It Pays To Have Friends In High Office


When Kevin Rudd defeated Kim Beazley for the Labor leadership in December 2006, he was given broad licence by the party structure to select his own frontbench, as well as veto power over ordinary candidates. He was, after all, the great nerd hope from Nambour, with a real chance of defeating John Howard and restoring the hollowed out Labor Party to government. Many of these privileges carried over into his term as prime minister — as we all now know from the ongoing soul searching over "what went wrong" during his brief period leading the nation.

Anne Urquhart, one of the two new Labor senators from Tasmania, was a beneficiary of the Rudd terror, having landed the safe number two position on the Tasmanian Senate ticket through a mixture of prime ministerial control and factional support, bolstered by her credentials as an Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) official.

Urquhart was originally to be positioned in the dicey third position, which Labor lost in 2001 and 2004, but subsequently won in 2007 and last year, on Greens preferences. In second position the Left faction to which Urquhart belongs had preselected Kevin Harkins, from the Electrical Trades Union.

Harkins was what the Australian press euphemistically calls "a controversial figure", but is really the paradigmatic figure of an Australian union boss — a big bloke in a blue shirt, who threatened to pour concrete into a building site to ensure union workers were employed, was fined $8800 for organising an "illegal" strike in 2005 under Howard’s anti-striking laws, and was alleged to have paid up party memberships.

A bit bolshie, a bit dodgy, but still with the respect of the Left caucus — in 2009 The Mercury quoted Tasmanian ALP state secretary John Dowling as saying Harkins was "courageous". "Kevin has a large degree of support within the party."

Because of his fine, and concerned about the party’s image, Harkins stood down from preselection in the Tasmanian seat of Franklin in 2007. He wrote to Rudd, expressing hope that his actions, and support from other Labor ministers, "has cleared the air so I may contest federal preselection unfettered". Apparently, previous meetings with Rudd while opposition leader had given Harkins the indication he would be unimpeded if he tried to run for federal preselection again.

Rudd instead called Harkins a "pugilist" and said there were "two chances of him entering the Senate on our part — Buckley’s and none".

When the Tasmanian branch of the party submitted their ticket, the Right’s Helen Polley in first, Harkins second and Urquhart third, Rudd vetoed Harkins, bumping Urquhart up to second.

Urquhart, who was at the time convening the Left faction, is nowhere to be seen in any of the press at the time. When The Mercury came looking for comment on Harkins being cut out, nobody from the Left obliged. In the face of Rudd’s dictates from Canberra there was not once a drop of solidarity from Urquhart, who preferred to shuffle up the ticket than to go into battle for her Comrade Harkins, who had been the convener of the faction prior to Urquhart, and took the position as secretary of Unions Tasmania as Urquhart was leaving the president’s job.

The Left did stand up for its own though when then-senator Kerry O’Brien, who broke ranks with the faction in 2003, had to be knocked off. Despite being the Chief Government Whip he lost preselection in favour of Lisa Singh, who took the third place on the ticket.

This isn’t to say Urquhart has nothing to recommend her; on the contrary, her name is on the bottom of countless AMWU media releases for dozens of industrial campaigns — potato farmers, workplace deaths, product labelling, United Petroleum, Cadbury jobs, Paper Mills, ACL Bearings manufacture — make no mistake. She held office at both the AMWU and Unions Tasmania. But when it came time to assert her faction and state branch’s choice against a factional opponent who saw strike action — a union’s bread and butter — as being from the "industrial culture of an earlier age" she chose to slither up the ballot paper instead.

Harkins is now Unions Tasmania Secretary and is giving it to the Giddings Government over school cuts. Urquhart may see him in the Upper House before too long.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.