“Hi, I’m Cath Bowtell, Lindsay Tanner’s replacement,” Labor’s candidate for Melbourne proclaimed gutsily in Victoria Street Richmond this week as the battle for the federal seat reached its pointy end. Bowtell may have been written off in some quarters as a Green tide threatened to overwhelm the 100-year Labor electorate, but for the trade union veteran it seemed the message had yet to get through.
Bowtell could hardly have foreseen her current predicament. This time last year, as then-ACTU President Sharan Burrow gave off strong signals of a pending move overseas, Bowtell seemed poised to realise her long-held ambition of replacing her hero after years of behind the scenes toil. The union lifer was at the precipice of unprecedented power and influence and to most observers it seemed Burrow was offering her an open invitation.
Inside the ACTU, the former National Tertiary Education Union assistant secretary was regarded as a premier strategist, cutting deals with left wing law firms and playing peacemaker with radical elements of the movement. Bowtell moved among labour aristocracy, helming worker superannuation boards alongside Paul Howes, Dave Oliver and Heather Ridout and providing a counterbalance to the natural impulses of ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence.
The organisation’s presidency was the logical next step. Burrow, who has been campaigning relentlessly for Bowtell over the last few weeks, was effusive, making it known to anyone who would listen that her preferred successor came from the office adjacent to hers. But it all unravelled in March at the hands of nurses chief Ged Kearney — the beneficiary of unexpected support from the left wing unions (most significantly the Australian Education Union) for which the president’s position is reserved.
Bowtell, who resigned the day after Kearney’s ascension, would later become health and safety director at Worksafe. But the suspicion of short change remained.
Fast forward three months and Lindsay Tanner has dropped his resignation bombshell on the floor of the House of Representatives on the same day Kevin Rudd was deposed as PM. Immediately the speculation shifts to speculation over a replacement for a position — like the ACTU Presidency — reserved for the movement’s left. Thirty minutes after Tanner concluded his farewell remarks, Crikeybroke the news that the next in line for Melbourne, Socialist Left stalwart Andrew Giles, had already been sounded out by senior party powerbrokers. Giles had devoted all of his adult life to the ALP and had served in senior state government advisory roles.
But other sources sounded a note of caution. Included in the story was a note that Bowtell was also on powerbrokers’ radars, with strategists already mulling the electoral advantages of running an “activist woman” in the seat to counter the groundswell in support for genial Greens’ candidate Adam Bandt. To complicate matters, Giles was also expecting his first child in under three weeks.
Tanner had built up a formidable network of connections in the local community that had helped sandbag his personal vote from slipping below the Greens on preferences. His work with the Vietnamese and nascent African community in particular was going to be difficult to replicate. And Bowtell, while an impressive campaigner in internal trade union elections, had never run for public office.
With the campaign looming, the party had to act quickly, but Bowtell still took a few days to think about it. “I was addressing the Victorian Farmers Federation in Bendigo and my name was already in Crikey,” she said at her campaign headquarters at the Carlton branch of the Australian Services Union this week.
“It was something I had to think about for a couple of days, I’ve got young kids, but I got a lot of support from people within the party to consider nominating.”
By the following Tuesday, the deal was effectively done and the ALP scrambled to marshal resources from across the party. A cabal of veteran activists, schooled, like Bowtell in the bearpit of Melbourne University student politics, began to take shape. The ASU office was commandeered and many of the trade union heavies that had rounded behind Kearney in the ACTU fight had the opportunity to assuage their guilt over her shafting.
While unionists aligned to Dean Mighell have made good on their long-held threats to back the Greens, most of the rest of the Labor movement have been quick to tip in cash and resources for someone they regard as one of their own.
Support has also come from other sources. Yesterday The Age finally got around to confirming a rumour that Slater and Gordon managing director Andrew Grech — the chief of Adam Bandt’s old firm — was backing Bowtell with Grech also believed to have pledged a substantial donation. And yesterday, Bob Hawke entered the fray, returning to his old stomping ground on Lygon Street to lend his mug to the battle (although the media’s attention appeared to be diverted elsewhere — even Crikey temporarily forgot to ask about Bowtell, probing Hawke instead over whether the frequency of his mid-80s trysts with Blanche in the Channel 10 Hawke telemovie were accurate — Hawke said he would have preferred the program to focus on his economic record).
