Journalist Brad Norington writes about the woman at the heart of the HSU scandal in this extract from his book Planet Jackson: Power, Unions and Greed.
Kathy Jackson knew how hardball politics worked. No naive pup, she had been deeply involved in the game for more than two decades — well before attracting national attention as a corruption whistleblower.
In Jackson’s home town of Melbourne, there were always power struggles happening inside the union movement and the Labor Party as she rose through the ranks of both. Ambitious but also fascinated with the intrigue that went with these struggles, she immersed herself in numerous faction fights that ranged from petty issues to serious grabs for power. These conflicts seemed to appeal to Jackson’s sense of drama. She had a knack for being at the centre of a storm. She was a firebrand, wild and impulsive, with all the style of a schoolyard brawler. And she had the profanity to match.
While instinct, more than hard-headed logic, guided Jackson, it helped enormously that she had four major mentors — Jeff Jackson, David Feeney, Rob Elliott and Michael Williamson — to encourage her and keep her on track. Feeney and Jackson had been friends since the days of student politics at the University of Melbourne. The pair job-shared as on-campus “activities officers” in charge of co-ordinating social clubs and band performances. They were on opposite sides of the Labor Party politically — Jackson on the Left and Feeney Right — but it seemed to make no difference to their “incredible” closeness. An old university friend said: “They were like twins, they were inseparable.”
After his student years, Feeney climbed the party ladder to become a powerbroker in the Victorian ALP’s Right faction, as secretary of the state branch and then a federal MP. Through it all, no matter what the crisis, Feeney stuck with Jackson. The quid pro quo for Feeney was numbers. As she climbed her own ladder at the Health Services Union, Jackson became an important part of Feeney’s power base inside the Labor Party Right by delivering votes for the ruling administrative committee and the floor of the state party’s quarterly conference. Jackson became very close to Feeney’s wife, Liberty Sanger, a principal at law firm Maurice Blackburn — they were BFFs. Sanger’s firm also did legal work for the HSU No 3 branch, before and while Jackson controlled it.
Bill Shorten was another early key Labor contact in Jackson’s life. Like Feeney, Shorten had been a player in student politics — but at Monash University, across the other side of town, while studying law. Jackson and Shorten also started out on opposite factional sides of the ALP: Jackson was originally with a Left group called the Pledge, while Shorten started with the Labor Unity Right faction. So red was Jackson’s political colour that she was often referred to as “tomato left”. Only later did she discover pragmatism, if not exactly changing her politics much. She joined the strength within the Victorian party in the late 1990s by switching sides and forming an alliance with the Shorten-Feeney group on the ALP Right.
Until a spectacular falling out, with lasting ramifications, Jackson and Shorten were factional warriors together for many years. While she headed her HSU branch and unsuccessfully sought Labor preselection for several safe seats in the Victorian parliament, Shorten became the Victorian branch secretary of the blue-collar Australian Workers’ Union, and then concurrently the AWU’s national secretary. Unlike Jackson, Shorten did fulfil his ambition by winning a seat in federal parliament that he intended would catapult him all the way to the ALP’s federal leadership.
There was a close Jackson-Shorten social connection in the late 1990s and the first half of the 2000s. In the company of their respective partners, the two dined out, ate at each other’s homes and hit city bars after party or union events. Politics and ambition were the glue that bound their friendship. Shorten was close to Feeney, and best man at his wedding. Meanwhile, Jackson became very friendly with Shorten’s wife, Debbie Beale. It became a triumvirate when Feeney met Sanger and Jackson went out of her way to get close to his new partner. Jackson, Sanger and Beale called themselves “the first wives’ club”.
Even though Jackson was into her second marriage, and Shorten was to divorce Beale, the tag stuck. They were the partners of Labor men going places. Allusions to US presidential politics were not lost on others from their circle who watched on with wry amusement. The three women tripped to Hong Kong together for the shopping. When in Melbourne with their partners, it was dinner for six.
One of the six at these Melbourne dinners was Jackson’s husband, her guiding hand on a day-to-day basis. Jeff Jackson, whose surname Kathy adopted, much preferring it over Koukouvaos, was a knockabout, street-smart former hospital orderly. He had risen from union organiser to elected assistant secretary of the HSU No 1 branch by the time he and Jackson started a relationship in September 1993. Kathy would become Jeff’s third wife. The Jacksons soon came to be known as a “power couple” in Victorian union circles. They were extroverted to go with it. One from the inner circle recalled: “Jeff was very good at keeping Kathy under control — she lost the plot all the time. She could never hold her temper and he would calm her down. She would never make a move without David (Feeney) either.”
The couple formally split in early 2008. Both had been wild spirits, straying from the marriage from time to time. They seemed to wear each other out.
