Morris Iemma: Political maestro

Friday, 27 June 2008 

Apologies to any NSW readers who injured themselves falling off the stool at this headline, but just indulge for a bit. There is a basic misconception about the way the political situation in NSW is being discussed, prompted by the latest Newspoll that shows the NSW government has fallen behind (and attempts by The Australian to stretch it to a nationwide trend for state Labor by making a big deal out of minor poll movements in other states).

Analysis of Iemma’s position suffers too much from seeing him as a victim of fate, rather than also, partly, a maker of it. It might be useful to separate that which is out of his control and that which is not.

The NSW Labor government has been in a state of growing paralysis that it has, until recently, been unable to tackle. The source of this paralysis is the weakening power of the union movement which has undermined the effectiveness of the last Labor government over which it has influence. The NSW government was one of the earliest and most successful versions of the Modern Labor Mark I model which brought unions and business together and which reached its apogee during the Hawke years.

As unions lose their influence, so Labor’s links with the unions become less useful to business. The normal big business links with Labor, which was so openly paraded during the Hawke/Keating years, became less systematic, lost their legitimacy and rapidly become seen as corruption. So we have coming to the surface such tawdry intrigues like the ones between property developers and the Wollongong City Council.

The other pressure point on the government from this paralysis is in the provision of public services, because let’s cut to the chase here. When people say these days that public services need to be improved what they mean is taking on the public service employees that provide them. In the past, the Labor way would have been using the relationship with union bureaucrats to push through ‘efficiencies’ (longer hours, lower pay). However, their declining social influence has made that less possible.

In Victoria, Labor had the luxury of opposition while it watched Kennett take on the public service, wringing its hands while it quietly accommodated itself to the new political reality. In NSW, Labor did not have the blessing of a state bank collapse and so was forced to have to deal with it themselves while in government. With unions still influential in the party but less so in society, the Labor government is stuck with a dead limb it has to cut off.

This is the essence of Iemma’s row about electricity privatisation. The scenario of Iemma as victim can never explain why it is that a Premier facing corruption, public dissatisfaction over services and Ministers falling out of Cabinet for the most sordid reasons, then wants to go and seemingly make things even worse by picking a fight with his parliamentary colleagues, the party membership and the unions all at once. But this issue is not really about whether electricity is better being provided by the government or the private sector, but the break that will mean on union influence if it goes through. It is why Iemma has gone out of his way to upset the unions and exclude them from the process (which was not always a feature of Labor-led privatisations in other states). For Iemma, privatisation is not just another of his problems, but by dealing with the union links, a way of solving them.

Will this work? There are a couple of things in his favour. Firstly Iemma has help from Canberra. Gillard’s intention to centralise the country’s unions under her federal anti-union regime has led to common purpose in dealing with one of Iemma’s major barriers to breaking with the unions, Della Bosca, through his unfortunate wife.

Secondly, of course, is the opposition. The Newspoll survey putting the coalition at 52/48 is hardly where a normal opposition should be given the state of the government. The ABC’s Antony Green has noted that given Labor’s low primary vote (32%), Newspoll seems to have overstated Labor’s 2PP based on the 2007 election. Although given that surely a lot of the support lost in recent months would have come from Labor supporters disaffected with Iemma’s breach of party policies, it might not necessarily translate through to the Liberals anyway.

However, the weakness of the opposition is not all good news for Labor. Iemma is essentially trying to move NSW Labor to the technocratic Modern Labor Mark II model in line with the other states. But unlike the other states and federally, it has been left so late that the decrepit state of the Liberals means this has to happen while in government. If the normal two-party system was still in operation Iemma would have lost the last election and all of this would be happening with the discretion of opposition.

Furthermore, the weakness of the NSW Labor leadership means it is happening without the normal political arguments that were used with moderate success by Labor leaders like Keating. This lack of ideological cover to what Iemma is doing is what makes the process look out of control and him look like a victim of fate. All of this is politically corrosive to both parties. It is signified by the rise of the Independents who are likely to be more the beneficiaries than the coalition. These are a new breed of independents who may pose as single issue candidates, but are really nothing more than anti-politics politicians signifying the erosion of the old two-party system. At least Iemma can take heart from the experiences of other states, which show that at the end of the day, these independents are generally quite comfortable working with the type of technocratic Labor governments that Iemma is trying to achieve.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 27 June 2008.

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