Costa says the labour movement is a joke. We’ll see who laughs last


Bob Gould

In a spectacular, bulging eyed, shrill-voiced, fist-shaking display of contempt for the Labor Party at the NSW party conference on Saturday, government Treasurer Mick Costa lashed out in a vituperative way at his old associates in the trade union movement and virtually the whole of the organised labour movement, who went on to vote him down on electricity privatisation by 702 votes to 107, about seven to one.

The naked anger and aggressive contempt Costa displayed towards the workers’ movement in which he based his career had to be seen to be believed. Some delegates sat in stunned disbelief at his extraordinary performance, but most gave him hell and the chairman had to intervene a few times to get him a hearing.

Costa seemed to think this kind of verbal head-kicking might help his project and perhaps make him some kind of martyr. Who knows what he thought? This vintage display of Costaism threw into bold relief the sharp conflicts of him and his kind with virtually the whole of the labour movement in NSW.

The cabinet rump, which largely absented itself from the conference after its defeat (Premier Iemma didn’t even wait for the vote before decamping), has now in practical terms broken with the Labor Party, the trade unions and even the party machine. It ensconced itself in its bunker in the State Office Block on Sunday, where it held a press conference, saying it wouldn’t accept the conference decision.

It is now involved in a calculated attempt to marginalise the unions and the ranks of the Labor Party. The Costa-Iemma clique clearly thinks it can dispense with the Labor Party and its rank and file in the new golden age of government-funded elections.

On the second day of the Labor conference the trade unions and the party rank and file began their response to the cabinet rump’s defection and everyone was waiting with a certain amount of trepidation for Iemma’s press conference.

Giving out my leaflet to conference, the union leaflets opposing privatisation, and Labor for Refugees leaflets, was pretty instructive for the 20 or so friends and comrades who did so. (It’s quite instructive that at this conference “comrade” and “comrades” has come back with a vengeance as a form of address, which is a sign of the times.)

Giving out leaflets, it became obvious that a dramatic gap has emerged between traditional Labor and the cabinet rump.

Ordinary branch, electorate council and trade union delegates, including trade union leaders, are usually casually but neatly dressed for a weekend conference, whether they’re from the traditional left or traditional right. These people usually take a leaflet because the leafleters are usually known to them from past arguments and from working together in common campaigns, and these delegates often address the leafleter by his or her first name.

The Labor ranks can read and they respect activism because it’s what they do themselves. Despite serious political differences from time to time, an underlying respect and friendliness prevails among labour movement activists, whatever their factional allegiance may be. They know and understand each other.

Then there’s the other breed, the men and women in black, like people from outer space, who are by and large highly paid, self-important hacks for politicians or very senior public service advisers to politicians. They’re too busy and important to read anything (and I suspect some of them can’t read), when they rush past chattering into their mobile phones, contemptuously brushing off the activists giving out leaflets.

These black-suited creatures , who are the only social base left for the cabinet rump, were bustling in and out of the conference on Saturday before the debate, but by Sunday they had vanished from the conference.

A very instructive incident happened on Friday night, apparently. The traditional Centre Unity caucus meeting was marked by a considerable increase in attendance by right-wing union delegates and ordinary union and Labor activists on the one side, who wanted the right caucus to vote against privatisation, and a throng of these black-suited beings that many of the right-wing union delegates had never seen in the labour movement before.

Apparently, the conflict was intense and the right-wing union delegates, who had anticipated a comfortable majority for their anti-privatisation proposition, were prevented by the invasion of these space aliens from putting their motion to the right-wing caucus. I wish I’d been a fly on the wall at that meeting, as the black suits encountered these knockabout moderate trade unionists, who know a few tricks, are devoted to the labour movement, and can see when they are being railroaded.

Friday night’s invasion considerably sharpened the conflict between the Costa-Iemma cabinet rump and the Unions NSW majority faction. Many of these moderate trade unionists have devoted their lives to the labour movement, in their traditional way, and are not a force to be tangled with lightly in any industrial or political blue.

Costa’s black-suited middle-class hangers on haven’t got a clue about the forces they’re unleashing in the labour movement. In a way, in their blind hostility to everything associated with the traditional labour movement and the working class, their antics are rapidly consolidating the alliance that has already developed between the left and right unions in this battle and the left and right traditional branch activists, particularly in rural areas.