Though Kathy Jackson would later play down their close association over more than a decade, Michael Williamson was a significant influence on her. Jackson watched Williamson’s every move as he ran his much larger HSU branch north of the border. She saw how Williamson’s union position and lifestyle were deeply entwined. He was an example of what real power could bring, even if she was not yet acquainted with the detail of how it all worked. Kathy and Jeff Jackson became close to Williamson from late 1997 onwards when the couple quietly switched from the ALP Left to the Right — Williamson’s faction. Williamson involved himself behind the scenes in the years that followed with political manoeuvring and campaign financing to help install Jeff Jackson at the top of the HSU No 1 branch. He also used his position as HSU’s national president — which he held in addition to being general secretary of the large NSW branch — to help Kathy Jackson at key points of her rise through the union hierarchy. Jeff would refer to Williamson in his wife’s presence as “the Big Kahuna”. It was not just a funny crack. If anything, the nickname was reverential.
In the late 1990s, the Jacksons hosted a barbecue at their home in Box Hill for Williamson and his wife Julie. To the surprise of many on the guest list, it was a large event with professional catering, no doubt union-funded. Kathy Jackson cast the net wide to pull in as many notable Victorian Labor Right figures as she could to meet the Big Kahuna from Sydney. One guest remembered: “I hadn’t met Williamson before. He had a pink sweater tied around his neck and he was wearing one of those Tommy Hilfiger shirts, with Country Road cream chinos, and brogues with no socks. He looked like he’d come straight off a yacht. He didn’t look like he came from a union. He was holding court, and I thought, ‘What a wanker’. Then she (Jackson) came up to me and said, ‘That’s who I want to be’. And I thought, ‘Him? Really?”’
It was Williamson’s power, not his fashion sense, that appealed to Jackson. Jackson was the daughter of Greek migrants who met on a ship bound for Australia in the mid-1960s and settled in working-class Port Melbourne. Jackson’s father, Peter Koukouvaos, gained a steady job as an unskilled worker with General Motors-Holden. While the Koukouvaos family was Greek Orthodox, getting the best education for Kathy, born on December 8, 1967, and her two younger brothers, was the priority of Peter and his wife Voula. So young Kathy Koukouvaos was sent to Melbourne’s creme de la creme private Catholic girls’ school, Loreto Mandeville Hall, in well-to-do Toorak — her father would drop off Kathy at the school gate in his purple Holden Monaro. Loreto ate up much of the family’s low income. Jackson went on to the University of Melbourne where she studied teaching. She found student politics much more interesting — life stuck in a classroom was unlikely and possibly unsuited to her temperament.
Not much has been written about Jackson’s early years, and she appears to have steered clear of talking about her childhood and school experience. Some long close to her believe Jackson used university to create a new identity. One recalled: “She spent a lot of time in denial about her ethnicity and Greekness. It was as though she was uncomfortable about it. But she wanted more than an Anglo way of life. She wanted to be part of the political realm that dominated student politics at the time. She wanted to wear Country Road and be part of an elite group … She had amazing drive to get where she wanted and no one was going to get in her way. She was your friend until you were no longer of any use to her.”
Still, the influence of Jackson’s parents seems obvious. She recalled her father “always told her that she must join a union”. Jackson would never work outside the HSU and so never had a job or life experience outside the union movement. Her Labor allegiance was the thread connecting university and union. Jackson went straight to the HSU No 3 branch in 1992 when its secretary, Michael Maloney, hired her as a research officer.
Fresh from university, Jackson was suddenly based in the heart of union territory in Victoria’s Trades Hall Council building. She knew nothing about the health industry or industrial awards that set members’ conditions but she was ambitious and a quick learner. She became widely regarded as a “complete tyro” because of her aggressive approach to negotiating. Several colleagues were astounded when Jackson told a story about how she’d met a senior Trades Hall official on her first day. It was typical Jackson, the loose cannon. “I just f..ked (name deleted) on his desk,” they recalled her saying.
In December 1996, she won the support of the HSU No 3 branch committee of management to call off a merger with the No 4 branch and install her as secretary. Accounts vary about Jackson’s effectiveness as general secretary of her struggling branch. The Jacksons shared the same building and worked as a unit when Jeff took over the HSU No 1 branch in 2002. The couple agreed not to proceed with a union merger of their two branches — an issue raised periodically in the past — because they found it more convenient to keep their branch accounts separate, even if the lines were often blurred.
Their fiefdoms gave them voting muscle on the conference floor of the Victorian ALP. According to confidential US cables published in 2010 by Julian Assange’s rogue website WikiLeaks, Jackson boasted to the US consul-general to Melbourne, Michael Thurston, that she and other union secretaries wielded at least as much influence as junior state ministers “by controlling who is elected to parliament”.
For ambitious ALP operatives Feeney and Shorten, and numbers man Stephen Conroy too, the flamboyant couple were good for business. They helped consolidate the factional power of the ALP Right. Kathy and Jeff Jackson were champion networkers, very successful at making themselves known to movers and shakers in Labor politics, unions and the media.
