Spinners and Advisers

Qantas spinner and the union chief: conflict of interest?

The head of the Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association, Steve Purvinas, has called on Qantas PR boss Olivia Wirth to resign after it was was revealed she was dating Australian Workers Union chief Paul Howes.

"Olivia should be resigning for the media spokesperson for Qantas. She's got a conflict of interest," said Purvinas, who until last month was involved in a defamation battle with the media savvy union leader stemming from a bitter demarcation dispute.

Tongues were wagging across the PR and politics worlds this morning after Australian Financial Review Rear Window columnist and former Wirth colleague Joe Aston reported the new couple, "obviously an item", had decided to step out on Derby Day at the Emirates' marquee. Emirates is pursuing a tie-up with Qantas and the AWU is one of three major Qantas unions.

But Aston's connections on this particular yarn are also intriguing. In 2002 he used to live in a Leichhardt house owned by Howes' mother-in-law Judy Mannering, who at the time was going out with dis-endorsed Lib Greg Barns. Barns had famously fallen foul — alongside then Young Lib VP Aston — of Erica Abetz's right-wing forces in Tasmania and were forced north to sunnier climes (here's how Crikey reported it at the time). Mannering's daughter Lucy was freshly married to Howes but the couple lived elsewhere.

Then, later in the decade, Aston popped up working at the Mangy Roo alongside Wirth, before moving on to Etihad. And both Aston and Wirth also worked (at separate times) for Hockey. Now — thanks to Aston — it is public knowledge Paul and Lucy Howes have gone their separate ways, with Aston even drawing attention to The Australian Women's Weekly's soft-focus domestic piece on the couple in June. Circles within circles.

Meanwhile, on the industrial front, there could be delicacies given the AWU is a leading Qantas union (representing unlicensed engineers) and was, until September, involved in a turf war with Purvinas. In July, Purvinas accused Howes of "collusion" with Qantas management. Howes dropped the defamation action last month, with the duo agreeing to unite against their common enemies, including Qantas, and sort out their differences "over a beer". Now, that détente appears to have crumbled.

Musings about how tough Howes will be when it comes to Qantas EBA negotiations are a little further fetched given neither Howes, nor Wirth, personally negotiate them and any weakness wouldn't be copped by members.

Interestingly, Howes has been very keen to sledge Etihad's recent purchase of 10% of Virgin in his Sunday Telegraph column but hasn't been quite as forthcoming on Qantas' proposed commercial pact with Emirates, in whose marquee he popped up on Saturday. With the deal currently before the competition regulator don't be surprised if the 31-year-old father of three banishes any doubt and launches a fresh attack on Qantas and Emirates on the pages of Australia's highest selling newspaper.

Both Wirth and Howes declined to comment this morning.


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