NSW labor
NSW Labor's Chris Minns and Jodi McKay (Images: AAP/Joel Carrett and Dean Lewins)

One of the country’s most powerful unions has disaffiliated from NSW Labor over fears the party shows no signs of returning from its decade in the political wilderness under the leadership of Jodi McKay.

The Health Services Union (HSU) NSW boss, Gerard Hayes, announced the group would end its relationship with the state branch, worth around $250,000 in affiliation fees.

“We no longer believe affiliation to NSW Labor represents value for money,” Hayes said.

The move follows months of tension between senior union officials and McKay, who was enraged by polling they commissioned two weeks ago which highlighted her precarious electoral position. But it highlights the strained — at times toxic — relationship between NSW Labor and one of its biggest backers.

McKay’s bad year

McKay’s year got off to a shocking start. Hayes and Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) national secretary Daniel Walton have been making their displeasure with her leadership known for some time. But that displeasure exploded when their poll revealed the party was polling at a primary vote of 23.9%, its lowest in over a century, putting it on track for a Western Australian-Liberals-style drubbing.

That the unions would release that polling to the Nine papers seemed calculated — as Crikey pointed out, both had backed McKay’s leadership rival Chris Minns back in 2019. But McKay’s response — telling the media she’d been “coward-punched from behind”, targeted by men, and drawing parallels with corrupt old Labor powerbrokers — only inflamed things further.

Now Labor has lost the HSU’s generous support. On top of affiliation fees it donated about $170,000 to the party in the last financial year, and $224,500 the year before.

Meanwhile, the AWU told Crikey it doesn’t have any plans to go down the disaffiliation route just yet.

Still, the union’s call isn’t just about money. It’s also about symbolism. It shows McKay has lost control of not just the narrative, but the true believers. And it’s a sign of the deep frustration within Labor circles at its interminable period in opposition in NSW.

Since the party was annihilated in 2011 — with the stench of corruption and the leadership carousel following it out the door — it hasn’t got close to returning to government. McKay doesn’t seem to be leading it any closer.

Like most state opposition leaders, she spent much of 2020 on the sidelines as Premier Gladys Berejiklian basked in the glow of her government’s (largely) successful management of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite plenty of potential scandals — such as the Ruby Princess debacle and the premier’s secret relationship with disgraced former MP Daryl Maguire — the opposition struggled to cut through.

With friends like these

The HSU’s move gives McKay more airtime — just not the kind she’d be hoping for.

This isn’t the first time the HSU has pulled this stunt. It disaffiliated after the 2011 blowout only to return three years later.

Of course, by that point it was eyeball deep in shit entirely of its own making. For two years now, allegations former boss turned Labor backbencher Craig Thomson had been using his union card to pay for sex workers had been circulating in the media. Police would soon start investigating, and Thomson would eventually wind up in jail.

Michael Williamson, the union’s national president (and former Labor national president) would also be exposed as taking secret commissions, opening up a Pandora’s box of illicit spending and jobs for the boys. He was eventually caught by police trying to smuggle documents out through the carpark during a police raid. Williamson, too, would wind up in jail, after pleading guilty to stealing $1 million from the union (estimated to be more like $20 million).

This isn’t all old news either. Just last year, former national secretary Kathy Jackson was convicted of stealing $100,000 from the union. A lucky plea deal saw 48 charges reduced to two at her second criminal trial in less than a year. In 2015, she was ordered to repay more than $1 million in union funds which she’d spent on a Mercedes and luxury holidays.

A big part of what makes NSW Labor so toxic to many in the state is the memory of scandals that piled up, endless ICAC hearings, and union bosses with one hand pulling the strings in the party room and the other buried in the trough.

The HSU, which has done so much to cement this reputation, is running away from a party it believes is unelectable. But perhaps it’s part of the problem.

Do you think the HSU is being fair to Jodi McKay? Let us know: letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.