Kathy Jackson had her ups and downs with Shorten, even if her friendship with his then wife Debbie was a constant. One Victorian HSU colleague recalled Jeff Jackson saying how he and Kathy needed to stay on Shorten’s good side: “Bill’s going to be prime minister one day, and we’ll get invited to Kirribilli House.”
At a 2001 party, when Jackson was pregnant with her third child, mutual friends recalled how she and Shorten had a fierce disagreement over a Labor preselection.
Onlookers were amused, and a little stunned, when it degenerated into slapstick. According to one account: “She picked up a bowl of ice-cream and threw it at him. He threw something at her. It was starting to turn into a food fight. He grabbed her hand as she was about to throw something at him again. The ice-cream was so cold that it burnt her hand. Everything stopped, and then she went around for the rest of the night saying, ‘Look at what he’s done to me, a pregnant woman’.”
Jackson and Shorten nonetheless patched things up and their friendship continued. It started fraying badly only when Jackson failed to win Labor preselection for the Victorian lower house seat of Northcote when Mary Delahunty resigned in 2006.
Publicly, Jackson put on a bright face after missing out on Northcote, but privately it seems she was furious. Shorten copped some of the outpouring of anger. In her mind, he had done not enough to help her after all the HSU had done for him. The final straw was a verbal altercation between Shorten and Jackson over an entirely unrelated preselection battle for the federal Victorian seat of Corangamite, near Geelong, in February 2007 — nine months before Shorten made his move to parliament at the election that year.
Jackson provided her version of the incident in 2012 in an 80-page affidavit about the HSU’s woes. After Federal Court judge Geoffrey Flick declined to accept the affidavit into evidence, a copy arrived in a plain, unmarked envelope at the Sydney office of The Australian Financial Review. Journalist Aaron Patrick detailed Jackson’s account for an AFR article and later for his book Downfall. It’s not clear who leaked the affidavit, but it’s probably fair to say that Jackson wasn’t unhappy about it being out there.
In brief, Jackson supported union official and Left candidate Darren Cheeseman for Corangamite, but Shorten insisted the candidate should be Peter McMullan, son of the wealthy founder of the Spotless catering group. One advantage of this for Shorten was that McMullan could supposedly add to votes in the federal Labor caucus loyal to him when he arrived in parliament and made his run for the top job. Jackson told Shorten in the strongest terms during a cigarette break outside a party meeting at the ALP’s head office in West Melbourne that McMullan was unacceptable to her.
“Spotless have been screwing our outsourced members,” she said. When Shorten allegedly required Jackson to cast her four union votes for the preselection as he directed, saying he would not win without them, Jackson refused. She claimed Shorten then pushed her, an allegation denied by Shorten.
According to Jackson’s affidavit, Shorten’s veins stood out on his forehead: “He was red in the face. He said words loudly to the effect: ‘You will f..king well vote for the candidate that I tell you to vote for. If you defy me, you will never be welcome in my home again and you will never have our support when you f..king well need it’.” Shorten disputed Jackson’s version of events. McMullan did not recall any incident on the night but was aware Jackson was upset about something. Cheeseman said later that he did not witness the altercation and, although he was the beneficiary of Jackson’s vote, he disputed that any such incident had occurred.
Irrespective of the disputed versions, Jackson was determined to ensure that the Shorten-backed candidate from the Labor Right would not win. The Jackson-Shorten friendship was finished, damaged irreparably.
“I remember she was seething about Bill,” one former official recalled. “Kathy brutally put down some people who supported him. She’d say, ‘You suck Bill Shorten’s cock’.”
When Feeney was elected to the Senate, Jackson held a catered rooftop party for him at her HSU No 3 branch headquarters. The wine flowed, and the mood was jubilant. Hearing about the special celebration after the fact, Shorten was reportedly not impressed by the snubbing. Feeney and Shorten had a falling out too, although their dispute was related to a broader faction fight in the ALP Right, and the relationship was recoverable. Jackson, on the other hand, carried an enduring grudge. When Shorten split with Beale in 2008, Jackson pointedly sided with her during the acrimonious divorce. On the day the former couple’s house at Moonee Ponds in Melbourne was sold at auction, Jackson stood with Beale during the bidding.
From across the front lawn, Shorten saw Jackson, daggers in her eyes, standing with his ex-wife. “She’s a sick bitch,” he is said to have told a senior colleague, referring to Jackson’s surprise appearance. In Jackson’s mind, Shorten had badly crossed her, and she was not going to let him forget it.
Brad Norington has written extensively on politics and industrial relations, and is the author of several books. As The Australian’s chief reporter in Sydney, he tracked the real story behind disgraced corruption whistleblower Kathy Jackson and her partner Michael Lawler in a lengthy investigation series.
Planet Jackson: Power, Greed and Unions is out now.