Paul Howes, Australia’s Next Labor Prime Minister?

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.


Greens Monster: How To Lose An Election, Tasmania-Style

PERHAPS TERRIFIED of voter retribution over their dalliance with the Communist Party Greens, Labor figures — both in Tasmania and on the mainland — are lining up to disown the ALP’s alliance with the Greens, and to trash the Greens themselves. Although voters are sick of Labor and now awake to the nature of the Greens, it won’t work: Tasmanians are set to throw the Left from office, and its disunity will simply fuel their intent to do so.

We don’t spend a great deal of time talking about Tasmanian politics in this column, and I suppose there’s a reason for that: very often, little that happens on the Apple Isle at a state level has much effect on us here on the mainland.

This may change, however, with Tasmania and South Australia heading off to the polls in March — and in Tasmania’s case, a change of government seems virtually certain. We’ll keep an eye on these contests as they develop.

I was originally going to entitle this article “Greens: ALP Comes To Its Senses In Tasmania,” but even the most cursory consideration of what’s been going on in Tasmania suggests the game Tasmanian Labor is playing should be taken with no more than a grain of salt.

Some time ago (and forgive me — I haven’t had time today to locate the piece) I wrote of the nature of governing alliances between one of the major parties and the Greens; in every instance to date where such an arrangement has been pursued — Tasmanian Labor under Michael Field (1989-92), the Tasmanian Liberals under Tony Rundle (1996-98) and federal Labor under Julia Gillard (2010-13), the major party involved has gone on to face landslide defeat at the hands of voters when next an election fell due.

I think precisely the same fate will befall the ALP in Tasmania in about nine weeks’ time.

There has been a debate going on within the Tasmanian branch of the ALP for some time, essentially about how to rid itself of the odious stench of the Greens without bringing down the state government; some readers will be unaware that there are two Greens MPs who serve in the Labor state cabinet.

To some extent, it had to be so; the 2010 state election saw the electorate return 10 ALP MPs, 10 Liberals and 5 Greens. Both the then-Premier, David Bartlett, and the Liberal leader, Will Hodgman, had made stout declarations of their refusal to serve in any kind of alliance with the Greens prior to that election, but Bartlett quickly reneged on his pledge.

Tasmanian Labor therefore enters the state election period fighting on three unenviable fronts: the first is the general economic torpor that has enveloped the Apple Isle on its 16-year watch, particularly in later years; the second is the “it’s time” consideration that has been such a contributing factor in helping kill off unpopular, long-term state Labor regimes in the past few years.

The same issues of longevity will also adversely affect the re-election campaign of South Australian Labor in March.

But the third is this issue with the Greens: one destined to intensify the urge of Tasmanians to swing the proverbial baseball bats at the state government, and one the ALP will find impossible to outrun.

There has been a lot of noise emanating from Tasmania for months now from Labor circles, with a debate conducted in full public view on how best to dump the Greens whilst not risking the truncation of the remainder of Labor’s term of government.

Unlike the Gillard government, the Tasmanian Greens — despite federal leader Christine Milne being a Tasmanian, and once helping make up the Greens’ numbers in state Parliament — have declined to commit the act of infidelity themselves, robbing Labor of the opportunity to present its hands as clean (which federal Labor also sought to do).

The imperative of keeping Labor bums in green ministerial leather is the kind of imperative destined to impress Tasmanian voters no end, I suspect. The same can be said of the Greens, with their two Cabinet ministers.

Now, prominent union figure and senior Labor identity Paul Howes has weighed in, calling on the ALP to ensure its split with the Greens in Tasmania marks “a final end” to its power-sharing with “fringe political parties” in Australia.

Readers will see, from the article I have linked, that Howes indulges in a rant against the Greens and their alleged (actual) misdeeds in Tasmania; the irony is that what he has to say makes perfect sense, but that any action by the ALP — in this case, in Tasmania — to act on it is implausible, and cannot and should not be believed.

Contrary to Howes’ exhortation that “if we haven’t learnt our lessons after the last few years, then nothing will teach us,” not 18 months ago — after yet another typically hung Parliament resulted from an election in the ACT — Labor’s Katy Gallagher continued in office after negotiating a formal alliance with the sole Greens MP, Shane Rattenbury. That unedifying spectacle took place well into the life of the dysfunctional Gillard government, and at a time Labor figures nationally were in open warfare with the Greens as a result of the damage the ALP-Greens coalition was doing to Labor support in reputable opinion polls.

“You’d have to have rocks in your head to be advocating this type of future again,” Howes said.

The problem is, simply, that we’ve heard this kind of thing before; Labor has solemnly promised not to form these kinds of relationships with the Greens if found wanting for a majority at an election time and again — and then gone ahead and done it anyway.

There is no reason to believe the same thing wouldn’t happen again if another hung Parliament results from the looming state election.

And this, in turn, only increases the prospect of an outright Liberal victory.

Hodgman is going around again in March; he promised not to deal with the Greens four years ago, and he didn’t. The odds are very much on him becoming Premier of Tasmania.

Yet it isn’t possible to say “the next Premier of Tasmania” because — in the latest manifestation of an old Labor disease, rumours abound of a challenge to the incumbent Premier, Lara Giddings.

It’s not difficult to see why; the latest EMRS poll of Tasmanian state voting intentions had the Liberals on 49%, with the ALP on just 22% and the Greens on 19%. Other polls on the Apple Isle consistently find the Liberal Party doing better than 50% of the vote.

But Labor is a creature that doesn’t learn its lessons, even the hard way; just like the 16-year-old ALP government in NSW that was kicked out in 2011, Tasmanian Labor, too, has already had four Premiers in 16 years: the first of these, the popular and telegenic Jim Bacon, resigned and later died after being struck down with lung cancer and a brain tumour. But successors Paul Lennon and David Bartlett both resigned in circumstances that could most kindly be described as controversial. The current Premier, Lara Giddings, is as good as useless.

Even the chaotic NSW branch of the ALP failed to spin the door five times in 16 years; should their Taswegian counterpart elect to do so, it will be an additional nail in an electoral coffin long since nailed shut.

With friends like the Greens, Labor can ill-afford enemies; yet under the Greens’ patronage, economic activity and growth in Tasmania has ground to a complete halt: not bad for a state that could, and should, be a booming example to the rest of the country.

Australia, and its states, needs minority government like it needs the proverbial hole in the head. Yet increasingly, the balance of power in such situations falls to the Greens, and without fail, it is the Labor Party which acts on the opportunity.

Howes — despite the fact I detest utterly the union movement he represents and the brand of politics he stands for — is nonetheless someone I have some respect for; probably because he knows what he stands for and, more importantly, why he stands for it.

In this case he is right. Labor would have to have rocks in its collective head to entertain ever repeating the litany of politically lethal alliances with the Greens that it has been cohort to over the years. As a passionate Labor man, he is dead right in his assessment that such things should never happen again.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the only way for Tasmanians to ensure the prospect of another Labor-Greens government does not materialise is to vote for the Liberal Party in March.

It seems the Tasmanian electorate is aware of this, and ready to proceed accordingly.