HOPELESS JOKE Bill Shorten — whose performance to date as Labor “leader” in the face of issues of union corruption, industry protection, workplace relations and ALP gamesmanship in the Senate has been abysmal — has a new problem to worry about; ambitious young union leader Paul Howes has easily outshone Shorten in recent weeks in a series of speeches, announcements and press comments. Is this Labor’s next Prime Minister?
I have been impressed over the past few weeks by the public conduct of AWU secretary and widely rumoured ALP parliamentary aspirant Paul Howes; it seems Howes is beginning to stake out a claim on a seat in federal Parliament publicly and with it, an eventual aspiration to the Prime Ministership.
I should just reassure readers that I haven’t taken leave of my senses; I do from time to time recognise merit in my political opponents and criticise those on my own side when I feel it appropriate, despite the fact some detractors regularly accuse me of doing neither. I simply think that whilst I will never vote for the Labor Party and never have, it’s important to give credit where it’s due.
And right now, Howes is about the only Labor figure who deserves it.
This is the second time in less than a month we have had to single Howes out for exhibiting some sorely needed common sense on behalf of the Labor Party, to say nothing of showing signs of having some brains; readers might recall my article of 10 January — the day the Tasmanian state election was announced — in which I noted Howes was the only senior Labor figure to clearly and forcefully advocate unconditionally ruling out the prospect of the ALP ever again governing in any kind of alliance with the
Communist Party Greens.
Everyone else was very careful to use clever linguistics and smart answers that all boiled down to “we won’t today…but maybe, one day, we will.” Howes’ intervention is unlikely to have shifted any votes, let alone save the decrepit Tasmanian state government, but it did mark him out (with the rider any renunciation neutralises it) as one Labor identity prepared to stand out from the pack.
It’s an important consideration, in light of developments yesterday; in an address to the National Press Club, he used his speech to advocate a radical departure from the agenda being peddled by Shorten, most of Shorten’s state and federal colleagues, and indeed many within his own union and the union movement at large.
Two articles readers will want to peruse provide stark illustration of the competing positions: The Australian, with its story “Bill Shorten Says Coalition Has Agenda To Cut Penalty Rates, Working Conditions” neatly outlines the Shorten/ALP/Union pack position that Abbott and the Liberals are all about an attack on workers, complete with a couple of pearls from the man himself.
And fittingly, the Fairfax press carries the story that proclaims “Union Boss In Wages Revolution,” in which Howes trashes the anti-worker rhetoric hurled by Labor daily at the Coalition, favouring some kind of partnership between the unions, the government and the business community “to rein in high wages and lift productivity.”
I’ll leave readers to go through those stories for all of the details; to respond to all the interesting bits would take far too long. But Howes, I think, is onto something.
Predictably enough, he has been pilloried by his own side — calls for him to quit the union movement and/or join the Liberal Party have been made by the Greens’ MP Adam Bandt, and the general reaction in Labor and union circles is believed to be one of unbridled outrage.
Yet such reactions miss the point; Howes is no fool, and his comments should be seen through the prism of Labor’s most successful period in the 1980s and early 1990s.
I don’t want to be seen to compare Howes to Bob Hawke, and I don’t think it’s a comparison he aspires to either; rather, Howes has correctly made the link between the collegiate approach to matters concerning his members and outcomes that were employed by the Hawke/Keating government, and the electoral rewards such an approach reaped.
The problem, in this regard, began at about the time of the 1996 election campaign; faced with the prospect of its sworn enemy — New Right warrior John Howard — beating Labor hero Keating and becoming Prime Minister, Labor’s apparatchiks, backed by union muscle and the weight of numbers it offered, launched an assault against Howard (and subsequently his government) that was unprecedented in its brutality.
To some extent, the conduct of Labor today had its origins in the 1996 campaign: as the years have passed, its tactics have become more brazen, its lies more barefaced, and its attacks on the Liberals — any Liberals — less and less reasoning or reasonable. The ALP seems to have “learned” that policies are no substitute for slogans, and that substance is no substitute for personal attacks; these, and other “lessons,” form a big part of the reason the ALP has just been creamed at an election.
Make no mistake: pretty poll numbers now can dissipate very quickly; in this case, the early stumbles of a new government feeling its way are already becoming fewer in number. There is a deep reservoir of public support for the new government (if not, directly, the Prime Minister), and Labor really does seem misguided enough to underestimate the degree of tolerance and latitude voters are prepared to show Abbott as he sets about cleaning up the mess he inherited.
