The man of the moment is right on track

There has been a clear growth in hourly rates since 2008.
There has been a clear growth in hourly rates since 2008.

Paul Howes has become one of the most high-profile and best-recognised members of the labour movement in a little under decade – quite an achievement for a "faceless man".

Howes burst onto the political scene in 2006 during the Beaconsfield mining disaster. Just 24 years old at the time, he was side by side with then Australian Workers Union leader Bill Shorten as crews worked round the clock to rescue the trapped miners.

And 19 months later, when Shorten took his place in the Federal Parliament as the member for Maribyrnong in the new Rudd government, the 26-year-old Howes took over as the youngest ever leader of one of Australia's oldest unions.

After an early flirtation in his teenage years with the far left, Howes had arrived – but he was not about to rest on his laurels.

The young union leader, like most in the labour movement, was on the outer during Kevin Rudd's first stint as leader. But the elevation of Julia Gillard to the prime ministership, which Howes so publicly backed on the night before the leadership change, ensured union leaders were once again welcome in the corridors of Parliament House.

Howes' private life has also come in for scrutiny after the father of three left his wife Lucy and became engaged to high profile Qantas executive (and former Joe Hockey staff member) Olivia Wirth.

As leader of the AWU, Howes remained in lock step behind Gillard as she saw off Rudd's first and second leadership challenges.

When Shorten finally, painfully, backed the return of Rudd in June 2013, he and Howes fell out. On the final night of her prime ministership, Howes was one of the few from outside Gillard's staff for last drinks at The Lodge.

Howes' call for a "grand compact" between business, unions and government, in the spirit of the Hawke-Keating era-Prices and Incomes Accord with the unions, has certainly raised eyebrows. Back in January 2008, he said "an accord will never happen again".

Howes almost replaced Bob Carr as senator for NSW late last year. Though he missed out on a spot then, his entry into the elected ranks of the federal Labor Party seems to be a matter of time.

Politics has moved on since 2008 and Howes again showed his adroitness on Wednesday, underscoring his ability to anticipate the direction of a political debate and get ahead of it. Surely it is only a matter of time before he is tested at the ballot – and then dispatch – box.

This story The man of the moment is right on track first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.