Labor Senator Kristina Keneally (Image: AAP/Dan Himbrechts)

It’s day six of the Kristina Keneally news cycle, a story that sums up everything broken about the Australian Labor Party.

Tu Le, daughter of Vietnamese refugees and a self-described political outsider, looked set to win preselection in Fowler, one of Australia’s most diverse seats. Then an ambitious senator and former NSW premier — publicly fawned over by party insiders but far less popular among actual voters (who didn’t send her to Canberra in the first place) — is parachuted in so she can get more zingers in question time.

Everyone agrees Keneally is a sharp media performer, and a reliable Senate grenade-lobber. Everyone agrees Le is the kind of person Labor should be preselecting if it wants to actually reflect the communities that votes for it in droves. But everyone also agrees that nothing can be done. The arcane factional dispute which means Keneally must go to the lower house simply had to be resolved, and Le must take the fall.

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“Hang in there,” was Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese’s advice to Le.

Insiders v outsiders

This whole Keneally-Fowler saga makes most sense when viewed as a tension between party insiders and outsiders, an instance of Labor’s cooked, blinkered internal politics spilling into the public arena. 

To those outside the party, Keneally running in Fowler — a seat she has no connection with, and where she’d be hard-pressed to win a proper preselection vote — seems absurd. But insiders have performed very public mental gymnastics to explain why all this is good, actually. Albanese said Labor was still the party of multiculturalism because US-born Keneally was a migrant success story, and he was part-Italian.

Former PM Paul Keating made the same point. Chris Bowen, one of Labor’s most senior western Sydney-based MPs, said the move was good because it would mean Fowler was finally to be represented by (touch wood) a minister. Tellingly, the most pointed public criticism of Labor’s diversity challenge has come from two Egyptian-born backbenchers, Anne Aly and Peter Khalil, with the former labelling Keneally’s move “hypocrisy”.

Keneally has straddled the insider-outsider tensions from the start of her political career. Her preselection in 2003 for the east Sydney seat of Heffron, just three years after getting Australian citizenship, came after a bruising internal battle that saw her usurp long-term member Deirdre Grusovin, sister of former federal minister Laurie Brereton. Keneally’s husband, Ben, was meant to run; ironically, it was gender-based affirmative action that meant she took his place.

In 2009, Keneally became premier as MPs were hurrying to abandon the sinking ship that was NSW Labor, drafted in to inevitably soften the devastating electoral blow ahead. On his way out the door, predecessor Nathan Rees effectively labelled her a puppet of corrupt powerbrokers Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi. Keneally responded by saying she was “nobody’s girl”. By that point, though, she was clearly an insider.

The factional applecart

But despite that status, there’s another tension here. If Keneally is such a star performer, and so crucial to Labor’s parliamentary team, why didn’t her own faction back her for top spot on the NSW Senate ticket? 

The answer is that while Keneally might have public support from the leadership, she lacks the deeper institutional support among the union number-counters that keep faction and party running. All Labor appointments, from preselections to frontbench spots, are dictated by a delicate balancing act, where the factions and the unions that back them need to be kept happy. Keneally disturbed the applecart one time too many. 

In 2018 she was drafted in to run in the Bennelong byelection and, when she lost, to fill Sam Dastyari’s vacant Senate seat. Both were captain’s calls by Kaila Murnain, the NSW general secretary and self-described “boss lady” of the party. The decision to give Keneally the Senate spot ahead of union-backed frontrunners, including the right-aligned Transport Workers Union’s Tony Sheldon, accelerated Murnain’s demise, finished off by an ICAC hearing and an Aldi shopping bag filled with cash.

The factional applecart explains why Keneally’s own faction passed her over for Deborah O’Neill, whose achievements in politics most punters would be hard-pressed to recall. O’Neill has firm backing from her union, the influential Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association. If Keneally could oust the Shoppies’ pick for top Senate pick, no future union spot would be safe, and the applecart would be derailed.

To those deepest within the party machine, preserving the natural order is far more important than getting the best parliamentary team or reflecting the Labor heartland. It explains why NSW Labor general secretary Bob Nanva urged the right faction to back Keneally’s lower house move. 

For Keneally, the best case is a Labor election win, a safe lower house seat, and a plum ministerial job. If it loses, she’ll be stuck with three more years in opposition, and a reputation as a disrupter of the natural order even more entrenched. That’s tough to live with, even as a party insider.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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