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  • John McDonnell

Parachuting Kristina Keneally into Fowler was a big mistake

Parachuting former NSW premier Kristina Keneally into the safe seat of Fowler in South West Sydney was a mistake and Labor knows it.

As Michelle Grattan commented in ‘The Conversation’:

“When Tanya Plibersek – who many believe would give Labor its best chance if she were leader now – was asked about the party parachuting Kristina Keneally into the safe seat of Fowler, she slid all around the place to avoid giving a direct answer to an awkward question.”

Kristina Keneally is a very nice person. When she was a member of the press gallery, she shared the office next door to mine with David Speers. On the odd occasion when we met in the corridor, she was always courteous, friendly and quite often funny. However, when it comes to politics, she has the plumbic touch – everything she touches turns to lead.

As Premier of New South Wales, she led Labor to its worst ever defeat. She quit politics but after stints in broadcasting and sports administration, she decided to return to politics.

In 2017, she was chosen by Bill Shorten to stand against John Alexander in a by-election for the seat of Bennelong, brought on by Alexander’s citizenship issues. Despite her celebrity status, she lost the poll by a considerable margin.

She was then parachuted into the senate as a replacement for Senator Sam Dastyari. After the 2019 election, she wanted a front bench position but couldn’t get the votes in caucus. Anthony Albanese persuaded Ed Husic to stand aside for her. She then pushed for a leadership role but again couldn’t muster the caucus votes. The godfather of the right faction, Senator Don Farrell, resigned his position as deputy senate leader in her favour. She wanted to lead the senate ticket for NSW at the next election but the party gave that position to a backbencher, Deb O’Neill, and relegated Senator Keneally to the unwinnable third position. Senator Keneally decided to move to the lower house.

Senator Keneally didn’t stand for pre-selection in the seat of Fowler. Under the arcane rules in NSW Labor, the heavies of the right faction get to choose the candidates for designated ‘right’ seats. Keneally was pre-selected at the expense of Tu Le, the local candidate from central casting. Le was born and lives in the electorate and comes from a Vietnamese family, so is part of the biggest ethnic group in the electorate. Ms Le works for community organisations as a lawyer assisting foreign workers. She is extremely popular in the local Labor branch.

On the other hand, Senator Keneally lives on Scotland Island in the middle of Broken Bay. She is remote from the problems of Covid-19 which have ravaged South-West Sydney where her electorate is based. There is no doubt she will be characterised as the candidate from the ‘northern beaches’.

Tu Le has described Senator Keneally’s pre-selection as a debacle. She said the local community bitterly resented the fact that they had no say in who was chosen to represent them. It is a situation where a strong independent candidate could easily win the seat with Liberal preferences. This would be a lose-lose outcome for Labor.

An obvious question to be asked is why Senator Keneally wasn’t pre-selected to contest the seat of Hughes, held by Craig Kelly. Kelly is an easy target, given his weird views on vaccines, his association with Clive Palmer, and the fact that he has driven people mad with unsolicited text messages.

The current Labor candidate, Dieter Steinwall, is a total non-entity who would disappear without a trace. The fact that Keneally was not chosen for this seat means that the party had no faith that she could win pre-selection or the seat.

It is impossible to predict the impact of the Keneally debacle on uncommitted voters that Labor needs to win to gain office but the electorate is less willing to be manipulated by professional politicians.

On balance, the faction-based, parachute approach is likely to cost Labor and Anthony Albanese a considerable amount of skin.


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