Paul Howes understands, better than almost anyone in Australian politics, the power of being a media tart. The 30-year-old’s self-confident, self-aggrandising style has won him plenty of enemies while putting him exactly where he wants to be: at the centre of our national conversation.
“In Australia, media is power and profile is important,” the Australian Workers Union national secretary tells The Power Index during an interview in his Sydney office. “My job is to give the union a profile so when we speak, people listen. It increases our bargaining leverage. It means when we attack a company it will get a run.”
Howes’ mastery of the media cycle was on full display last week when he lashed the government’s decision to allow Gina Rinehart to import 1700 workers for an iron ore project as “sheer lunacy” and a “kick in the guts for manufacturing workers”. This followed earlier pronouncements that the government should start picking economic winners again, and that the RBA has consistently made the wrong call on interest rates and may need its charter reviewed.
And who could forget his infamous appearance on Lateline the evening before Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd?
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As we explained last year — and as Howes himself acknowledges — his role in the Rudd coup has been dramatically overstated: he’s not yet a factional heavy like his predecessor Bill Shorten or the AWU’s soon-to-retire Queensland boss Bill Ludwig. So don’t believe the conservative commentators who suggest he can pick up the phone and get whatever he wants.
But when it comes to influencing policy, influencing debate and influencing the broader union movement, Howes easily takes out the top spot on our union heavies list.
Few who’ve dealt with the progressive prodigy — who leads the nation’s biggest and oldest blue-collar union — doubt he’s headed for the very top of politics.
“He’s very much in a class of his own,” says Liberal Party grandee and regular sparring partner Michael Kroger. “He’s the most effective communicator the unions have got. I expect him to get a federal seat in NSW in the next decade and he’ll be a very formidable opponent in Canberra. He could easily lead the party.”
It’s an ego boost many on his own side of politics say he could do without.
“He’s a self-appointed spokesman, a meretricious carpet-bagger,” one Labor elder told us last year. “He’s given various people the shits because he’s young and brash,” says the national secretary of a large union. “That 20-something arrogance has rubbed people up the wrong way.”
As former finance minister Lindsay Tanner points out, however, knocking Howes for being loud misses the point spectacularly.
“While Howes is often controversial and has numerous detractors, he is always in the story,” Tanner wrote in Sideshow. “He has a personal brand. That means he will always prevail in a political contest with someone who doesn’t.”
Howes’ famous threat to withdraw support for the carbon price if it cost “one job” paid off when the government delivered a package containing large free permits for trade exposed industries, a $300 million steel transformation package and big support for coal industry jobs.
His headline-grabbing attack on Rio Tinto boss Tom Albanese last year for “sucking out the blood, sweat and tears of blue-collar workers” was part of a bigger battle to re-unionise Rio workplaces. The AWU is now negotiating on behalf of the workers at the Bell Bay aluminium smelter in Tasmania — the first time this has happened since 1994.
As for Rinehart’s Enterprise Migration Agreement deal, it’s going ahead — but Howes fanned a caucus revolt that has led to the creation of a subcommittee to ensure Australian jobs come first.
As well as being a loudmouth, Howes is an assiduous networker with close friends in high places.
He’s given the AWU, traditionally an isolated union, a bigger voice in the broader union movement than ever before. He’s the first person in his union to be elected a vice-president of the ACTU and earlier this year was a key player garnering support for Dave Oliver to take over from Jeff Lawrence as ACTU secretary.
Howes considers Oliver, the former boss of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, one of his closest mates. That’s a historical miracle given the right-wing AWU and left-wing AMWU had brawled for decades over turf and ideology. Yet the pair has effectively lobbied the government to introduce a toughened-up anti-dumping regime and new “Buy Australian” procurement requirements.
“Paul is one of the most effective operators I’ve seen,” says Oliver, who took over the ACTU last week. “He’s articulate, he’s bright, he’s good at winning people over and building alliances.”