Kristina Keneally labor home affairs Anthony Albanese

In a few short months, former NSW Premier and ALP veteran minister Kristina Keneally has rocketed from federal upper house backbencher to take a right-hand seat in Anthony Albanese’s newly-minted cabinet. On Sunday she was named the Labor spokesperson for Home Affairs, taking on Peter Dutton in what will be a three year-long battle over immigration policy.

While a position on the ALP frontbench is no surprise for the rising star of the party’s centre-right, Keneally’s appointment to the newly created Home Affairs portfolio is controversial as she has been an outspoken critic of offshore detention and boat turnbacks. Though not outright condemning the practice, she previously urged Labor to adopt a “compassionate” response. 

Within hours of the announcement, Dutton slammed Albanese for his choice, labelling her appointment a “hospital pass”. “Kristina Keneally is against every element of Operation Sovereign Borders,” he said. “There is nobody less qualified in the Labor Party on border protection policies than Kristina Keneally, yet she’s ended up with the portfolio.”

Since the announcement, Keneally has arguably backflipped on her once-held position. She took to Twitter to reaffirm her party’s endorsement of “offshore processing, boat turnbacks where safe to do so, and regional resettlement”. So how exactly did Keneally get here, and how might the party’s immigration policy unfold under her leadership?

Rise to the top

Keneally is no stranger to politics and no fool: her upwards trajectory is due in no small part to her successful understanding of the NSW Labor Party’s factional machinations.

In 2002, she was chosen for the NSW eastern suburbs seat of Heffron in a bitter contest against veteran incumbent MP Deirdre Grusovin, prompting a (quickly abandoned) Supreme Court challenge from Grusovin against the ALP’s preselection process. After being elected in 2003 and going on to serve as the NSW minister for disability services and planning minister, Keneally was pegged in 2009 as a potential party leadership challenger against then-premier Nathan Rees. She vehemently denied her intention to run all the way up until November 2008. But less than a month later, the NSW’s powerful centre-unity faction withdrew support from Rees and threw its votes behind Keneally who won the party room ballot.

Rees attributed the win to corrupt party powerbrokers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi, slamming Keneally as their “puppet” — a title that Keneally struggled to shake as NSW’s first female premier until the 2011 state election when she, and many of her Labor comrades were booted from office in the biggest swing in Australian political history.

Keneally took a step back from politics, becoming a Sky News presenter, but came back on the scene in 2017. She failed to take the seat of Bennelong from John Alexander in that year’s byelection, but got a second chance at a federal spot when senator Sam Dastyari resigned in 2018 over a Chinese-related donations scandal. 

She won a great deal of public support during the federal election campaign as Shorten’s larrikin fellow-traveller and “attack dog” on the infamous “Bill Bus”. And it was from there her name was publicly thrown around for senior leadership. Not one role, but two: last week saw her named Deputy Opposition Leader to Penny Wong in the Senate; a few days later, Ed Husic took a side-step from the Labor frontbench to open up a NSW Centre-Unity-held spot for Keneally.

“We need to ensure someone of Kristina’s enormous talents has the opportunity to make a powerful contribution on the frontline,” Husic wrote on Facebook.

Home truths on Home Affairs?

Dutton has been quick to point to articles Keneally wrote for The Guardian in 2015 and 2017 in which she criticised boat turnbacks and offshore detention.

Keneally is no stranger to speaking out against the institution to which she subscribes. Keneally — the daughter of a Eucharistic minister — is a devout Catholic. She attended Catholic school, earned her political science degree from a Catholic university, undertook a Master’s degree in theology and met her husband at World Youth Day. And yet, she has publicly called for same-sex marraige since 2011, standing in direct contravention of not only the views of the church but of then-Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, a staunch atheist. She’s also criticised Pope Francis’ likening of abortion to “hiring a hitman”, and argued for access to safe and legal terminations.

But Keneally appears to have fallen into party line following Sunday’s cabinet announcement. She told ABC Radio’s AM on Monday that the goal of the opposition is “keeping people safe but also not losing our collective national soul, not losing our collective national conscience”.

She has been quick to reassure voters that her party’s position on immigration and resettlement has not changed despite her appointment. Anthony Albanese, too, has brushed off her previous attacks of offshore processing, blaming them on her Catholic faith.

“Offshore processing, boat turnbacks where safe to do so and regional resettlement are important tools. They are necessary tools to keep our borders secure, to keep our country safe and to ensure that we are treating people humanely,” she said. She added that she plans to take a “blow torch” to Dutton’s performance, and has criticised a “blowout” in asylum seekers arriving by plane under his leadership. 

That may not be the kind of “blowtorch” many of Dutton’s detractors — and supporters of Keneally’s previous comments — are looking for, but the issue is certainly heating up either way.

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