Whistleblowers don’t come any more flawed, or fascinating, than Kathy Jackson — the woman who has turned the ugly inner workings of the Health Services Union into a rolling national scandal.
Jackson took allegations of cronyism and corruption within the HSU’s East branch to the police last September, and has been waging a one-woman crusade against predecessor Craig Thomson and former ally Michael Williamson ever since. As a result, Thomson has been forced onto the crossbenches, Williamson has stepped aside as HSU national president and the future existence of the HSU is hanging in the balance. Tough new laws for union governance are also on their way.
Jackson’s jihad has drawn applause from the HSU’s low-paid membership and made her an unlikely right-wing poster child. Tony Abbott has called her “heroic”; Miranda Devine has hailed her as an “inspiration to other women”.
But among her fellow union leaders — including many of those who feature on our Union Heavies power list — it has earned her nothing but contempt.
“I am the pariah of the trade union movement,” Jackson told The Power Index during an extensive interview last week. “I have gone outside the family and aired the dirty linen when they thought it should be handled in house. They are out to destroy me.”
Jackson says she hasn’t received a single message of support from a fellow union leader since going to the police.
Senior officials in other unions routinely deride her as delusional, self-obsessed and power hungry. The loathing felt towards her within the HSU is even more intense.
“My branch won’t be part of any union where Kathy Jackson is involved in a senior position,” says Dan Hill, secretary of the HSU’s Western Australia branch. “She’s attacked the ACTU, the Labor Party and other branches of the union. She’s cast a shadow over the whole union movement.”
Chris Brown, the HSU’s acting national president, is just as vituperative: “The way she’s played this has magnified the damage to the union … Kathy doesn’t care about members. She doesn’t have their interests at heart and if she keeps going on like this there won’t be much of a union left.”
It’s no wonder Jackson’s such a divisive figure. On the one hand, she’s gutsy, charming, relatable — a chain-smoking mother of three who has taken on powerful interests and bravely spoken out about her battles with mental illness. But she’s also prone to self-aggrandisement, over-reach and carries more baggage than an Airbus A380.
In February, Jackson said she suspected Labor had interfered with Fair Work Australia’s investigation into Thomson’s credit card spending — a claim for which she had no evidence. She’s also tried to paint all her critics as Williamson flunkies, and portrayed herself as a lone wolf when the truth is much more complicated (several HSU national executive members can take credit for bringing the “brothel-gate” allegations to light).
Last month, it was revealed she receives $270,000 a year for her role as executive president of the HSU East branch — a figure twice as large as, for example, AWU boss Paul Howes’ salary.
She’s also been slammed for pocketing more than $26,000 in fees for sitting on the board of the HESTA industry superannuation fund over the 2010-2011 financial year. All the other union representatives on the board donated their fees to their union.
HSU insiders also question her motives, saying they believe her anti-corruption crusade is the latest in a series of cynical power plays that have elevated her to the top of the union tree.