NSW was the loser in Rudd’s betrayal of Morris Iemma
You can understand why Kevin Rudd wanted to take out a virtual restraining order against the NSW Labor Government.
But despite his long-standing and open contempt for the NSW ALP, it has now emerged that Kevin Rudd was still prepared to insert himself in the biggest and most important policy battle in the party’s recent history – and then squib it when he was most required.
Rudd’s ambivalence towards this motley government is easy to comprehend. “Young Labor twenty years on” is how one party figure from NSW characterises the drift into personality politics, petty bickering and abuse, aberrant conduct and, most of all, policy paralysis which has marred the past few years of Labor rule in NSW.
It’s an evocative analogy. The exodus of relatively talented frontbenchers which followed Bob Carr’s sudden resignation in 2007 – former health minister Craig Knowles, deputy premier Andrew Refshauge, Treasurer Michael Egan, to name a few – left NSW Labor’s talent pool looking seriously depleted.
It enabled the rise of two-bit party hacks and hangers-on who a couple of decades ago were shouting at each other across the refectory and trying to shaft each other in the student elections, the difference being that they are now doing it in front of an entire state.
Losing one premier is bad luck, two might be considered careless, but getting rid of three in less than three years suggests that a pretty shocking pattern of behaviour has emerged, where the government is interested only in staying in power and will remain in a permanent state of war with itself to try to eke out an improbable and undeserved fifth term in office.
This extraordinary (and extraordinarily depressing) period of Australian politics is chronicled by Daily Telegraph political correspondent and former Macquarie St bureau chief Simon Benson in his new book Betrayal: The Underbelly of Australian Labor.
The book does a brilliant job in capturing the often cinematic quality of the treachery within the ALP.
There is one scene that is straight out of a movie – shortly before he was dumped by the party in late 2008, Morris Iemma held a series of informal meetings at his western Sydney home with the widely-disliked factional puppet masters Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid. There were a raft of changes underway to the frontbench – John Watkins was about to quit as Deputy Premier, John Della Bosca was set for the high jump, the deeply unpopular Reba Meagher was facing demotion, and Treasurer Michael Costa was threatening to quit over the abandonment of electricity privatisation.
At one of these dinner meetings Iemma overheard Tripodi and Obeid talking about Costa, in which it was said that the party would have “to get rid of both of them”.
Iemma did not believe what he heard at the time, that there was no way the pair would have been talking about him. He now believes that they were – given that he was rolled a couple of days later you can see why. To this day it remains one of the key reasons why he refuses to talk to his former best mate Tripodi, having invited him and Obeid into his home, where his wife Santina prepared a lovely dinner for the pair, who in Iemma’s view were prepared to sit under his roof furtively discussing the destruction of his career.
Ahead of his elevation to the federal Labor leadership, Kevin Rudd was happy to tell anyone who would listen that he feared the performance of the NSW Government could hold back the party’s vote in our most populous state at the 2007 federal poll.
But for all these misgivings, Rudd was still prepared to make a promise to back in the permanently embattled former premier Morris Iemma as he mounted a noble and brave attempt to privatise the state’s power industry.
And then, having made that promise, to renege, fearing that with federal Labor so far ahead in the polls, there was little point risking a debilitating and distracting battle with the labour movement.
Benson reveals in his book that, at a meeting attended by two senior Labor staffers, the then federal Opposition Leader told Iemma :“If you help me, I’ll get elected and you will prosper. Work with me and, when the time comes, we can f ... them [the unions] together.” He subsequently pulled away from that commitment.
The revelation is a bad one for Rudd, for two reasons.
It stands as a sneak preview of the vacillation we have seen from him as Prime Minister, as someone who is too prepared to walk away from tough decisions, or to simply abandon promises once they become too expensive or inconvenient.
It also gives Rudd some personal ownership of the genuine crisis of infrastructure in NSW.
The sell-off would have raised at least $20 billion, which as anyone who’s tried to catch a train in Sydney or been stuck on a tollway would attest, could have bought a lot of desperately needed infrastructure.
If the conservatives are smart they can sheet home some of the blame for this failure to Kevin Rudd. Obviously, it’s an honour he shares with the opportunistic NSW Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell, who for base political motives blocked the power sale in defiance of long-standing Liberal Party principles.
But having promised to back Iemma, and then running away, Rudd looks like a bit of a coward who was prepared to put political convenience ahead of hard policy work.
The saddest part of all this is that Iemma was one of the very few people in the NSW Labor Party who was trying to change the culture of the show. Bob Carr and Michael Egan had tried and failed to win support for the power sale on the floor of ALP State Conference, and it was a tremendously brave move by Iemma to bring the debate on again, and to threaten to go it alone if need be, for the good of the State.
He knew that NSW was in economic trouble, he knew that it needed a big injection of money for infrastructure, he knew that Caucus and the industrial wing of the party needed to drag itself out of tired old ideological debates and into the 20th century.
A few years later and nothing has changed, all that has happened is that Iemma is gone, making way for Nathan Rees, who made way for Kristina Keneally, who now presides over the exact same problems Iemma had been trying to address by fixing state finances through a lucrative power sale.
Courtesy of Simon Benson’s book, we can thank Kevin Rudd in no small part for the fact that NSW remains in this parlous position, and that the one bloke who was trying to fix it is a footnote in history.
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