How does all of this affect Howes?
Clearly, he is virtually alone on the Labor side of the debate in at least articulating a desire to work in unison with other stakeholders in tackling and resolving significant issues of national importance that affect the movement and the party he represents.
Comparisons have been made with the approach of the Hawke government and its Accord agreements, but I note those agreements were applicable to a time 30 years in the past, and to a unique set of national issues and circumstances very different from those that apply today.
I think it more likely that rather than sanction the abuse, the one-liners and the wilful obstructionism the rest of the labour movement appears hellbent on showing Abbott — in a blatant attempt to render the country ungovernable — Howes is attempting to do things a different way, and whether you vote Labor or not, he deserves the plaudits for at least trying to steer Labor onto a different, more constructive, course.
It is, of course, quite possible that the reasoned and reasonable positions Howes has been staking out of late are designed to help stave off the royal commission into their affairs that the unions desperately fear, and if that (cynical) comment is incorrect then I apologise to Howes.
Even so, I hardly think he could blame me for making it: nobody else attached to either the unions or the ALP is approaching the rotten state of the union movement with any apparent interest in cleaning it up. Indeed, the only thing any of them — Howes aside — appear interested in is covering their own backsides and sending public debate on the issue off on tangents.
Why would this make him Labor’s next Prime Minister?
It has long been known that Howes aspires to the top job; yet to turn 33 in August, he has nonetheless been a fixture of the public face of the Left for many years, and it seems only a matter of time until he enters Parliament.
I opined — both before and after last year’s federal election — that it was likely Labor’s next Prime Minister was not yet in Parliament, a view growing harder by the day as the deplorable antics of the current ALP line-up dishonours that once-proud party’s tradition ever further.
Bill Shorten is adept at turning up for photo opportunities but beyond that has already shown himself completely unsuited to a leadership role, as we’ve discussed; Tanya Plibersek is Labor’s best remaining MP after last year’s defeat by some distance, but that’s a relative comparison, not an assessment of her merits as a leader; Anthony Albanese is the most substantial of the trio in a policy sense, but (unfairly) would be a PR disaster for the party, as his poor media performances as deputy Prime Minister showed; and of the “next generation,” Chris Bowen showed himself to be no different to the Rudds and the Swans and the Gillards in his approach to retail political management as Treasurer to be seriously entertained. Other names — such as Jason Clare’s — are years away from even being ready to take the next step: if, indeed, they are ever ready at all.
Howes (assuming he can get himself preselected to a safe Labor seat in Sydney for the next election) also has one very powerful weapon at his disposal that none of his leadership rivals can match: his fiancée, senior Qantas executive Olivia Wirth, is a formidable strategic resource for Howes to use as a sounding board; she is also well-connected in business circles and has worked in a federal Liberal ministerial office during the Howard era, and is uniquely positioned to offer Howes counsel as he pursues his political ascent.
Perhaps most importantly, she possesses a brilliant marketing brain, and I don’t think anyone would accuse Labor or its leaders — the possible but dubious exception of the 2007 election campaign notwithstanding — of being remotely competent when considering their ability (or lack of it) to sell and market their wares.
One drawback Howes will have to overcome is his age; come the next election he will still only be 36, and some time in Parliament prior to any leadership tilt will be mandatory.
But I don’t see the Coalition being at any risk of losing the 2016 election; on the contrary, I can’t see it losing in 2019 either, although that far into the future it is impossible to make a call on such things, given the propensity for unwanted and unforeseen issues to leap out at governments and scupper or otherwise alter their trajectories.
The point is that Howes has time on his side; viewed from such a perspective, it’s logical for him to begin to speak up for himself now — he needs the time to begin to differentiate his “product” from the discredited offering of his Labor mates, and then to win support from enough of them to send him to Canberra.
You can almost “smell” Wirth’s brand marketing magic already at work just to listen to him.
I’ll be the first to admit to an emerging, if grudging, respect for Paul Howes: his politics aren’t my cup of tea and they never will be, but if the ALP is to reclaim government any time soon, it is going to have to abandon the approach based on abuse, negativity and dishonesty, and start to embrace voices such as Howes’ and the message those voices brings.
Standing on the outside, however, it seems Howes may become the most significant figure his side of politics has produced in many years. I just wonder: could he be Labor’s next Prime Minister?
Time will tell. It usually does.