The charge of the corporate heavy brigade


Ed Lewis

After last weekend’s revolt of the NSW Labor Party ranks on electricity privatisation, the media are suddenly full of praise for Morris Iemma, previously execrated by the very same media as an incompetent leader of a bungling and corruption ridden government. Iemma is urged play the strongman in opposing the Labor ranks and offered the carrot that this might his improve his dismal opinion poll figures, never mind the fact that he’s going against the opinions of something like 80 per cent of the state.

This media support for Iemma will be a five-day wonder, and as soon as any danger of a Labor government carrying out Labor policy has passed, the likes of Imre Salusinszky will return to their more customary role of campaigning for the Liberal Party. Labor MPs might want to ponder who Salusinszky and his mates will be barracking for when next they go looking for foot-sloggers for an election campaign.

The media have even done what they can to help snarling Mick Costa retrieve something from his personal train wreck at the Labor conference, presenting his smiling visage on the front page, rather than the bulging-eyed fury to which he was driven by the prospect of the Labor ranks having any real say in policy.

Part of the post-conference offensive was to roll out some big guns from the past to advise the Labor caucus not to defy Iemma and his privatisation push. On Tuesday caucus members were given a letter signed by three former Labor premiers, Bob Carr, Neville Wran and Barrie Unsworth, and two former Unions NSW (previously NSW Labor Council) leaders, Michael Easson and John MacBean. This was backed up by an opinion piece by former Labor prime minister Paul Keating in the Sydney Morning Herald, reinforced by a front-page article quoting extensively from Keating.

Three of these worthies are now employees of investment banks, either directly involved in the case of Keating, or likely to be involved in the case of Carr and Easson, in any privatisation of the NSW electricity assets, or for that matter any other public assets in Australia. But more of that shortly.

How about the other loyal servants of the Labor Party who signed this letter.

Well, Neville Wran is a non-executive director of Cabcharge, who owns 250,000 shares in that operation, valued at $9.08 each, or $2,270,000 in total. Not bad for an old Labor stalwart and it’s great to see he that didn’t have to go back on the tools after his term in parliament. Of course, lawyers don’t have unions, so it’s unlikely Wran ever was a member of any union, but he knows the worth of union members’ opinions: they don’t count.

Cabcharge is not terribly popular with independent taxi owners, as it has a near monopoly on in-cab, non-cash payments, but it’s a good earner so Nev probably doesn’t care too much about a few complaints. After all, as he has just advised Morris Iemma, a good Labor leader is there to ram unpopular policies down the throats of the ranks. Wran might not be a Labor leader any more, but he hasn’t forgotten the ropes.

Greens MP Lee Rhiannon has raised a few awkward questions about Cabcharge donations to the Labor Party, but again, what’s that to Nev the Labor man? That’s just the business of politics, isn’t it?

Then there’s Barrie Unsworth. It’s no surprise that he put his scratch on the letter to caucus, since he headed the committee appointed by the Iemma government to inquire into the electricity privatisation proposal and whether it complied with Labor policy. Predictably, his committee found that the privatisation was just hunky dory, although three members of the committee issued a dissenting report and a couple more said their support was conditional on environmental guarantees (which of course the government was happy to give since they will mean nothing when contracts are signed behind the veil of commercial confidentiality).

Coincidentally, that’s not the only job Unsworth has done for the NSW government. He also conducted a review of bus services, and no doubt his services were well rewarded. Perhaps he can look forward to more consultancy work from a grateful Iemma government, and no doubt his fees will be suitably modest.

That brings us to Michael Easson, a non-executive director of corporate real estate giant ING and of Macquarie Infrastructure Group, an arm of Macquarie Bank. He’s eminently qualified to advise Morris Iemma on how to tell the Labor ranks to keep their noses out of politics and stick to electoral foot-slogging for politicians who will ignore their wishes.

Bob Carr’s role with Macquarie Bank is well known, and we’re sure that wouldn’t have influenced him in his decision in the last few days to tell the media Morris Iemma should ignore the Labor ranks.

Carr says it’s irrelevant whether electricity generation assets are publicly or privately owned. So why is it that he’s so keen for private interests to get their hands on these assets? It couldn’t be the $1.5 billion a year they pump into the NSW budget, could it? What a waste, when all that money could be going into the pockets of private “investors” as they are called in polite company, or speculators as some more honest folk might call them.

Of course, true believer Paul Keating was loudest, as is his custom, in expressing his opinion of the conference decision of the Labor ranks. He was more polite than Mick Costa, restraining himself to calling the Labor Party members “lemmings”, rather than Costa’s “dickheads”.

He gives the game away in his second paragraph, though, describing Iemma and Costa a “pair of honest souls”, a description not many others would have thought of.

Keating goes on to credit Iemma with having won a difficult election for Labor, when in fact it was a huge union effort that revived Labor’s election fortunes, saving a government that was widely recognised to be incompetent. The other factors that saved Labor early last year were that the Liberal opposition appeared even more incompetent than Iemma’s government and the Howard government was on the skids federally.

Keating goes on to savage NSW Labor president Bernie Riordan for being insufficiently ruthless in keeping the ranks in line. It wouldn’t have happened in his time, he says, and no doubt he’s right.

Keating shares Carr’s view that the NSW electricity assets should be sold and, by the way he adds, his views are not influenced by the fact that he’s international chairman of Lazard Carnegie Wylie, a corporate investment house that’s up to its neck in the electricity privatisation process.

Isn’t it a comfort that the NSW Labor government can call on such a collection of good Labor men for advice in difficult times! Why would Morris Iemma need the ranks of the Labor Party when he can assemble a such an impressive collection of disinterested bankers and corporate hangers on?


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