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Labor’s rising star steps aside, for now

Paul Howes
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For a time Paul Howes was regarded as a rising star of the labour and Labor movements.

But, perhaps less kindly, he will be forever known as one of the faceless men who ‘did in’ a popular prime minister.

Howes has long been touted as a future political leader, being, at just 32, one of the most high-profile trade unionists in the country.

But his decision to quit the movement, and suggestions he might seek a career in the corporate sector, has turned on its head predictions he will follow his Australian Workers Union predecessor, Bill Shorten, to Canberra.

He left school at 14, became a full-time unionist at 17, and by 26 was national secretary of the AWU just as Labor returned to government in Canberra.

Paul Howes
Paul Howes. Photo: AAP

But his most notable, some might say infamous, role was the one he played in the downfall of Kevin Rudd in June 2010.

As Labor MPs fretted over a choice between their popularly elected leader and his ambitious deputy, Howes went on national television to declare the AWU was backing Julia Gillard.

His intervention was regarded as the final nail in Rudd’s political coffin.

From that day on, he was tagged one of Labor’s “faceless men” who brought down a prime minister in his first term.

Ever the media-savvy operator, Howes appeared to revel in his new status, going so far as to author a diary of the 2010 federal election campaign titled Confessions of a Faceless Man.

He used it to play down his role in the leadership coup, arguing it had been “overstated in the media”.

“Had I not gone on ABC’s Lateline … and publicly backed Gillard, she still would have won.”

Others were not so kind, suggesting Howes was trying to justify his actions in light of an election result that failed to deliver Labor and Gillard majority government.

Howes later said he regretted his role, describing the Lateline interview as a “major mistake”.

But he remained loyal to Gillard to the bitter end of her prime ministership, declaring “we’ve got your back” amid continued speculation of a Rudd challenge in early 2013.

Rudd’s return a few months later put an end to whatever influence Howes had inside federal Labor as he and other Gillard supporters drifted from the public limelight.

With a coalition government in place after the September election, he sought to position himself as a moderate on workplace relations.

In February he caught Shorten and the union movement short when he called for a “grand compact” between business and unions, complaining that Australia’s industrial relations system had become a “blood sport”.

He practised what he preached by negotiating a landmark workplace agreement with Rio Tinto, eschewing guaranteed pay rises to protect job security for workers at the company’s Bell Bay aluminium smelter in Tasmania.

But the reluctance of his labour movement colleagues to ‘modernise’ their outlook is thought to have contributed to Howes’ increasing frustration.

Going to Canberra as an MP is not an alternative, yet.

“I’m not ruling anything in or anything out, but I am not stepping down from this role to pursue a career in parliamentary politics,” he said on Monday.

Howes insists his decision to leave the AWU is about taking a lesser active role in public life.

“To be a little bit more faceless, as I’ve been called for a long time.”

Few see his decision as the last rites on a political career, especially as age is on his side.

While he attempts to make his mark outside the union movement, perhaps in business – Howes is deputy chair of Australia’s largest superannuation fund AustralianSuper – he can afford to play a long game.

As well, he can distance himself from the union movement, especially the AWU, which will be subject to investigation by a royal commission appointed by a government keen to expose corruption.

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