The government’s new chief antagonist has a flair for the dramatic

Sydney Morning Herald, 5 July 2023

In the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Sussex Street this week, a blown-up poster of Premier Chris Minns wearing prison stripes took pride of place on stage as Health Services Union delegates shuffled in to take their seats.

On each table, red caps reading “stop the steal” were laid out. The premier’s eyes stared back through a bank robber’s mask.

The best bit: HSU boss Gerard Hayes thought Minns was going to be there when he organised it all. It was only Friday when he was told Treasurer Daniel Mookhey would be appearing instead.

That really is Hayes in a nutshell. The new government’s chief antagonist is a bomb-thrower with a flair for the dramatic. After Mookhey copped a spray from delegates during his address to the HSU conference Hayes quipped: “I thought [it] was pretty entertaining TV.”

While the rest of the union movement plays nice with Labor as it waits for it to come good on its promise to scrap the wages cap, Hayes has turned himself into a one-man opposition.

It was barely a month after the election before he was accusing Labor of “dragging their feet” on pay negotiations, and he hasn’t stopped hitting them since.

A lot of it, as he says, is just good television. Hayes has members to represent just like Labor, and if the mood on Monday is anything to go by, those workers expect their secretary to be out extracting their pound of flesh.

But it’s also effective. A $60 million dollar promise to improve salary packaging for health workers didn’t come from the goodness of the government’s heart.

Neither did the special commission of inquiry into health spending Hayes secured. Privately some union leaders will tell you they doubt they would have got the 4 per cent pay offer Hayes is now vocally rejecting so soon without his drum beating.

Does Labor care? Mookhey, a former union official, relishes the “argy-bargy”, as he described it this week. And as my colleague Alexandra Smith has written, a bit of distance from the union movement isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Labor.

But the threat of strike action is probably not the headline Minns wanted on the week he marked his first 100 days in office.

Labor was elected on a promise to respect public sector workers. Hayes is busy reminding them.