Andrew West, smh
April 26, 2008
John Robertson is prepared to gamble Labor's future when he votes down its plans to privatise electricity next weekend, writes Andrew West.
IN EARLY January, as union leaders basked in the summer warmth and reflected glory of Labor's federal election victory, the NSW union chief John Robertson found himself sharing a corporate box at the Sydney Cricket Ground with an adviser to the Premier, Morris Iemma.
Iemma and his Treasurer, Michael Costa, had recently unveiled their plan to privatise the state's electricity industry, igniting a war with unions, ALP branches, consumer and green groups and much of the public.
But the cricket had brought a temporary ceasefire, until Robertson, midmatch, leaned over to the adviser and joked: "You're going to learn a lesson about Robbo today."
Throughout the afternoon, Robertson proceeded to vanquish his opponents in a pie-eating contest, wolfing down 24 of them. After demolishing his final pie, he turned to the adviser and asked: "So what have you learnt about Robbo?"
"That you like meat pies?" she volunteered.
"No," Robertson replied. "That I like to win."
Next weekend, at the NSW Labor Party conference, the 45-year-old secretary of Unions NSW - who maintains an Olympian's physique, despite his diet, by swimming two kilometres each morning - will get the chance to sate his appetite for victory.
He is preparing to lead the biggest rebellion in almost 100 years by union delegates and party members against a Labor premier. Even Iemma privately concedes he will probably lose a proposal to privatise electricity by about 650 votes to 150 votes. It would be the most complete repudiation of a Labor leader since 1916, when William Holman, a founder of the ALP, was defeated, and ultimately expelled, by his party for supporting conscription during World War I.
Rodney Cavalier, a former NSW minister and now party historian, sees a parallel between the two chapters in Labor history. "In 1916, the state executive of the ALP, the Labor Council, the Australian Workers Union, and every Labor league had resolved it was opposed to conscription," he says. "Then, as now, the issue was: who decides?"
Does the parliamentary caucus - or more precisely, the right-wing majority in cabinet, cajoled by Iemma and Costa - or the mass of union and branch members who worked to get them elected, determine party policy?
For Robertson, who also serves on the ALP's powerful administrative committee, the answer is simple. "We had a state election in 2007 with a Premier who said, 'More to do but heading in the right direction.' But when he talked about more to do, he didn't mention electricity privatisation," Robertson says.
"I keep going back to the point that there is no mandate for this in the community or the Labor Party. I've not seen anyone from the Government out there trying to persuade the public on privatisation.
"The only thing I've seen from the Government is a recent article [in The Australian] about a Treasurer who, in his own words, wants to tell people to go and get f----ed. I reckon that's a pretty good indication of what is wrong with this debate."
Robertson is not just steeled for the fight; he is honed.
As the architect of the Your Rights At Work campaign - a 12,500-strong movement of union members and community activists who campaigned against Work Choices in 46 seats across NSW at November's federal election - Robertson was critical to defeating the Howard government. Labor's vote was strongest in seats where his teams were active.
It is one of the reasons Robertson enjoys relatively easy access to the Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd phoned Robertson in January, just to chat about their summer holidays, and last Sunday night Robertson sent a text message to Rudd to thank him for "a great weekend" at the 2020 Summit, to which he was a delegate.
His success as a campaigner also scares Iemma's backbench. "There is certainly an awareness among my colleagues about the dangers of alienating the broader labour movement," says the Coogee Labor MP Paul Pearce. "They know the risks of having our union base against us."
But Robertson also knows that the reputation of the unions will depend on how they respond to Iemma's threat to simply ignore the verdict of the conference and plough on with the privatisation. According to party rules, the conference is the democratic decision-making body that decides policy. The MPs are bound to follow its decisions.
If Iemma, Costa and the caucus members snub their noses at the conference, and the unions passively accept their behaviour, they will have demonstrated their waning influence - even impotence - in the party they founded 118 years ago.
In 1997, Iemma's predecessor, Bob Carr, immediately abandoned his bid to sell electricity after the conference overwhelmingly rejected it. But four years later, Carr ignored union protests - including a picket line around Parliament House - and passed tough changes to compensation laws that capped payments to severely injured workers. And yet the unions not only fell dutifully into line, backing Carr's re-election in 2003, they even endorsed the nominations of nominally left-wing ministers, such as Ian Macdonald, who worked with Carr to drive the changes.
