Ever since Senator John Faulkner told Paul Howes to “put a sock in it” last Sunday, the frenetic media tart, AWU national secretary and political kingmaker has been surprisingly quiet.
It was Howes, a paid News Limited columnist, who teamed with the broader Murdoch press and fellow ALP young turk Sam Dastyari to launch an all-out assault on the Greens last weekend.
News Ltd has lapped it up ever since the campaign was kicked off with a splash in The Weekend Australian on July 7, along with an analysis piece of Dastyari’s extraordinary move by former Liberal staffer Peter Van Onselen. Howes backed up his great mate the next day with a paid column savaging the Greens in The Sunday Telegraph and then Dastyari went even further when interviewed by Van Onselen on Sky News the same day.
While many have criticised the tactics of Dastyari and Howes — including Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews on 7.30 — there is also an important issue about conflict of interest and News Ltd payments to Howes.
When the HSU scandal was at its peak, Howes tweeted that his AWU salary is only $140,000. I asked the self-described faceless man on several occasions whether he’s on the Murdoch empire payroll courtesy of his weekly Sunday Telegraph column, but he’s declined to respond.
Sunday Telegraph editor Neil Breen cleared up the matter when he emailed this response yesterday: “Yes he is paid. The amount is confidential but I can tell you it’s not much. It’s in line with our lowest paid contributors.”
Howes should disclose the precise figure, but it would probably exceed $20,000 a year.
So when you add the Murdoch payments (there’s the superannuation board fees too, but it’s unlikely he’s taking those) to Howes’ $140,000 AWU salary, the former radical Trot is arguably doing better than your typical 28-year-old working for the Millionaire Factory Macquarie Bank.
Howes’ predecessor Bill Shorten is pushing for reforms to union governance and this includes more comprehensive disclosure of remuneration issues.For instance, just like with superannuation board fees, there is a legitimate question whether Howes should be returning the Murdoch moolah to his union considering he’s a full-time AWU employee and the column is written on union time.
The other problem with a unionist pocketing Murdoch cash is the stench around News Corp’s right-wing agenda and dodgy practices in Britain. As part of its power agenda, News Corp has long put emerging politicians on the payroll as paid columnists or delivered large cash advances for publishing deals. British foreign minister William Hague received an eye-popping £390,000 over a two-year period as an opposition spokesman writing columns for the News Corp red-tops in 2003 and 2004.
Some argue this is a perfectly legal way to build relationships and bank balances, but there should be disclosure. For instances, this is what another former NSW Right rising star wrote in The Latham Diaries on October 21, 1998:
“Lunch with The Daily Telegraph‘s Col Allan, Malcolm Farr and Piers Akerman at the swank Lucio’s in Paddington. It’s a marathon session — these guys can really hit the piss. They want me to write a weekly column for the paper and I’m happy to oblige … An ideal opportunity for political agitation from the backbench. Plus I’ll be earning a few extra bob, much needed for the property settlement with the ex.
“The lunch conversation is a long way from policy debate. Running the Tele is about good food, good wine and good hatchet jobs. These blokes have scores of public figures they hate, and the purpose of the paper is to do them in.”
Howes was certainly very obliging in delivering a paid hatchet job on the one cause the News Ltd press hates above all else — progressive Green politics.
But Howes has run into more trouble than just a public John Faulkner excoriation. Some progressive AWU members are equally unimpressed and have attempted to express their concerns through the union’s Facebook page.
Alas, Mount Isa-based AWU member Zane Alcorn had his comments blocked, so he set up his own Facebook page “for Australian Workers Union members & supporters to discuss progressive reform of the AWU re: union democracy and climate + social justice policies”.
The Sunday Telegraph assault on the Greens was described as follows: “Pretty damn sure Paul Howes has nothing even remotely close to a mandate from the AWU membership to be embarking on such a destructive divide and conquer mission as this. Note: reading this may cause nausea and vomiting. You have been warned.”
*Disclosure: Stephen Mayne was not paid for this contribution