Paul Keating famously said, ‘where goes NSW, so goes federal Labor’. I read Betrayal: The Underbelly of Australian Labor before the federal election, and watching the drama unfold I have to say it was a prescient read.
Simon Benson, Chief political reporter for the Daily Telegraph focuses on the fall of Morris Iemma as NSW Premier and his ill-fated attempt to privatise the NSW electricity supply. His forensic examination of the Iemma government, including the machinations of the faceless apparatchiks that really run Labor, as well as the factions and unions, throws a revealing light on federal Labor.
The privatisation of NSW’s electricity supply was a contentious issue during Morris Iemma’s reign as premier. Traditional Labor, especially the unions, have always been opposed to privatisation, as have I. Benson though, through the arguments of Iemma and Costa, makes it seem crucial that the electricity supply be privatised.
NSW was facing a financial and social crisis. NSW had grown at a rapid rate and there was no longer the infrastructure to support the growing population, let alone the projected growth. Roads, hospitals, railways, water and electricity supplies were on the verge of collapse and there was no money to repair anything. The solution was to sell Pacific Power (NSW’s power company) and use the money to bankroll the upgrading and repairs to other infrastructure programs. The choice is presented as do that or do nothing and let NSW slide into the sort of infrastructure dysfunctionalism commonly seen in developing countries.
Given the scenario painted, privatisation seemed to be the only solution. Thus Iemma and Costa pushed it vigorously. The unions opposed it, as did many in the ALP, and therein lies the rub for an ALP Premier.
Betrayal begins as Sydney is immersed in the APEC conference, with Rudd stealing the show from Howard and showing his credentials to be the next PM (and The Chaser team stealing the show from Rudd). Iemma is on the verge of announcing the privatisation of the NSW power supply, ensuring a shit fight with the unions and many in the ALP. Rudd is terrified Iemma’s announcement will derail his election campaign and make the ALP on the nose for many constituents.
As far as Rudd was concerned, Iemma was about to snatch the golden apple from his grasp and toss it out the window. Rudd pleaded with Iemma to hold off, to not announce his privatisation bill until after the federal election: ‘If you help me, I’ll get elected and you will prosper. Work with me and, when the time comes, we can fuck them together.’
Iemma agreed – as long as Rudd was committed to the national executive vetoing any state conference defeat of Iemma’s policy.
But the promise was broken by Rudd and Benson telegraphs this fact throughout the book, so much so that when he gets to the point where Rudd does break his promise it’s anti-climactic.
What is fascinating about Betrayal is watching the machinations of the factions squeeze the life out of Iemma. The acquisition of power has become the raison d’etre for the NSW ALP, as opposed to governing the state and ensuring that people have a good quality of life. It becomes clear that the privatisation of the power supply is a furphy in terms of the attacks against Iemma from those within his own party. Iemma was pilloried because he refused to do what he was told and therefore the unions and factions felt they no longer controlled him.
There is some merit in this, of course. A leader is made a leader by the party to some extent and so should be accountable to the party. But there is a difference between being made accountable and being a puppet with a number of different powerful interests pulling the strings. At the end of the day, the ALP is not an anarcho-syndicalist organisation with Iemma being a recallable delegate. It is an organisation that elects its leader by virtue of his or her ability to lead. It seems that many in the ALP treated Iemma like he was a recallable delegate, a fact painfully illuminated in the NSW State Labor conference where the unions and factions manoeuvred to depose Iemma while Iemma waited in vain for Rudd to save him.
It’s possible that Iemma could have weathered the storm, or marshalled the forces to defeat the motion he knew was coming. But Iemma was a premier whose resilience had been whittled away by a series of scandals that rocked NSW Labor. Milton Orkopoulous and his paedophile drug ring, Iguanagate, Della Bosca and his affair, Nathan Rees and the allegation of domestic violence and so on. Much of Iemma’s time was taken up managing a series of fuck-ups from his ministers rather than campaigning and outlining coherent arguments for privatisation. That was left to Costa, who was unwaveringly loyal to Iemma and who had been championing privatisation for years. Costa is a highly intelligent and driven man but he has poor people skills and tended to get people offside quickly and permanently. He had no chance of convincing anyone of the merits of privatisation. Thus by the time the state conference came about the unions had been exerting pressure on members of Iemma’s government (in a very threatening and vicious manner, according to the book) and the factions had been undermining Iemma at every opportunity. He had no chance.
The ringmasters of the circus of NSW Labor were Mark Arib, general secretary of NSW Labor, and Karl Bitar, assistant general secretary – both from the right. They were a star chamber of two who engineered the rise and fall of MP’s in the NSW ALP, including the short-lived premiership of the inexperienced and incompetent Nathan Rees, who took over after Iemma had been ‘executed’. These two men were the shadowy operatives who really ran NSW Labor – forget the unions, forget the factions. These men played all parties to get their own ends.
Soon after installing Rees as Premier, Bitar resigned as NSW party boss to take over as Rudd’s new campaign director. Upon hearing this news, Frank Sartor sent a text to Bitar: ‘Congratulations on the new job. Now that you’ve fucked up NSW, you can go and fuck up the country.’ Which is exactly what he did, overseeing perhaps the biggest swing against a first-term government in Australian political history and giving the ALP not an election win, but a stitched together deal that has them treading water in the rough sea of politics. Time will tell if their governance survives. Mark Arbib went federal before the election and Rudd made him Minister for Employment participation. By all accounts, he skulks around the halls of Canberra crunching numbers and doing deals. You can bet your vote that Bitar and Arbib had a big part in deposing Rudd, and if Gillard is also executed, it’ll be their hands that swing the axe.
For anyone interested in modern Australian politics this is a great read. For anyone who wonders what the hell happened to the ALP – the party once supposed to be there for those less fortunate, a party of compassion and hope that has become a facsimile of the Liberal party – this is a crucial read. It’s obvious that what happened in NSW is a microcosm of what’s going on with the ALP federally.
Read it and look into the future.