Things have changed, insists Robertson. "The message is that, if we have to make decisions about legislation, and if we have to make that call between supporting the party at the expense of the union movement, well, that's never going to occur," he warns. "Where we can, we'll advance a common cause. If that's not achievable, then in the end, we're not going to be doormats."
What Robertson is implying - if not threatening outright - is that the Iemma Government will be on its own at the 2011 state election, the very moment when it will need all the solidarity it can muster as it asks the electorate to give Labor 20 unbroken years in power.
"If we reach a point where it's a decision between union members or a Labor government, I've said this to plenty of people, then, in the end, I'm union, mate. If we have to make that call, then we're union and we'll go out and campaign for working families above all else. Let me repeat myself. Above. All. Else."
ROBERTSON began his working life in the industry he is now defending. At 18, he was an apprentice electrician - a sparkie - helping to wire up the new parliament house the Wran government was building on Macquarie Street, and where the Iemma Government now plans to defy the party and introduce privatisation bills, possibly as early as next month.
After nearly a decade on the tools, Robertson became an organiser with the Electrical Trades Union and in 2001 he succeeded Costa as head of what was then the NSW Labor Council. As part of a deliberate strategy to create a more "independent", and arguably hipper, organisation, Robertson rebadged it Unions NSW, a practice quickly emulated in other states around Australia.
"It looked odd to many people having something called the Labor Council criticising a Labor government," he said. "One of two things had to change and we decided it would be the name."
Robertson also began building alliances with consumer and green groups and leading Labor for Refugees, which overturned the party's policy on asylum seekers at the 2002 conference. Before last year's election, he brought in the Midnight Oil vocalist-turned-Labor MP Peter Garrett, whose music had helped politicise Robertson in the '80s, to front the anti-Work Choices campaign directed at young voters.
Robertson's closest friend, John Lee, a senior NSW public servant, says the dispute about power privatisation is deeply personal for union leader. "For John - and I stress this is his view, not necessarily mine - it is not only the economic argument about privatisation that doesn't add up.
"He is a sparkie by trade and this issue is fundamental to his DNA. He knows what 10,000 volts can do to a man and, as a union organiser, he's seen the short cuts a lot of private companies take in safety. Robbo has dealt with electrocutions, he's seen them occur more often on the private sector than the public sector side."
Four years ago, Lee was best man at Robertson's wedding to his second wife, Julie. The unionist has a teenage son and daughter from his previous marriage and a stepdaughter.
'Robbo's like about half the blokes in Australia," Lee says. "He's had a marriage break-up but it worked out pretty well. When you spend your life as a union negotiator, you know there are two sides to every story and it's better to meet in the middle."
The difference with the current dispute is that, so far, Iemma and Costa are determined not to compromise.
Robertson could have dodged this fight had he accepted an offer of a safe Labor seat in western Sydney. "He had all sorts of options about 18 months ago," Lee says. "Federally, I think. But he wanted to spend his time riding around in that [Your Rights At Work] bus defeating Work Choices."
Taking such an option would have almost certainly put Robertson in Rudd's Government and Rudd may have been tempted to repay a favour by offering him a frontbench job. The unionist was, after all, an early supporter of the Prime Minister's ambitions.
While Robertson's role in replacing Kim Beazley with Rudd as Labor leader in late 2006 has been identified, he has never discussed it publicly. In mid-2006, during a meeting in Federal Government's parliamentary offices in Philip Street, Sydney, Robertson spoke bluntly to Beazley. "It was a bloody awful conversation along the lines of 'Mate, we love you but you've got to go,"' Robertson confirms to the Herald.
"It really was out of sadness. This bloke had given the best part of his life to the labour movement. He had huge sympathy for working families, he was a decent human being and extremely bright. So it was very tough to have to go and see a guy you love and say, 'Mate, you're as close as you're ever going to be to being prime minister."
Robertson says Beazley acknowledged the unionist's status in the party, saying, "I owe it to you to take the conversation seriously."
As Robertson recalls, "I had been talking to Rudd for 18 months before the election. We never talked directly about leadership but obviously, Kevin was very ambitious and I was sick of us losing."
He also started introducing Rudd to other union secretaries, who knew him only as "Dr Death", the job-slashing former Queensland bureaucrat. "I spent a lot of time talking to people encouraging them to think about backing Kevin," Robertson says. "I don't think Kevin needed much encouraging."
If next weekend's conference follows the predictions and humbles Morris Iemma with a landslide vote against electricity privatisation, Robertson may find himself kingmaker again.