Carl Scully claims $1b Sydney desalination plant was 'decided by a focus group'

Former NSW minister Carl Scully has published a political memoir. Photo: Brendan Esposito
Former NSW minister Carl Scully has published a political memoir. Photo: Brendan Esposito

The NSW Labor government led by former premier Morris Iemma announced it would build Sydney's $1 billion desalination plant without consideration by the cabinet budget committee and on the basis of a focus group, a former minister claims.

Carl Scully, whose ambition to become premier was thwarted when powerbrokers including Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi switched their support to Mr Iemma following Bob Carr's retirement in 2005, makes the claim in his memoir, Setting the Record Straight.

But it has been firmly rejected as "ridiculous" and "not correct" by Mr Iemma and Mark Arbib, the former NSW ALP general secretary alleged to have run the focus group.

Mr Iemma told Fairfax Media: "Carl should just look into the mirror and he will find the one and only reason he never became premier. I feel very sorry for Carl Scully".

Mr Scully, as utilities minister, recollects taking a trip to Washington to study policing methods after failing to secure the Labor leadership in 2005.

While he was away Mr Scully says Mr Arbib "decided that Iemma needed to look decisive and convinced him to announce that we were going to build a new desalination plant to secure Sydney's water future".

NSW Premier elect, Morris Iemma, and Carl Scully taken in 2005. Photo: Bob Pearce

NSW Premier elect, Morris Iemma, and Carl Scully taken in 2005. Photo: Bob Pearce

"It was all the more astonishing when Arbib explained that he, rather than the Premier, had come to this conclusion after some small focus group he had run was strongly in favour of it," he writes.

He said former Premier Bob Carr had set out a position that the government would be ready to start building a desalination plant when the water level in Warragamba Dam fell to 30 per cent capacity.

"There is no way Carr ever would have allowed a $1 billion piece of infrastructure to be announced because of what 10 people off the street may have said in an Arbib focus group discussion," Mr Scully writes.

"But this is what happened in August 2005. No discussion with the minister, no consideration in the Budget Committee [of Cabinet] and no advice from Sydney Water who would have to run the tender and oversee the construction of the desalination plant".

However, Mr Iemma told Fairfax Media the claims were "not correct".

"The desal plant had been subject to detailed consideration before I became premier and when I became premier," he said.

Mr Iemma said how the desalination plant project was handled was "entirely consistent with all procurement guidelines".

"The project went to expressions of interest, there was a tender," he said. "I don't know what he's referring to."

Mr Arbib said: "It's a ridiculous claim".

The Carl Scully autobiography - Setting The Record Straight - A Political Memoir.  Photo: Wolter Peeters

The Carl Scully autobiography - Setting The Record Straight - A Political Memoir. Photo: Wolter Peeters

In his self-published memoir Mr Scully – a self-described vegan, teetotal atheist who once publicly questioned the benefits of vaccinations - paints Mr Iemma in a deeply unflattering light.

As premier he was "the master mumbler" and a "ditherer" who "could not make a decision even if his life depended on it".

Mr Scully goes to great lengths to explain why he was unfairly treated when forced to resign from cabinet by Mr Iemma in 2006 over claims he misled parliament twice in relation to a police report on the Cronulla riots.

The story ‘$1b Sydney desalination plant 'decided by a focus group', former minister Carl Scully claims’ originally appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald.