National Secretary, Australian Workers' Union
Born in: Sydney
Foes: Kevin Rudd | Gina Rinehart | Mark Latham
Home Town: Sydney
Paul Howes understands, better than almost anyone in Australian politics, the power of being a media tart. The 30-year old's self-confident, self-aggrandising style has won him plenty of enemies while putting him exactly where he wants to be: at the centre of our national conversation.
"In Australia, media is power and profile is important," the Australian Workers Union national secretary tells The Power Index during an interview in his Sydney office. "My job is to give the union a profile so when we speak, people listen. It increases our bargaining leverage. It means when we attack a company it will get a run."
Howes' mastery of the media cycle was on full display last week when he lashed the government's decision to allow Gina Rinehart to import 1,700 workers for an iron ore project as "sheer lunacy" and a "kick in the guts for manufacturing workers". This followed earlier pronouncements that the government should start picking economic winners again, and that the RBA has consistently made the wrong call on interest rates and may need its charter reviewed.
And who could forget his infamous appearance on Lateline the evening before Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd?
As we explained last year – and as Howes himself acknowledges – his role in the Rudd coup has been dramatically overstated: he's not yet a factional heavy like his predecessor Bill Shorten or the AWU's soon-to-retire Queensland boss Bill Ludwig. So don't believe the conservative commentators who suggest he can pick up the phone and get whatever he wants.
But when it comes to influencing policy, influencing debate and influencing the broader union movement, Howes easily takes out the top spot on our Union Heavies list.
Few who've dealt with the progressive prodigy – who leads the nation's biggest and oldest blue-collar union – doubt he's headed for the very top of politics.
"He's very much in a class of his own," says Liberal party grandee and regular sparring partner Michael Kroger. "He's the most effective communicator the unions have got. I expect him to get a federal seat in NSW in the next decade and he'll be a very formidable opponent in Canberra. He could easily lead the party."
It's an ego boost many on his own side of politics say he could do without.
"He's a self-appointed spokesman, a meretricious carpet-bagger," one Labor elder told us last year.
"He's given various people the shits because he's young and brash," says the national secretary of a large union. "That 20-something arrogance has rubbed people up the wrong way."
As former finance minister Lindsay Tanner points out, however, knocking Howes for being loud misses the point spectacularly.
"While Howes is often controversial and has numerous detractors, he is always in the story," Tanner wrote last year in Sideshow. "He has a personal brand. That means he will always prevail in a political contest with someone who doesn't."
Howes' famous threat to withdraw support for the carbon price if it cost "one job" paid off when the government delivered a package containing large free permits for trade exposed industries, a $300 million steel transformation package and big support for coal industry jobs.
His headline grabbing attack on Rio Tinto boss Tom Albanese last year for "sucking out the blood, sweat and tears of blue-collar workers" was part of a bigger battle to re-unionise Rio workplaces. The AWU is now negotiating on behalf of the workers at the Bell Bay aluminium smelter in Tasmania -- the first time this has happened since 1994.
As for Rinehart's Enterprise Migration Agreement deal, it's going ahead – but Howes fanned a caucus revolt that has led to the creation of a subcommittee to ensure Australian jobs come first.
As well as being a loudmouth, the Sydneysider is an assiduous networker with close friends in high places.
Howes has given the AWU, traditionally an isolated union, a bigger voice in the broader union movement than ever before. He's the first person in his union to be elected a vice-president of the ACTU and earlier this year was a key player garnering support for Dave Oliver to take over from Jeff Lawrence as ACTU secretary.
Howes considers Oliver, the former boss of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, one of his closest mates. That's a historical miracle given the right-wing AWU and left-wing AMWU had brawled for decades over turf and ideology. Yet the pair has effectively lobbied the government to introduce a toughened-up anti-dumping regime and new 'Buy Australian' procurement requirements.
"Paul is one of the most effective operators I've seen," says Oliver, who took over the ACTU last week. "He's articulate, he's bright, he's good at winning people over and building alliances."
In the political sphere, Howes remains close to his predecessor, IR minister Bill Shorten, who lobbied for him to take on the job at 26. He's also good buddies with fellow wunderkind Sam Dastyari, the general secretary of the NSW ALP.
"It's no secret that the AWU is on the 10th floor of the Labor Council Building [in Sussex Street] and NSW Labor on the 9th," Dastyari tells The Power Index. "Paul and I talk a lot. He's one of a handful of senior figures in the Labor party who are leading the way on policy development."
"Paul has been handed nothing on a plate," Dastyari adds. "Everything he's achieved has been through hard work and intelligence."
Indeed, the bright lights of Sussex Street are a long way from Blaxland High – the outer-western Sydney school Howes dropped out of at 15. He left home at the same time after being bullied by his stepfather. While working as a bank teller and a clerk, he fell under the sway of the Democratic Socialist Party and travelled to Cuba and France with a group of fellow Trotskyites.
Today, Howes' radicalism may have dissipated – he's a proud member of the Labor Right – but not his passion for ideas. He's an independent, original thinker: pro-gay marriage, pro-Israel, pro-nuclear power and a supporter of a more humanitarian approach to refugees. Last year, he defended conservative columnist Andrew Bolt, after the man was found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act.
Labor's spin doctors could do worse than sit down for a chat with Howes, who looks, thinks and acts 10 years older than he is.
"Talking about Tony Abbott isn't talking about your message," he says. "We really underestimate his ability to connect with aspirational middle-class males."
Rather than attacking the opposition leader ad nauseum, he wants Labor to develop an inspiring, over-arching narrative.
"I don't think people vote Labor when they want a steady hand on the wheel or because they're good administrators," he says. "Frankly, the coalition are better at just running the show than we are. Labor should be about bold reform – a big vision about where the country's going. That's been lost in a lot of campaigns – and in government."
While not denying his political ambitions, Howes is adamant that he won't make a play for a seat at the next election. He's running for another four-year term as AWU national secretary next year.
"It's a great job – I don't know why anyone would think I would want to go," he says, sounding exasperated. "Ten years ago we were the joke of the Australian union movement. Now we're one of the most dominant unions – certainly the most high profile. We're running like a well-oiled machine at the moment."
Although he regrets his high-profile role in Julia Gillard's ascension to power, he's standing by the PM – despite her dire standing in the polls.
"History always treats Labor governments with far more fondess that when they're in office. I think Gillard will be treated well by history. It's better to do things and lose than do nothing and win."