Michael O’Connor isn’t fazed that Paul Keating once called him a “Labor rat” who should be “excommunicated” from the ALP. In fact, the forestry industry firebrand wears it as a badge of pride.
“If the ALP ever takes on the CFMEU, we’ll put them on their arse,” O’Connor tells The Power Index during an interview at his Melbourne office — a threat made even more potent by the rusty axe and metre-long antique saw hanging on the wall beside him.
O’Connor is the national secretary of the militant Construction, Forestry, and Mining and Energy Union, as well as the long-time leader of its forestry division.
Since taking over the national secretary job in early 2011, he’s formed a close bond with fellow manufacturing union bosses Paul Howes and Dave Oliver. The three men teamed up successfully last year to lobby the Gillard government for tougher anti-dumping laws. The Power Index also understands O’Connor and Howes were crucial players garnering support behind the scenes for Oliver to become ACTU secretary.
His internal alliance building has been just as important. Before his appointment, the CFMEU, a federation of three fiercely autonomous unions, was notoriously divided and dysfunctional. Under O’Connor’s watch, the sleeping giant is finally beginning to roar.
“It’s been like year one since Mick came in,” says Tony Maher, national president and head of the CFMEU’s mining division. “We’re finally maximising our lobbying effort … The CFMEU has never been in better shape.”
“The CFMEU had a lot of potential and each division had a good track record of delivering on issues relevant to them,” O’Connor explains. “But, for a whole range of reasons, we didn’t have a good record of working together. I’ve tried to build unity, get the processes right, get it into people’s heads that autonomy shouldn’t mean separation and isolation.”
O’Connor’s emergence as a unifying figure within the CFMEU has surprised — and amused — those aware of his history as a brawler.
He earned Keating’s eternal wrath in 1995 by helping to organise a loggers’ blockade of Parliament House in 1995; a decade later, he threw his support behind John Howard when Mark Latham supported a pro-conservation policy in Tasmania. When Anthony Albanese described old-growth logging as “environmental vandalism”, O’Connor slammed him as a “political hooligan” who needs to grow up.
It was O’Connor’s willingness to “go the whole hog”, as one insider puts it, that explains why he climbed to the top of the CFMEU tree despite running the union’s smallest division. His formidable network of connections in Canberra also helped.
O’Connor is a long-time factional ally of resources minister Martin Ferguson and prime minister Julia Gillard, his former partner. The pair met through the Australian Union of Students and remain close friends today.
In her maiden speech to parliament, Gillard singled out O’Connor as her “closest confidant” and said: “I would not have reached this place without his support.”
O’Connor’s brother, Brendan, sits in federal cabinet — and he’s got strong relationships with independents such as Nick Xenophon and Bob Katter.