Kristina Keneally labor home affairs Anthony Albanese

More than a year since they were dragged from their Bileola home in dawn raids to a detention centre, the last-minute legal and political appeals to save asylum seeker family Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa from deportation has this week gripped Australian media.

Naturally, The Australian has countered hundreds of thousands of supporters by drilling down on the real villain here: opposition home affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally.

With three op-eds and multiple news stories in the past 24 hours, the Oz‘s negative coverage of Keneally has all the makings of a new Holy War.

Stop the boats: redux

News Corp’s go-to response for anyone (especially any Labor politician) suggesting we try acting compassionately to people who seek asylum by boat is to scream, scream, scream about the boats.

It’s a false binary that, if believed, makes any amount of cruelty justifiable. Keneally — who spoke in support of the family at a weekend rally — has copped it hard.

In “Clueless Keneally keen on sermons, not sound policy”, Janet Albrechtsen berates Keneally for joining “a group of activists using this Sri Lankan family for their own political purpose: to challenge and then dismantle Australia’s border protection policies”.

Where is the compassion if more Sri Lankans die on dangerous journeys? As reported by The Australian on Monday, the Morrison government has halted six ­attempted people-smuggling ventures since May.

How exactly deporting the Biloela family would reverse those six boat journeys — conveniently dropped to the Oz right around the time the Coalition needed to apply a jolt to its fear campaign — is never explained.

We also see Albrechtsen, along with Dennis Shanahan and the Oz’ editorial column run the national-security/“illegal, illegal, illegal” line. They reiterated immigration lawyer Simon Jeans’ premise that Dutton couldn’t let the family stay now because it would set a precedent that public pressure matters.

More, they say that Keneally’s advocacy has in fact worked against the family.

“Where is the compassion if this frenzied show trial of emotion by Keneally and others crushes the chances of this family to stay?” writes Albrechtsen.

Mentioning religion is too far

In advocating for the family, Keneally said she considered her own faith and called on Scott Morrison to consider his own Christian beliefs. This was a “low act” according to Shanahan:

It was a low act and a mistake for Labor — including Keneally — to use Morrison’s Christian beliefs in a political fight then. It is a lower act and a bigger mistake to do it now as religious freedoms and discrimination will be debated in the coming weeks.

Keneally bringing faith into the mix also led to this stellar line from the editorial:

However sincere her selective beliefs, some of which defy Catholic teaching on matters such as abortion and the ordination of women, Senator Keneally is not paid to preach or to formulate policy on theological grounds.

Crikey doesn’t have the time to check, but we are positive that Morrison would have received just as strong a talking-to if he, say, chose to bring a TV crew into his church.

Talking down

Within all the arguments against Keneally, the rhetoric is uniformly condescending. Shanahan bemoans the fact “her cause” has distracted from a more serious matter: the economy.

Also, at a time when Labor’s strongest critique of the Morrison government is the stagnant economy and Labor’s best-performing shadow minister is treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers, Keneally’s emotional distraction over the Prime Minister’s Christianity and a family being refused refugee status by the High Court is making the ALP’s job harder … Not to mention poor old Chalmers trying to talk about the real issue of the economy, wages growth, interest rates and the national accounts.

Albrechtsen is less subtle, arguing that Keneally “can’t resist a camera” and labelling her “the party’s most attention-seeking woman”. Tellingly, she finishes this morning’s piece by invoking Keneally’s rise to Senate deputy leader:

If Keneally is what you get when a political party adheres to quotas, the Coalition had better hope Labor keeps delivering more of the same.

Go back further, and Keneally caught similar flack when she was appointed, with Dutton calling her previous (and since withdrawn) opposition to boat turn-backs and offshore detention “a hospital pass”.

She was the centre of another of the Oz’s beloved culture wars when calling for British far-right activist Raheem Kassam to be banned from Australia. A scan of the ensuing responses put the total number of articles dedicated to Keneally vs Kassam at well past a dozen.

But unlike many of News Corp’s former Holy War targets, she also wasn’t exactly loved on the left. Her attacks against Dutton over the number of asylum seekers who have arrived by plane under his watch have been slammed by refugee activists.

News Corp obviously wields quite a bit more power than the commentators coming out in support of the Biloela family, and it’s unclear how far they will press this attack. But perhaps the company’s next Holy War is something that Keneally can wear with pride at the next refugee rally.

Now the question is how far The Australian will go.

Peter Fray

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