Paul Howes has confirmed that the Australian Workers’ Union has withdrawn its support from Kevin Rudd in favour of Julia Gillard.
The National Secretary of the AWU has appeared on Lateline to signal that the union movement has deserted the prime minister and will support a change of leader at tomorrow morning’s Caucus ballot.
- Listen to Paul Howes on Lateline (15m)
Transcript of Paul Howes interview with Tony Jones on Lateline, June 23, 2010.
TONY JONES: One of the key moments of tonight’s extraordinary developments was the announcement that the Australian Workers Union had lost confidence in Kevin Rudd and was backing a move to Julia Gillard. Well the national secretary of the AWU is Paul Howes. He joins us in the studio. Why did you do that?
PAUL HOWES: Well we’ve been looking at what’s in the best interests of the members of our union. We know that if Tony Abbott is elected as a prime minister of Australia, Work Choices will be back, the legislation which ripped away fairness from our workplaces will be reinstituted on our members, reimposed on our members, and we know that Labor’s message had been lost for the last few weeks, and in fact months, under the Prime Minister’s leadership. We have to look at what’s in the best interests of our members of our union to ensure fairness remains in our member workplaces and we think that Julia Gillard is the best option to lead Labor to victory at the upcoming election.
JONES: And it would be fair to say that you’ve never really liked Kevin Rudd, you don’t consider him to be a figure of the Labor Party, he’s some sort of hybrid politician who’s been grafted on. Is that the way you look at it?
HOWES: No, that’s, that’s ridiculous. I mean he’s the leader of the Labor Party, he’s been working for the Labor Party as a member of Parliament for many years, he’s been in Labor for a long time. That’s nothing to do with what tonight’s events are about. Tonight’s events are about ensuring that Labor gets its message through, that we’re able to talk about the accomplishments of this Government, they’re able to talk about the case of why an Abbott prime ministership would be bad for the environment, would be bad for health, would be bad for working people and why we need to ensure that we continue on the mission that we started three years ago to restore fairness for our workplaces, to keep our economy strong, to have a fair redistribution of the massive wealth that’s being generated through the mining industry and unfortunately, unfortunately that message has been lost over the last couple of months as the ongoing instability about the Prime Minister’s leadership has clouded out all the issues that Labor needs to talk about in this election.
JONES: Tell us what happened behind the scenes in this move against Kevin Rudd, because you have been talking to all the major players over the past 24 hours, spell out for us because people are going to be writing political PhDs on this subject.
HOWES: Well I don’t know about that but I mean, I, I, I had a normal day at work today. I met with the leadership of my union and we talked about where this election’s going. We talked about how difficult it’s been to get the message through, about why we need to ensure that Work Choices, whatever the name, never comes back again. The leadership of our union took the decision this af ternoon that we should throw our support behind Julia Gillard for the leadership of the Party. That’s not an easy decision for us to make and, you know, we’re not members of Caucus, we don’t tell members of Caucus how to vote.
JONES: But you talk to members of Caucus and members of the factions and you’ve known all along what’s been going on during the course of the day, can you give us some insight?
HOWES: Well I talk to members of the Caucus all the time. What’s happened today has been outlined and will be outlined in weeks to come. I mean I’m not sure of all the machinations, obviously. The Deputy Prime Minister has been in a meeting with the Prime Minister for a long period of time, we heard the outcome of that in the Prime Minister’s press conference just before this program went to air. What’s important for our union, and what’s important for our movement is that Labor gets its message back on track. That we recognise the fact that Tony Abbott is a major risk, a major risk to fairness in our workplaces. That if we lose the next election it will be like losing the 2007 election because it will demonstrate that that party can bring back Work Choices.
JONES: Right, do you believe Julia Gillard actually has the numbers tomorrow as an awful lot of commentators now believe?
HOWES: Well I don’t know, I mean that’s, that’s a question for the parliamentary party and, you know, it’s obviously happened in a very short period of time and there will be a caucus at 9:30 tomorrow morning so there won’t be that long to wait to find out what the outcome is. What’s important for us is that the party, the party becomes reunified behind a strong leader. Julia Gillard is a strong leader. She’s a person who managed to kill Work Choices, put in the fair work legislation, she has enormous popularity in the electorate. She’s led the education revolution and she’s been a good, loyal deputy to the Prime Minister. Sad, and to a very good Prime Minister, but sadly the Prime Minister’s message has not been able to get through to the electorate over the last months and weeks and that’s why change is needed.
JONES: Have you spoken to Julia Gillard this evening?
HOWES: I’ve spoken to many members of the Parliament over tonight explaining what our union’s view is and we don’t, we don’t…
JONES: Did you only a very short time ago take a call from Julia Gillard?