Despite the groundswell, Bowtell isn’t willing to disclose the precise terms of her support. “I have been overwhelmed by a lot of support, both financial and in-kind support…you keep asking me questions about it but I’m not going to talk specifically about my campaign budget,” she told Crikey.
“What do you think I’ve got this bucketload of money?” she protests when it’s suggested the Labor Party is on track to outspend the Greens by a ratio of 3:1.
While Labor can count on the focus group resources of pollsters EMC, whose Shannon Walker is handling media for Bowtell, money is still tight and according to Walker the “strategy”, if there is one, is simply to raise the candidate’s profile.
Bowtell also makes the point that the battle that really matters will occur far from the ears of influential insiders. She remains for the large part an unknown within the electorate and faces an uphill battle to ingrain herself in the local consciousness before next Saturday. Billboards have been hired and direct mail despatched, but for the most part this looks like a traditional feet-on-the-street campaign.
Crikey caught up with Bowtell on the campaign trail in Victoria Street Richmond this week, a strip feted by Bandt recently as the best place in Melbourne to pick up a steaming bowl of pho. She thrust brochures outlining her progressive credentials into the hands of passers-by, many of which stopped to talk fondly of Tanner.
But Bowtell was keen to signal the changing of the guard. On Victoria Street, the secretary of the local Vietnamese Women’s Association, with whom she is on a first name basis, popped by for a yarn and there were numerous discussions with community leaders about a sod-turning ceremony early in the day at the North Richmond Community Health Centre. A few junkies hurling racial epithets were given the cold shoulder.
“I know a lot of people in Melbourne and I’m pretty well linked in with a lot of organisations…I’ve got a great network and I know a lot of people…I’ve lived and worked and been active in the inner city for a long-time,” Bowtell stressed as the 109 tram rolled by.
On policy, Bowtell rejected suggestions she is at the mercy of a Greens wedge over the Emissions Trading Scheme, boat people and gay marriage and a Labor wedge stemming from the federal party’s shore-up of outer suburban marginals in Sydney’s west and south-east Queensland. But she rules out a a headline-grabbing pledge to cross the floor on any of these issues, despite breaking with the party on gay marriage in the days after she became the candidate. Bowtell clearly prefers to work Penny Wong-style within the structures of the party.
“On the issue of climate change, what I’ve said about that is that I’m not at odds with the party. The Prime Minister has said that she wants to put a price on carbon and I want to put a price on carbon.”
On boats, Bowtell is an adherent to the first half of Gillard’s Lowy Institute speech on wisdom of a regional processing solution but also highlights Father Frank Brennan’s recent concern about the “honeypot” effect of an excessively lax border protection policy.
“There are issues around a honeypot and it’s just not simple, so we need all countries in the region to engaged in processing people humanely.”
Bowtell also rejects Greens claims the ALP will resort to negative campaigning as the fight reaches its crucial final days.
“The Greens are the only people who talk about dirty campaigning and negative campaigning…if anyone wants to point out anything in my background that would suggest that I would do any dirty campaigning, they should put their hand up and say what it is.”
However, she says she won’t hold back when it comes to highlighting the Greens blocking of the ETS in the Senate: “If it wasn’t for the Greens, we would have had a cap and trade system operating in this country.”
Earlier, Crikey had accompanied Bowtell to a Fitzroy Reds amateur football match, the club a famous rallying point for former Fitzroy VFL supporters disillusioned at the move of their club to Brisbane. Standing in the outer munching on a hotdog with husband Peter Keogh (Victorian housing minister Dick Wynne’s chief of staff), Bowtell is approached by a number of well-wishers backing her own northerly ambitions in Canberra. The scoreboard doesn’t look promising and Bowtell makes tracks to start phoning locals.
But the Reds, who are on track to barely avoid C-grade relegation, stage a miraculous come-from-behind victory, triumphing over Caulfield Grammar by five points with a four goal final quarter surge.
With the number of clear campaigning days down to seven, and Bandt continuing to dominate the seat’s Sportsbet odds, Bowtell will need to rely on that kind of luck and more to edge over the line next Saturday.