Sunday, July 13, 2008

Premier Dilemma: Whither Morris Iemma?

A week out from his 47th birthday, NSW Premier Morris Iemma announced his intention to fight on as leader saying he is listening to the criticism which is “sending him a clear message to work harder”. Many in politics and the media have interpreted these criticisms (both in poor opinion polls and from factions within the ruling party) as a sign that Iemma cannot “take a trick” and should quit. The calls come in the wake of criticism after a string of recent scandals. These included his disgraceful “annoyance laws” for World Youth Day (laws the Catholic Church says it didn’t ask for), his senior Minister John Della Bosca’s resignation for his role in the Iguanagate farce, a Labor MP’s involvement in a Wollongong bribery scandal and the revolt by trade unions over Iemma’s plans for privatisation of the electricity retail sector.

But writing in the Australian yesterday (unfortunately article not online), Imre Salusinszky poured cold water on the arguments that Iemma is on his way out. He said his party enemies lacked the numbers to replace him and the Sydney media outlets which have predicted his demise have been writing the same exclusives since December last year. Salusinszky may not be totally neutral observer, he wrote a feature article on Iemma for the Weekend Australian in early 2007. Crikey have commented on the strangeness of a “fevered anti-communist and hard right ideologue from Quadrant” supporting Iemma, himself the son of a Communist.

Iemma’s father Giuseppe was a member of the Communist Party in the tough southern province of Reggio Calabria, in the boot heel of Italy. The Iemmas owned a patch of land outside Martone in the hills of Calabria. But poverty forced Giuseppe and his wife Maria to emigrate to Sydney in 1960. They faced this new and strange environment among friends; they shared a house with five other newly arrived Italian families on an estate in Glebe. Morris Iemma was born a year later. The Iemma family moved to Sydney’s Beverly Hills (which thirty years earlier changed its name from the dumpy Dumbleton to match the California suburb where movie stars lived).

The life of the Iemma family was typical for what Anglo Australians called “wogs” in the 1960s and 70s. Both Giuseppe and Maria worked long hours going from job to job in metal foundries, blanket factories and clothing sweatshops. Morris Iemma remembers how his mother’s fingers were bent from years of working in sweatshops. I poked my head inside some of those clothing factories, one in Sussex Street - they were terrible places,” he remembered. “My mother's neck and hands, knees. Her fingers are all bent, ganglions.”

Giuseppe’s political passion seeped into his son and Morris was active in Young Labor by the time he turned 16. Iemma studied economics and majored in industrial relations and politics at the University of Sydney. He took the traditional Labor route to power first with a bank union, then worked for federal ALP senator and factional powerbroker Graham Richardson for five years. Under his tutelage young Morris learned all about the backroom deal and how to use political opportunism.

In the 1991 election Iemma ran for the marginal seat of Hurstville against a Liberal sitting member. Then a shy 29 year old, he ran a on a campaign of “a local who listens”. He asked Labor leader Bob Carr to come out and make only one promise: to reopen the estate's Housing Commission office, closed by Liberal Premier. Iemma won the seat but Nick Greiner retained government. He retained the seat as Labor swept to power in 1995. When Hurstville was abolished in 1999, Bob Carr rewarded Iemma with the nearby safe seat of Lakemba. That same year Iemma was promoted to the outer ministry. His rose through Public Works and then the Sport portfolio. However he was catapulted out of obscurity in 2003 and when Carr appointed him Health Secretary.

When Carr unexpectedly resigned in 2005, the mantle was expected to fall on planning Minister Craig Knowles. There was also deputy leader and treasurer Andrew Refshauge, however he, like Carr, had decided his time was up. When Knowles was convicted of a drink-driving offence Iemma was suddenly the favourite. After Carr anointed him, unpopular Police Minister Carl Scully resigned from the race. Iemma, the last man standing, was unanimously appointed Premier. With two years before he would face the people, Iemma took over as Labor were on the nose, politically. Iemma tried to distance himself from the Carr legacy and was assisted by an incompetent Liberal opposition who put forward a succession of weak leaders. The apparently electable John Brogden nosedived after making a racist remark about Bob Carr’s Malaysian wife and attempted suicide.

Labor almost committed political suicide of its own as Iemma survived the series of scandals before the election. Ports Minister Joe Tripodi was accused of profiting from public land and not disclosing his shareholdings. Carl Scully was sacked as Police Minister after misleading the parliament over the Cronulla Riots. Then there was the Milton Orkopoulos fallout. Iemma sacked the former Aboriginal affairs Minister after he was accused of 30 child sex and drug charges. There were claims senior party officials knew about Orkopoulos but said nothing. Meanwhile, safe Labor seat MP Steven Chaytor was forced to resign after being convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Parliamentary secretary Tony Stewart resigned after a drink-driving offence and a Minister Kerry Hickey admitted to speeding offences.

Yet the Coalition was unable to turn these fiascos into political capital for itself. New leader Peter Debnam was from the hard right of the party and too focussed on ‘laura norder’ to the detriment of all other issues. When he allowed himself to be photographed in Speedos, he was ridiculed by the media while the people winced at his dick-togs. The same people did give him a three percent swing against the Government, but he needed eight. Iemma had won and was at the peak of his career; finally, he was an elected Premier. In his victory speech he cautioned for humility and gratitude. “Tonight we have been given another chance,” he said. “ The mandate is to get back to work, keep your promises and get services we rely on moving in the right direction”.

But March 2007 was Iemma’s high-water mark. It was all downhill from the election. The biggest issue he faced was a stark divide between his “green” and “brown” ministers. The Green wing (led by Phil Koperberg) was worried about the health of the planet but the brown wing (Michael Costa, Tony Kelly and Ian MacDonald) was more worried the health of the Government which depended on the state’s rich lode of brown coal. Costa went on record accusing the federal Government of Chicken Little politics on global warming, Costa was also behind Iemma’s decision to privatise the retail end of electricity industry attracted by the multi-billion dollar revenues earned by Victoria and Queensland’s privatisation programs. But those plans have now attracted the ire of the union movement who concerned by redundancies have threatened to derail the program,

In other words, very little has changed in the last few years. Iemma’s government has lurched from crisis to crisis. But there is change on the Opposition side. Barry O’Farrell is the best Liberal party leader of the last ten years, though that is not really saying much. ABC pollster Antony Green noted after the last election that the Coalition was better placed to win in 2011 than the overall result indicated. The lesson from 2007 was that no matter how unhappy the electorate was with an incumbent government, voters are reluctant to change unless they are reasonably confident it is for the better. The Liberals are still a fractious mob stacked by the hard right, but recent opinion polls suggest O’Farrell has finally given them a sniff of electability. Labor cannot rely on another Morris minor miracle.