National Secretary, Health Services Union
Born in: Melbourne
Friends: David Feeney | Marco Bolano
Foes: Bill Shorten | Michael Williamson | Chris Brown
Home Town: Melbourne
Whistleblowers don't come any more flawed, or fascinating, than Kathy Jackson – the woman who has turned the ugly inner workings of the Health Services Union into a rolling national scandal.
Jackson took allegations of cronyism and corruption within the HSU's East branch to the police last September, and has been waging a one-woman crusade against predecessor Craig Thomson and former ally Michael Williamson ever since. As a result, Thomson has been forced onto the crossbenches, Williamson has stepped aside as HSU national president and the future existence of the HSU is hanging in the balance. Tough new laws for union governance are also on their way.
Jackson's jihad has drawn applause from the HSU's low-paid membership and made her an unlikely right-wing poster child. Tony Abbott has called her "heroic"; Miranda Devine has hailed her as an "inspiration to other women".
But among her fellow union leaders – including many of those who feature on our Union Heavies power list – it has earned her nothing but contempt.
"I am the pariah of the trade union movement," Jackson told The Power Index during an extensive interview last week. "I have gone outside the family and aired the dirty linen when they thought it should be handled in house. They are out to destroy me."
Jackson says she hasn't received a single message of support from a fellow union leader since going to the police.
Senior officials in other unions routinely deride her as delusional, self-obsessed and power hungry. The loathing felt towards her within the HSU is even more intense.
"My branch won't be part of any union where Kathy Jackson is involved in a senior position," says Dan Hill, secretary of the HSU's Western Australia branch. "She's attacked the ACTU, the Labor party and other branches of the union. She's cast a shadow over the whole union movement."
Chris Brown, the HSU's acting national president, is just as vituperative: "The way she's played this has magnified the damage to the union ... Kathy doesn't care about members. She doesn't have their interests at heart and if she keeps going on like this there won't be much of a union left."
It's no wonder Jackson's such a divisive figure.
On the one hand, she's gutsy, charming, relatable – a chain-smoking mother of three who has taken on powerful interests and bravely spoken out about her battles with mental illness.
But she's also prone to self-aggrandisement, over-reach and carries more baggage than an Airbus A380.
In February, Jackson said she suspected Labor had interfered with Fair Work Australia's investigation into Thomson's credit card spending – a claim for which she had no evidence. She's also tried to paint all her critics as Williamson flunkies, and portrayed herself as a lone wolf when the truth is much more complicated (several HSU national executive members can take credit for bringing the "brothel-gate" allegations to light).
Last month, it was revealed that she receives $270,000 a year for her role as executive president of the HSU East branch – a figure twice as large as, for example, AWU boss Paul Howes' salary.
She's also been slammed for pocketing more than $26,000 in fees for sitting on the board of the HESTA industry superannuation fund over the 2010-2011 financial year. All the other union representatives on the board donated their fees to their union.
HSU insiders also question her motives, saying they believe her anti-corruption crusade is the latest in a series of cynical power plays that have elevated her to the top of the union tree.
After studying teaching at the University of Melbourne, Jackson joined the HSU's no.3 branch in 1992 as an industrial officer. She rose to become secretary with the help of her then husband Jeff Jackson, a senior right operative in the Victorian ALP who was running the Victorian no.1 branch at the time. The couple's bitter 15-year battle with rival Pauline Fegan eventually descended into fisticuffs between the two women and saw the no.1 branch put into administration.
In 2008, Jackson succeeded Craig Thomson as national secretary. Her ascension was opposed by all HSU branches except her own, Jeff Jackson's and the powerful NSW branch run by Michael Williamson.
This marked the start of a Williamson-Jackson alliance that would eventually see the three branches merge into one organisation, HSU East, in 2010.
"I thought he was the real McCoy," Jackson says of her alliance with Williamson. "He was the ALP national president. I thought he ran a good organisation. They serviced their members well, they had sound systems in place. From the outside it looked pretty good.
"Once we amalgamated, we started to see how they ran the NSW operation."
Jackson says alarm bells started ringing when she discovered over a million dollars a year of HSU funds had been paid to United Edge, an IT company part-owned by Williamson.
After hiring an ex-cop to investigate, she went to the police in September with allegations that Williamson and Thomson had received secret commissions. Three hours later, Strike Force Carnarvon was formed.
"At some point in your life you've got to do the right thing – even if you pay a price for it," she says.
And pay a price she has. Workplace relations minister Bill Shorten, a long-time factional foe, has made an application to the federal court that HSU East be put into administration and split it up into three branches.
Last month, the HSU national executive called for Jackson to resign as national secretary, saying her fixation with her HSU East's internal operations has led to chronic neglect of her national duties.
"They want me to go away – they wish I was run over by a bus or a truck – but I'm not going anywhere," Jackson says. "The HSU will rebuild and we will be the cleanest union in the country."