an antiquated rail union secretary to barrel his way through fiery and inflammatory justifications.

As the issue hit fever pitch, Robertson calmly entered stage left, shoehorned his battered and confused union colleagues out of camera shot, and simply announced that a solution would be found. For two days he hadn’t called for calm, or urged further talks. Maybe he spent the time waiting for the critical moment to intervene, while fine-tuning his “peace in our time” news grabs.

This could be one of the first signs that, after the bloody fight between the union movement and himself against the NSW premier and most of the parliamentary Labor Party over electricity, Robertson is beginning to more carefully stage manage his persona.

In doing so, he seems to be engineering a two-pronged approach. Move Iemma to the sideline, and move himself to the frontline.