The incredible emptiness of Paul Howes

Election pundit Peter "Mumble" Brent has accurately summed up Paul Howes as “not so much a person as an ever-evolving script”. He became chief of the right-wing run Australian Workers Union five years ago but clearly has much higher political ambitions.

Howes displays a knack (and insatiable appetite) for getting mainstream media attention and is unscrupulous about how he gets it. His infamous scurry to appear as a Labor party faction head with the bloodiest hands on the night of the political coup against former PM Kevin Rudd in 2010 was a prime example of this.

However, in the latest evolution of the Howes script, delivered at the National Press Club on May 22, Howes sought to present himself as an inclusive and visionary “custodian of the labour movement”, who even wants to welcome back into the Labor fold previously spat out former ALP leaders like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd.

This wild aside tapped into the mainstream media's overblown projection of Howes' power.

But the core of Howes’ speech was potentially more powerful because it tapped into growing public unease about who is benefiting from the much celebrated mining boom, and who is not.

The subsequent revelation that mining empire heir Gina Rinehart had become the richest woman in the world (after her wealth grew by $18.87 billion to $29.17 billion in a year) has increased that unease. As has the Gillard Labor government’s decision to give her the right to bring in 1700 temporary 457 visa migrant workers to toil in her mine and its decision to keep desperate refugees locked up indefinitely without trial while rich migrants (with $5 million or more) get to “jump the queue”.

Howes understands this deep unease particularly among the 98% of the workforce that is not employed by the mining industry and who live with increasing job insecurity (less than two-thirds of workers now have permanent jobs). The real cost of living is rising and many working class families are drowning in debt because housing prices increased by 147%, while incomes rose by just 57% in the last 10 years.

In his press club speech, Howes called for more government intervention to compel banks to completely pass on all Reserve Bank interest rate cuts and to bring back “industry planning”. He hinted that he favoured a return to something like the John Button car industry plan of the 1980s. Workers in the industry hoped that it would save their jobs but instead it delivered fat subsidies and greater monopolisation to Ford, GMH and Toyota, and destroyed tens of thousands of jobs — just as the ALP’s steel industry plan did.

His subsequent interview on ABC's Lateline showed the suggestions were more posture and soundbite than serious proposals. Howes wasn’t proposing anything radical and he made clear that he supports the mining frenzy and the Australian corporate dream of getting rich by selling stuff to rapidly industrialising China. Yet he was ticked off by the Australian Financial Review for supposedly rejecting the neoliberal agenda of the Hawke-Keating era.

Union leaders should reject that agenda championed by Hawke and Keating because it has obscenely distorted society to make the super-rich even richer. It is destroying the environment and the trade union movement in the process.

Howes isn’t rejecting that course. But even the vaguest suggestion of some regulation of capitalism is totally unacceptable to the rich — even if it is just another empty display of media tartism by the likes of Howes. This is how bad things have got.

Green Left Weekly makes the case that our common future requires a complete reversal of the corporate-first agenda embraced by both the ALP and the Liberal-Nationals.

We say it is pointless begging the banks to pass on interest rate cuts and trying to “pick winners” by bribing giant corporations with billions of dollars of subsidies. BHP Billiton chairperson (and former Ford CEO) Jac Nasser made it plain that the corporate rich want everything — corporate subsidies, deregulation and more.

They demand lower wages, weaker unions, and abundant energy and water for next to nothing. The banks and the big corporations need to be nationalised and run democratically by society in our collective interest.

If the empty words of unscrupulous union officials and wannabe ALP politicians like Howes don’t sucker you, donate to the Green Left Weekly fighting fund today at www.greenleft.org.au, where we are serious about rejecting the poisonous legacy of the Hawke-Keating era.

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