The Underbelly of Australian Labor.
By Greg Patmore*
Simon Benson, Betrayal. The Underbelly of Australian Labor, Pantera Press, 2010.
ISBN: 978-0-9807418-2-7; A$49.99 RRP; hardback; 320 pp.
Simon Benson, an award winning national political reporter for the Daily Telegraph and also a President of the NSW Parliamentary Press Gallery, has written a highly readable account of the fall of Morris Iemma, the Labor Premier of New South Wales from August 2005 to September 2008. Iemma had succeeded Bob Carr who had been Premier of NSW since Labor's successful election campaign in April 1995. Iemma had a reputation being a good electoral performer and won government in his own right in March 2007 in what was considered by some to be an 'unwinnable' election. Iemma's leadership, however, came apart following a confrontation with Unions NSW, the state peak union body, and the head office of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party over the particular issue of power privatisation and the general question of the influence of the Party platform on a Labor Government's actions.
Benson draws upon a range of discussions with Iemma and his Treasurer, Michael Costa, who strongly advocated power privatisation. Costa, who according to Benson was 'ideologically hostile to public sector businesses' (p. 14), had a close personal relationship with Iemma and his political demise coincided with the resignation of Iemma. He also drew upon the insights of Barry Unsworth, a former NSW Premier, and the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating. All were members of the Centre-Unity faction that had dominated NSW Labor Politics for decades, but began disintegrating into further sub-factions during the 1990s. One significant omission was Kevin Rudd, the then Labor Prime Minister, who refused to be interviewed for book. Benson sees Rudd as a crucial player in the events that led to downfall of Iemma. According to Benson, Rudd promised Iemma that he would back Iemma in any confrontation with the NSW Party and the unions over power privatisation by taking the issue to the ALP national executive and obtaining endorsement for Iemma's actions. Rudd wanted the controversy on power privatisation delayed until after the 2007 federal elections, which the Labor Party won.
The book raises a number of issues of general interest and specific interest in NSW as we approach a state election where it is widely predicted that the Labor Party will be defeated. Benson focuses on the influence of the trade union movement in Labor Party as a problem for ensuring the political autonomy of current and future Labor Governments. He seems confused about the meaning of terms such as 'social democratic' claiming that the Democrats in the US are a true 'social democratic party' (p. 279). There are other parties such as the Labour Party in the United Kingdom and the New Democratic Party that have a significant presence of unions in their ranks, though the UK Labour Party also included other interests such as the co-operative movement. He notes that while the unions command 50 percent of the votes in ALP conferences they have 'less than 15 per cent' of workforce as members (p. 280). While one can argue about what is the right proportion for the union presence in Labor Party and union influence, there are other aspects of the fall of the Iemma Government that could have been explored in more detail.
As Benson notes on several occasions, the NSW Labor Party leadership was obsessed with debt rating agencies and the sale of state assets, particularly relating to electricity, as the cornerstone of their economic policies and a way of ensuring sufficient capital to remedy problems with public infrastructure particularly in regard to transport. It is unclear what future NSW governments would do to do resolve inevitable problems related to decaying infrastructure and a growing population if there are no further assets to sell. Alternative sustainable energy strategies that focus on communities rather large power generators such as local power co-operatives do not seem to have been canvassed in any depth. There are few insights into what role the financial community and the public servants in the NSW Treasury played in shaping and reinforcing these views. One interesting moment was the decision of the rating agency Standard and Poor to place the NSW Government on credit watch for its failure to get privatisation of electricity passed just as Iemma was in the final throws of fighting those who opposed his plans for the privatisation. Treasurer Costa used this as a tool to encourage Iemma to continue his fight for privatisation (pp. 222-3).
Within the NSW parliamentary Labor Party Benson notes the particular influence of Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid from the 'Terrigals sub-faction' of Centre Unity in the parliamentary caucus. In the wake of Iemma's resignation as Premier over the issue of his right to choose Cabinet portfolios, Benson claims that Tripodi and Obeid were at Tripodi's home at Fairfield, a Sydney suburb, on the next day 'getting down to the business of shaping the new Cabinet' (p. 258). This is remarkable given that Obeid had not held a Cabinet position since 2003. When Nathan Rees, Iemma's successor as Labor Premier, removed Tripodi from the Cabinet, according to Benson 'Tripodi and Obeid began planning their revenge' (p. 269) and played a major role in his demise in December 2009. The role that Tripodi, Obeid and their supporters in parliamentary Labor caucus played in the instability of the Labor Government following the departure of Bob Carr as Premier will remain an interesting question for future labour historians.
Overall, I found this book to be a well-written and interesting account of the resignation of Premier Iemma and subsequent events. It raises long term issues such as the relationship between the unions and Labor Governments and provokes questions about the foundations of the power that some individuals enjoyed in the NSW Parliamentary Labour Caucus during this period.
* (Greg Patmore is a Professor of Business and Labour History in Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney)
Published 22 February 2011