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A 17-year reign ends, but not without a fight

By Brad Norington, The Age,
15 February 2000, 18:18:00

Bill Kelty today officially ends his 17-year reign as ACTU secretary - but not without falling out with his anointed successor.

Tensions erupted openly before Christmas between Mr Kelty and Mr Greg Combet, the man who takes over tomorrow as secretary, about Mr Kelty's future role.

After having declined a career in politics, and with no full-time job lined up, it is believed he wanted to maintain a role in the ACTU.

But Mr Combet, who has been running the ACTU for most of the time since Mr Kelty announced his resignation last August, did not want his mentor lingering and potentially undermining his new authority.

Much of the disagreement has focused on whether Mr Kelty should retain his board seats, as an ACTU-union representative, with two of the multi-million superannuation funds he helped create.

It has since been resolved: he will remain on the boards of the Superannuation Trust of Australia and Australian Retirement Fund for the time being.

But Mr Combet takes over from Mr Kelty immediately as the head of the ACTU Trust, the organisation through which the ACTU controls its financial services.

Mr Kelty and Mr Combet met at a trust meeting last Thursday for an official handover. It was the first time since the ACTU's annual shutdown on Christmas Eve that Mr Kelty had been sighted.

On Christmas Eve he left ACTU headquarters in Melbourne's Trades Hall for good, leaving his secretary to pack up his office.

At the time he refused to have an official farewell, telling colleagues it would be hypocritical for him to do so because he would receive tributes from people who did not like him. He is now believed to be reconsidering.

Tensions first became obvious last December when Mr Combet raised eyebrows in union circles by declining to pay the air fare to Sydney for Mr Kelty to attend an ACTU council meeting.

At the time Mr Combet was already acting in Mr Kelty's role. Mr Kelty plans to take his secretary, Ms Lorraine Walles, with him in his next career move, which he has described vaguely as a number of projects. Ms Walles will continue to work for the ACTU Trust for one or two days a week.

Mr Kelty's most loyal aide, the ACTU industrial officer Ms Mary Stuart also intends to resign. Her future is not clear.

Mr Combet yesterday declined to comment about tensions with Mr Kelty, who recruited him from the Waterside Workers Federation in the mid-1990s. Mr Kelty was not available for comment.

Mr Kelty announced his resignation last August but made it effective from today because it marks 30 years since he began as a junior official with the Storemen and Packers Union. He joined the ACTU in 1974 and was taken under the wing of the then secretary, Mr Harold Souter, and the president, Mr Bob Hawke.

As secretary himself, Mr Kelty amassed unprecedented power in union politics during the Hawke and Keating Governments, thanks to his role as architect of 13 wage accords with Labor.

He is likely to be most remembered for the way he structured the union movement and campaigned for a universal superannuation scheme.