HOWES: I spoke to Julia very briefly to tell her that the union, the union’s position is that we’re supporting her leadership.
JONES: And what did she say to you?
HOWES: It was very, very brief conversation. I just wanted to make sure that she heard that from us rather than from you, Tony.
JONES: Did you have any sense that she believes she has the numbers to become the first female prime minister of Australia?
HOWES: I didn’t ask her that question and she didn’t give me that answer. It was a very brief conversation as it was with many other people in the Party tonight to tell them what the union’s position is. Which is not unlike the position of the Health Services Union. I’ve seen that Michael Williamson, who’s also the national president of the Party has also endorsed Julia Gillard’s leadership. The union always form a position on the leadership of the party whenever there is leadership changes. We don’t tell people how to vote, but we have been affiliated with the ALP since 1891 and that’s why it’s important that we put that…
JONES: Has your union ever withdrawn its support, in this manner, from a sitting prime minister?
HOWES: Well, you know, it’s been a long time since something like that’s happened. I can’t look through the annals of the history of the union. We were formed in 1886. But this is pretty unprecedented and the situation we’re in is pretty dire. This is a good Government with a good record and we can’t get that message out. We can’t get that message out because there is a dark cloud over the Labor leadership and there has been for the last few weeks and months. It’s important we put that behind us, we have a strong, solid message about what Labor stands for. It stands for fairness in our workplace, it stands for a strong health and hospitals network, it stands for a fair redistribution of wealth out of the mining industry and if we can’t get that message out under the current Prime Minister that’s why it’s time for a change.
JONES: How significant was it that the right wing factions appear to have been behind this move, appear to have been organising for some time?
HOWES: Well, you know, that’s a question for leaders of the right wing factions in Parliament. I mean…
JONES: Well it’s also a question for someone who knows the answers and I believe you do.
HOWES: Well look, I think it’s significant that a large, broad section of the Party from various factional backgrounds, from various States, from various professional backgrounds, see that Julia Gillard is the best option for Labor in the upcoming federal election. That is important because it shows that she has broad base support within the parliamentary party, she has it within the Labor movement, she has it within the organisational wing and she has it in the electorate, and the electorate is what matters. We need to get the message out to the electorate about what we can achieve, what we can do. The fact that Australia has remained out of recession is solely because of this Government but we can’t get that message through at the moment. That’s why we need to put this behind us and move onwards.
JONES: Do you track Kevin Rudd’s demise, in the eyes of his Labor colleagues, all the way back to his back-flip on the Emissions Trading Scheme as many others do?
HOWES: Well, that’s an interesting question and I’m not sure what the answer is. You know I think that certainly things got very hard for the Prime Minister after Copenhagen and I think blind faith that Copenhagen would come out with a result was probably wrong with the benefit of hindsight. It’s important that we have strong action on climate change, and this is one of the unfortunate issues with the Prime Minister’s leadership at the moment that, we can’t get the message out that Labor is in fact the best option for saving the environment. Labor is the only party that has a long term plan to put a price on carbon and that is important and it’s important that we get those messages out there that if you want a safe and secure environment for generations to come you need a Labor government. If you want fairness in our workplaces you need a Labor government.
JONES: What do you make of Kevin Rudd’s statement, a short time ago, that he was elected by the people of Australia, stressed that, the people of Australia. That he was, up until a very short time ago, perhaps the most popular prime minister in Australia’s history? How could you desert a Labor leader under those circumstances because of a couple of months of bad polls?
HOWES: The Australian people elected the Labor Party to the Government of this country with Kevin Rudd as its leader. It is not unusual for governments to change leaders within the term of a parliament and, and, and…
JONES: Well you just said this is unprecedented.
HOWES: … for their first term, but it is important to recognise that there is going to be an election soon. There is going to be an election soon and if Julia Gillard is elected as the leader of the Labor Party tomorrow and as our next prime minister the electorate will be able to test that in months to come at the general election.
JONES: Why was it so important to bring this on so quickly?
HOWES: Well, I think that, unfortunately, having staffers going out and canvassing support for the Prime Minister, insinuating that there has been some type of challenge mounted by the Deputy Prime Minister in the last couple of days.
JONES: You’re talking about the Prime Minister’s chief of star Alistair Jordan?
HOWES: Well yeah and I think that that was a grave mistake. You know, the Deputy Prime Minister had previously, um…, without any caveats, given her full support to the Prime Minister. Now there were many people in the party, I’ve gotta confess that I was one of them, wondering whether, whether there should be a change. Now obviously that was within the organisational party and it filtered through into the parliamentary party. But to go out there and to start canvassing support is wrong, that is the role of MPs. MPs elect the leader of the parliamentary Labor Party and it should always remain that way and to undermine that strong leadership team, I think, was a fundamental mistake.