Unions NSW leader John Robertson quite properly keeps drawing attention to the potent political force that both wings of the union movement showed themselves to be in their united campaign against Work Choices, which late last year sank the conservative Howard government. Robertson point out that tangling with this force is likely to be a very unpleasant experience for the recalcitrant anti-labour-movement rump in an ostensibly Labor government.

I wish I’d had a camera with me during the conclusion of the debate on privatisation on Saturday, when John Robertson from the right and Doug Cameron from the left got up very deliberately together, and insisted that Labor Party general secretary Karl Bitar make an explicit ruling that the resolution rejecting privatisation was now policy and platform for the NSW Labor Party.

That alliance, of which Robertson and Cameron are the visible symbols, is now the decisive force in the Labor Party in NSW and is looked to by the rank and file activists in Labor branches throughout the state for leadership. It is highly respected because the branch activists are politically smart and rather worldly wise, and value the development of a united trade union movement for battles to come.

This developing, fairly recent, alignment is a bit difficult for some of the branch youth on both sides to adjust to because they don’t have much experience in these matters, although some of them learn fast. The older branch activists throughout the state, from both sides of the traditional divide, seem pretty comfortable with the new arrangements.

As this new alignment flexes its muscles in the Labor Party, the politicians’ staffers — the creatures in the black suits — are likely to get a very powerful education about the workers’ movement.

Sunday was a bit of an anti-climax. Most people, from the ranks up to the leaders at the conference, more or less expected the Iemma-Costa declaration of war, and the day was dominated by discussion at all levels on what to do next.

Despite this, all the normal subjects were treated by the conference in the usual serious way. Conference decisions on a whole lot of matters, particularly industrial, health and local government, involved a fairly substantial shift to the left and went through conference almost unanimously.
In the health debate, my friend Jenny Haines, as alternate delegate from the Marrickville state electorate council, made an impassioned speech on the need for better nurse training and better industrial arrangements as part of the solution to the crisis in the health system, and she got enormous applause from the conference.

The response to Jenny’s activities is a good example of what I’m talking about. She has been attending conference since the early 1980s. Many of the older union delegates and officials remember her with respect from her five years as an elected union official in the early 1980s, and the overwhelming majority, right and left, respect her political activism in Labor for Refugees, for which she was leafleting on the weekend, and respect her activism on Work Choices, electricity privatisation and Zimbabwe.

As struggles such as this one with the cabinet rump develop, everyone looks around for reliable allies, whatever past disagreements they might have had. People who know each other through long periods of activity and conflict, sometimes in common struggles, fall into alliance rather easily, as they did in the struggle against Work Choices, and in the struggle to support the maritime union a few years ago.

It helps to have been around for a while and for people to know you.

When the belligerent response of Iemma and Costa finally issued from their bunker about 3pm, all the black-suited creatures had long vanished, and presumably were in the bunker with their bosses. There was a bit of a pause for an hour or so while the party officers and key trade union officials met in back rooms to develop a response.

The rest of us milled around talking about what to do next. In this situation the old factional differences are disappearing fast. They still exist to some extent, but the practical situation is that all the conference delegates who’ve been around for a while are now allied and everyone’s opinion on what to do next has some value.

A lot of people seem to talk to me in this kind of situation, as I’ve been leafleting in crisis situations for more years than I or they like to remember and I’ve become regarded as a bit of a repository of the history of the movement, a role I’m happy to play.

Eventually the response was put together and standing orders were suspended for some speeches on the dispute, and the industrial report was moved by John Robertson. The three major speakers were Luke Foley, the left assistant secretary, John Robertson, and Bernie Riordan, the state president.

Robertson spoke at length, saying a certain respect should prevail in the labour movement as it must in any successful relationship or marriage. This respect had been completely violated by the cabinet rump, he said. The conference found his address pretty moving, and he went on to say the conference position on privatisation was not negotiable in any further talks with the government. A further resolution was carried reaffirming the opposition to privatisation, with wording that is more watertight under ALP rules.

