PM in first strike on ALP star candidate Keneally
Malcolm Turnbull has unleashed an attack on star Labor challenger Kristina Keneally over her time as NSW premier, as he fights to keep his slim majority in federal parliament and stop the Bennelong byelection on December 16 turning into a test of his leadership.
The citizenship crisis turned into a deadly threat to the Prime Minister’s control of parliament after Bill Shorten named Ms Keneally as the surprise Labor candidate for the northern Sydney seat yesterday, stepping up pressure for a protest vote to defeat Liberal MP John Alexander.
Scott Morrison yesterday linked Ms Keneally to corrupt former NSW ministers Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, who are both in jail, and Joe Tripodi, who was found by the Independent Commission Against Corruption to have engaged in serious corrupt conduct.
“The person Bill Shorten has chosen to represent him in this byelection is the person Eddie Obeid chose to be his premier in NSW,” the federal Treasurer said. “Now Eddie Obeid today is in jail.”
Mr Turnbull used the same links to target the Opposition Leader for making Ms Keneally his “hand-picked candidate” just as Obeid did in helping her become NSW premier in December 2009. “Don’t let Kristina Keneally do to Bennelong what she did to NSW,” the Prime Minister said.
Labor hit back at the attacks by citing ICAC reports praising Ms Keneally’s testimony against corrupt ministers and describing her as a “credible and conscientious witness”.
Ms Keneally brushed off the attacks, saying that the counsel assisting ICAC, Geoffrey Watson SC, had said she was “one of the heroes” of its investigations. “I don’t think there’s anyone who looks back at that time and doesn’t say ‘if only I’d known’,” she told The Australian yesterday.
While the government holds Bennelong with a 9.7 per cent margin, Ms Keneally shapes as a strong candidate with the potential to seize the blue-ribbon Liberal seat in the by-election forced by Mr Alexander’s concession that he could not be sure he did not have British citizenship.
Ms Keneally is presenting her- self as an underdog, following Labor polling last weekend that had the government ahead 56-44 per cent in the seat — a swing away from Mr Alexander of 3.5 per cent.
In her rapid shift from Sky News presenter to celebrity challenger, Ms Keneally joins former Labor star candidates such as Peter Garrett, Maxine McKew and Peter Beattie — only the first two of whom managed to defeat
their Liberal rivals. The citizenship storm inflicted another casualty yesterday when independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie quit parliament over her Scottish heritage, while all other MPs face a December 1 deadline to prove their status or be referred to the High Court.
In a potential upset that could hurt Labor, Ms Lambie reserved the option of trying to return to parliament in the lower house by challenging Labor’s Justine Keay, herself under a dual citizenship cloud, in the Tasmanian seat of Braddon. “I’d certainly have a good look at it,” Ms Lambie told Launceston’s 89.3 LAFM.
The Coalition held 76 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives until the citizenship questions claimed Barnaby Joyce, who is expected to hold his seat of New England at a December 2 by-election.
Losing Bennelong on December 16 would force Mr Turnbull into minority government with only 75 seats in the House but only 74 on the floor of the chamber, given Victorian Liberal MP Tony Smith presides as Speaker.
A victory for Ms Keneally would give Labor 70 seats in the chamber, too few to form government but enough to wreak havoc on the Coalition’s agenda if Mr Shorten can win support from five crossbenchers.
Two crossbenchers, Rebekha Sharkie and Cathy McGowan, have pledged to support the Turnbull government on budget bills and confidence motions, the two customary triggers to bring down a government.
Newspoll surveys show a swing of about 4 per cent against the Coalition across NSW since last year’s election, smaller than a national swing that suggests the government would lose more than 20 seats at a general election.
Former prime minister John Howard yesterday predicted Mr Alexander, who lifted his margin from 7.8 to 9.7 per cent at the last election, would win Bennelong but said he would not be taking Ms Keneally’s campaign lightly.
“John Alexander is well-liked, hardworking and popular and his attention to local matters is very serious,” said Mr Howard, who held the seat for more than 30 years.
“He won’t take it lightly, he’s a sensible bloke and it will be tough. It’s a by-election in very unusual circumstances.”
Mr Howard laughed off a question as to whether he had thought about renominating for the seat he lost to Labor media celebrity candi-
‘John Alexander is well-liked, hardworking and popular and his attention to local matters is very serious’ JOHN HOWARD FORMER BENNELONG MP
date Maxine McKew in the 2007 Rudd landslide.
“I’ve had my go, I have to concentrate on getting my golf handicap under 10,” he said.
Voters could go to the polls in more electorates early next year as the government prepares for the December 1 deadline for all MPs to declare their citizenship status in parliament, leading to votes on who should be referred to the High Court.
Labor is targeting five Liberal MPs while the government has named four Labor MPs, including Ms Keay, as vulnerable to being disqualified, setting up a tit-for-tat argument in parliament.
Lawyers are divided over some of the MPs’ claims, making a decision by the court the only way to settle arguments over who is qualified to stay in parliament.
Kristina Keneally with Bill Shorten in Eastwood yesterday
Corrupt ex-MPs Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi, Ian Macdonald