JONES: It’s a suggestion that the chief of staff of the Prime Minister was acting disloyally to the Deputy Prime Minister. Is that right?
HOWES: Well I think it had been clear from all of Julia’s comments, up until the last couple of days, every time the Deputy Prime Minister was asked this question, every time she was asked about her loyalty to the Prime Minister she made it clear what her position was and I hadn’t heard any whisperings within the union movement, within the parliamentary party of any differences in that statement. To go out there and start to test the numbers was to make out that she was somehow being disloyal. That was wrong, that was a mistake.
JONES: Is that the straw that broke the camel’s back?
HOWES: Possibly. I mean, you know, Tony, that’s, that’s, I’m not in Canberra tonight, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m not a member of the Parliamentary Labor Party. I’m not sure what’s going on in Caucus meetings and so on. But I’m sure many, one of, many of the reasons why people have become increasingly dissatisfied has been that; which I think was a pretty duplicitous action.
JONES: Well one thing we know for sure is the former head of your union, Bill Shorten, who is obviously quite close to you, has been one of the key figures canvassing support. I mean you must have spoken to him about what’s been going on?
HOWES: Well I speak to Bill all the time, but Bill, in November 2007, ceased to be the national secretary of the AWU and became the Federal Member for Maribyrnong. Look, you know…
JONES: Was he telling you that this act by Alistair Jordan was one of the key things that led him to start organising numbers against the Prime Minister?
HOWES: No, Bill hasn’t said that to me. I mean, what Bill has talked about is the need to get the message back out, the need to refocus on the issues; the need to move away from this constant media speculation about the leadership of the Labor Party and talk about the key issues that matter to the Australian people. We can’t get that message out at the moment. The party can’t get that message out at the moment and that’s why we need to put this period behind us and get back on message because it scares me, it scares me, Tony, to think that in a couple of months, Tony Abbott could be sitting in the Lodge. That Tony Abbott, who was too much of a right ring zealot for even Howard to control, will become the next prime minister of this country. That’s a scary thing for our hospitals, it’s a scary thing for our schools and environment and a scary thing for our workplaces.
JONES: Are you aware of the internal party polling that suggests that’s exactly what will happen if there’s an election?
HOWES: Well, you can see Newspoll, you can see AC Neilsen, you can see Essential Research and you can see some internal research and research that the unions have done that clearly says at the moment if we had an election today it’s more likely than not that Tony Abbott would become the next prime minister and that’s why, you know, it is not with any particular joy, it’s not with any particular happiness that our union changed our position because we want to ensure that Labor continues to govern in the interests of all Australians and that working people get a fair go and we can only do that if Labor’s re-elected at the next election.
JONES: A final quick question, because one of the things that’s given Tony Abbott a bit of a boost recently has been the mining super profits tax. Would you expect Julia Gillard to start reversing policies like that if she becomes Prime Minister?
HOWES: Well I think the super profits tax is a great example of about how we haven’t been able to get our message out there. This is a great piece of taxation reform which would do a lot to institute a fair redistribution of the wealth in this country, ensuring that we boost our superannuation savings, having appropriate investment in infrastructure.
JONES: Ok, ok so you don’t expect any change there. Tell me this, what sort of prime minister do you believe Julia Gillard would be?
HOWES: Well, I think she’ll be one of the best prime ministers this country has ever seen. She’s demonstrated in the last two and a half years that she’s been able to rip away Work Choices and reinstitute fairness in our workplaces. She’s instituted an education revolution. She’s a deeply impressive and thoughtful woman that I think will lead Labor, not just into the next election victorious, but in many elections to come.
JONES: And finally, is internal research, including your own union research, suggesting that she has a better chance of winning the election than Kevin Rudd?
HOWES: I think the important thing to focus on is that by putting this instability and this lack of, an over micro-attention on the leadership of the Labor Party aside and re-focussing on issues that matter…
JONES: Well there’s going to be an awful lot of attention on the leadership of the Labor Party now that you’re getting rid of the leader and replacing him with another one if that’s what happens.
HOWES: And Labor will be able to move on quickly. Labor will be able to move on quickly and do the work that matters to the Australian people, that is, ensuring that our economy remains strong and fair, our workplaces remain fair, our education goes through the revolution that it needs and we reform and overhaul our hospitals and health network.
JONES: Paul Howes we’ll have to leave you there. We thank you very much for coming in to join us on what is a very interesting, perhaps even momentous, night. Thank you.
HOWES: Thanks Tony.