Luke Foley, who is rather conservative and serious by demeanour, spoke about how the Labor Party was descended from the four “Solidarities”: the handful of members of the parliamentary caucus who accepted the paramount role of conference decisions after the first split, in 1894. Foley was obviously tired, as also was Robertson, and conscious of the gravity of the situation.

There’s a certain hesitation at the moment among all the elected leaders of the Labor Party and the unions because of the rather grave responsibility of finally consummating the necessary split with the rebel cabinet rump.

In the suspension of standing orders a motion was carried unanimously to seek a further meeting under the aegis of the traditional committee that negotiates between the parliamentary Labor Party and the unions. It consists of the five Labor Party officers and the four leaders of the parliamentary Labor Party in the upper and lower houses.

The motion asserted that the negotiations must take place within the framework that the rejection of electricity privatisation was party policy and that the results of such negotiations be reported to the administrative committee.

The new administrative committee and party officers were elected rather quietly at the conference, and opponents of privatisation were dominant on both left and right tickets for the administrative committee, so on the face of it there shouldn’t be any problem with that committee taking necessary decisions.

It would be a mistake to be naïve about a certain hesitation throughout the unions and the Labor Party at the prospect of a split, which is entirely normal, and which to some extent I share myself. It’s a big responsibility to have to participate along with all the other activists in the Labor Party in such a development. I have been through one Labor split in my lifetime. It was necessary and I’d do it again, but it wasn’t pretty.

The good guys won, but at considerable cost, and that situation would probably be repeated in this split, if it comes to that, which now looks very possible.

John Robertson held a press conference, a bit of which I saw at the end of the conference, and he was forthright about the party’s rejection of privatisation being non-negotiable in future discussions.

Conference usually tapers off fairly dramatically on Sunday afternoon, but that was less the case this time because of the gravity of the issues being faced.

I was sitting outside the conference towards the end of the afternoon as delegates started to leave, the country ones first. About every second delegate seemed to stop for a few words with other comrades, at the risk of missing their plane. These Labor and trade union activists, of both left and right are the salt of the earth, and good comrades to have in any political conflict.

Like me, they would prefer that the cabinet accepted the conference decisions, but they’re not stupid and they’re determined that defeat of the privatisation is not negotiable, and that if there must be political war we have to win it. The ranks, middle echelons and leaders of the labour movement are pretty good allies in any political war.

The next stage seems to be a desperate battle to get the magic number of 36 of the 71 members of the parliamentary caucus. The right-wing union forces are already lobbying every right-wing member of the state caucus, along with the four courageous right-wing MLAs who have already put their hands up against privatisation, and the left backbenchers are beginning to lobby the left ministers and those of their right-wing caucus colleagues who might be amenable to lobbying.

Already several of the left cabinet ministers appear to conceded they have to break with cabinet solidarity and vote against privatisation in caucus, and the battle is on to get the rest of the left ministers into the tent, along with a couple of left backbenchers who’ve been a bit slow off the mark.

A lot of frantic lobbying is likely in the next couple of days, and everyone in society or the workers movement who knows how to write a letter, send an email or pick up a telephone should be on the hammer of every Labor politician, strengthening the resolve of those who are already on-side and putting pressure on those who are recalcitrant. You can bet your shirt that the cabinet rump will be doing the same thing.

We’re in for the fight of our lives, with big forces against us, as all the kept media of the ruling class are doing all they can to help Iemma and Costa. Pressure is also beginning to come from forces in the federal arena, including some on the left, who appear to want a bit of a protest but an ultimate capitulation. The influence of these forces seems to be eroding rapidly. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in his address to the conference on Sunday, limited himself to generalities on the conflict, although he has previously supported privatisation.

What happens after Tuesday is uncertain. Battles in the Labor Party and the labour movement tend to go in stages, although there are sometimes explosions and leaps. If we lose on Tuesday in the difficult arena of the state Labor caucus, the next stage is obviously in the parliament when the legislation starts to unfold.

After Tuesday, if caucus goes the wrong way, the question of some industrial response seems to be indicated, but I don’t have the job of assessing what form that should take. Such matters at this stage must rely on the necessary interaction between trade union leaders and their members, and their estimate of what is possible in this still rather defensive situation for organised labour. Abstract propagandistic demands parachuted in are worse than useless in this kind of situation.

