When you meet ACTU president Ged Kearney, it’s easy to tell why the former nurse was plucked from relative obscurity to become the public face of the union movement.

Kearney, a publican’s daughter from Melbourne, is charming, articulate and far from threatening; someone who’s impossible to paint as a union thug or factional head kicker. There’s no doubt she’s been a more effective advocate for the union cause than outgoing ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence — a man most Australians would find impossible to pick out of a line-up.

However, two years after becoming president, Kearney is yet to radiate the power and authority of those who preceded her: legendary figures such as Bob Hawke, Martin Ferguson, Simon Crean and Sharan Burrow.

The consensus within the union hierarchy is that Kearney is still finding her feet at the peak council, which is widely perceived to have lost its way in recent years. So far, her detractors say, she’s been better at identifying problems than devising solutions.

“Her substance is fairly shallow,” says one prominent union leader. “A lot of people in the union movement ask: does she pass the 7.30 Report test? Would she be able to hold her own against Kerry O’Brien? I’m not so sure. She doesn’t carry a lot of political capital; she’s politically naïve.”

This week, as 1000 union delegates gather in Sydney for the ACTU’s triennial congress, Kearney has a chance to prove the doubters wrong. She has been the driving force behind the centrepiece of the congress: job security. It’s an issue she believes can galvanise the entire movement, as the Your Rights at Work campaign did in 2007.

Forty per cent of all Australian workers, Kearney points out, are employed as casuals, in labour hire, on short-term contracts or other forms of insecure work.

“It’s a problem that touches so many people and so many people see it as a problem that needs to be tackled,” Kearney tells The Power Index during an interview in her Melbourne office. “But frankly, no one else is tackling it and no one else has the power to tackle it. The union movement does and we should take it on.”

Last October, Kearney commissioned Paul Keating’s former deputy PM, Brian Howe, to chair a national inquiry into insecure work. At congress, delegates will vote on which of his recommendations to adopt.

Some of Howe’s ideas — such as prohibitions on temporary jobs in certain sectors and giving the industrial umpire new powers to issue “secure employment orders” — have already earned opprobrium from business groups.

Convincing the minority Gillard government to sign up for radical workplace changes before it (almost certainly) kicks the bucket at the next election will also be an almighty ask.

But these challenges won’t spook Kearney, who’s made of sterner stuff than meets the eye.

As the second-youngest of nine children, she had to speak up to be heard — an experience that proved invaluable for the future leader of the 200,000-strong Australian Nursing Federation. At the ANF, Kearney had to battle with not only aged-care employers — who resisted her push for mandatory registration for carers — but also the union’s fiercely independent branches. Yet she succeeded at turning the federation into a cohesive campaigning unit that could finally carry real clout in Canberra.

“I was in a very good place,” Kearney says. “I was kind of torn between seeing that through and grasping at the enormously wonderful opportunity of heading up the ACTU.”

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

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