If there is one iron law of internal Labor politics it is that if you need to take it to Conference to win an argument, you have already lost it.

That union leaders have needed to rely on delegates to embarrass Iemma over his privatisation plans shows less their resurgence than that they have already lost control over the party leadership.

If there is a whiff of the past about this dispute, it is understandable. NSW Labor is going through a process that has largely been completed elsewhere. One of the earliest and most successful of the ‘modern’ Labor state parties to marry the unions and business together is now going through the convulsions to resemble the technocrat parties that have installed themselves in the other state capitals and in Canberra. The difference for NSW is that the Liberal opposition is now so decrepit that this transformation is unlikely to have the discretion of opposition but be conducted in full public view.

However, while it is the bankruptcy of the Liberals that is forcing this row to be conducted in public, it is the bankruptcy of the ALP which is why Iemma wants it to be conducted in public. What those who think this is the end of Iemma forget is that this is a brawl of his choosing. The issue here is not the privatisation per se but the way Iemma is deliberately snubbing the unions and forcing them to take their opposition public. Former Minster Rodney Cavalier touched on the charade going on here:

The trade unions are left in nominal control of the party, just so long as they always acquiesce with what the Government wants to do, but there is a corresponding obligation on the part of the Government to explain itself to the trade union movement on what it intends to do and convince them of its merits. Labor leaders over 67 years have managed to do that, but not this time, and the envelope has been pushed too far.

It is hardly that the NSW ALP has a proud tradition of socialism to uphold that has caused the problems with the privatisation plans, than the fact that Iemma has rubbed the party’s face in it by by-passing its union power brokers and so undermining their authority in the party. After the weekend’s conference, he now looks set to defy the party as well by needing to, as Treasurer Costa put it, “weigh up the views of 700 people as opposed to seven million people”.

Iemma has had to take this course because of the second part of this transformation that has been widely reported yet strangely, not been linked to Iemma’s privatisation tactics, namely the corruption scandals that have been in the headlines over the last year. As Labor’s links with unions become ‘nominal’, so its ties with business become less justifiable and any remaining links get tagged as ‘corruption’.

Iemma would have always needed to proceed with this public row with unions and the party so as to signal that the government has adjusted to a period when political interests are no longer represented at the government level. The NSW ALP’s slowness in doing so is what underpins the government’s malaise compared to state and federal counterparts. What is forcing his hand is that the corrosive effect of this depoliticising of state government has now gone further following the impact of the scandals on the government’s authority over the last year. There is no better way to do this than look the strong man against a party and union leadership whose influence on government is already a sham. This row is not his political death-wish but his only route to salvation.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 5 May 2008.

Filed under State and federal politics

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