A big community campaign will be necessary if we don’t win on Tuesday, and it seems we’re in for the fight of our lives. It seems to me that a broad section of the labour movement now understands this, from rank and file level right up to the union leaderships.

When the women and men in black, as emissaries of the dark side, invade the labour movement, led by the snarling Dalek Mick Costa, belting out with his staring eyes: “Sell everything, sell everything, sell everything”, the human race, represented by the labour movement, reels a little, and then starts to pick itself up to repel the Daleks of neoliberalism. That’s the point we’ve reached.


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2 Responses to “Costa says the labour movement is a joke. We’ll see who laughs last”

  1. Ozleft Says:

    The anti-privatisation resolution passed by the NSW Labor Party conference on Saturday (May 3). The resolution was moved as an amendment to the finance and economic committee report.

    Conference re-affirms the 1997 Conference decision to oppose the privatisation of the state owned electricity assets.

    Conference rejects the current NSW government proposal to privatise the state’s electricity retailers and lease the generators to the private sector.

    The electricity industry belongs to the people of NSW. It is an essential service that should not be sold off to private companies. The people of NSW were led to believe the government had no plans to privatise electricity. The NSW government does not have a mandate for their proposal.

    Selling and leasing the state’s electricity assets will result in families paying more for their electricity and cuts to services. Jobs in the industry are at risk, particularly from companies that have a history of contracting out and off-shoring jobs. In the long run the current proposal will result in a further consolidation of the national electricity market by a few companies.

    It makes little sense for the government to sell off these assets in an environment of uncertainty regarding carbon trading. The private sector will demand large discounts on the cost of the assets, undervaluing potential sale proceeds. Privatisation will be bad for our environment as private companies have an incentive to sell more electricity to boost their profits.

    The state’s retail and generation electricity businesses are important, valuable assets for the state. They are a significant part of the state’s balance sheet and their dividends provide funding for other portfolio areas, including health and education.

    Conference notes the Impact Statement from the Unsworth Consultative Reference Committee and the NSW government’s response to it. Whilst we welcome the efforts of the government to improve the protections for consumers, workers and the environment, the improvements do not satisfy the overall criteria in the ALP policy regarding government assets sales. In particular, the government’s response does not meet the criteria because:

    The proposal does not guarantee any extra base load electricity;

    There is no way to stop market consolidation as a result of corporations buying the assets of competitors;

    The guarantees regarding maintenance of local and regional jobs and job numbers are not enforceable;

    Retail workers will not have the same employment guarantee as generation workers;

    There is no method of achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions from existing generators.

    Accordingly, Conference rejects the majority conclusions contained within the Unsworth report.

    Conference recognises that the private sector currently plays a role in the generation and retailing of electricity in NSW, and that role is likely to increase as demand grows. Conference does not accept that the private sector cannot compete with state owned companies in the market.

    Maintaining state ownership electricity assets ensures better outcomes for consumers, workers and the environment.

    Conference notes that the government’s proposal is a breach of party policy and directs state MPs not to support the proposal. Conference further reminds all members of parliament that they have signed a pledge to uphold party policy, as determined by the ALP Conference. Therefore, all members of the State Parliamentary caucus, including all members of cabinet are reminded that they are bound by the Party Platform and policy as determined by the most recent Annual Conference.

    Conference requests that the incoming Administrative Committee contacts all members of the State Parliamentary Labor Party, informing them of the Conference decision in relation to privatisation and reminding them of the pledge.

    Moved: Matt Thistlethwaite Seconded: Lorraine Usher

  2. Ozleft Says:

    Urgency motion adopted by NSW ALP conference on Sunday (May 4)

    Conference calls for an urgent meeting of the Joint Campaign Committee (the Party Officers and the four leaders of the State Parliament Labor Party) in light of the Premier’s media comments this afternoon. The Party Officers shall then report back to a full meeting of the Administrative Committee as a matter of urgency.

    Conference reaffirms the decisions taken yesterday afternoon.

    We note the Premier’s stated intention to continue discussions.

    Conference resolves that any resolution of the matter must comply with the policy and platform of the Party

    Moved: Bernie Riordan
    Seconded: Luke Foley

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