Kristina Keneally said yesterday that she was one of many who “looked back” at the time of corruption by Eddie Obeid, Joe Tripodi and Ian Macdonald in her government and thought “if only we’d known”.
As the former NSW premier announced her candidature for Bennelong in a bid by Bill Shorten to wrest the numbers on the floor of the federal parliament from Malcolm Turnbull, Ms Keneally immediately faced a barrage of criticism over her associations with the corrupt former powerbrokers.
Ms Keneally defended her associations with the trio, declaring “the thing about people that want to act contrary to the public interest is they” did so with secrecy. “I don’t think there’s anyone who looks back at that time and doesn’t say ‘if only I’d known’.”
The extraordinary decision of the former NSW premier and Sky News presenter to put her up hand for Bennelong five years after she left state parliament comes as Labor has its back to the wall in the contest for the seat.
Labor polling last weekend had the government ahead 56-44 per cent in the seat — a swing away from incumbent John Alexander of just 3.5 per cent.
“I have been offered safe seats in the past; I have been offered Senate vacancies,” Ms Keneally said. “That is not how I wanted to give my time and effort to the federal parliamentary party. If I was going to make that decision to reenter politics, I wanted to do it in a place and time that would matter.
“I’d be putting my profile and talents to my best use. I see the Labor Party has the potential to be able to change the balance of power in the parliament.
“I see the voters of Bennelong have that opportunity to send a message.”
According to Ms Keneally, the Opposition Leader said in his pitch to her in a phone call on Saturday after Mr Alexander announced his resignation, that: “We know we’re behind (in Bennelong), we know it’s going to be a tough campaign, but we also know this government’s floundering and Malcolm Turnbull is providing lousy leadership to the nation.”
“Bill Shorten was able to convince me that Labor’s going to put everything they can into this campaign,” Ms Keneally said.
“I didn’t see myself doing this three weeks ago.”
She said if the government wanted to “throw mud” at her over associations with the likes of the jailed Obeid and corrupt Tripodi, who backed her into the premier’s job, then they should “go for their lives”.
Ms Keneally was backed for the job as premier by powerbrokers Obeid, Macdonald and Tri- podi. Obeid and Macdonald have since been jailed.
Ms Keneally has given evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption against the powerbrokers — including over the drawing up of a cabinet minute by Tripodi for former planning minister Tony Kelly which would have given Austra- lian Water Holdings — a company with Obeid family interests — a $1 billion contract without tender.
At the time she became premier in 2009, outgoing premier Nathan Rees said whoever replaced him would be a “puppet” of Obeid and Tripodi — a claim Ms Keneally angrily denied at the time, declaring she was “nobody’s girl”.
She did appoint Macdonald to her cabinet but sacked him three months later over a travel expenses scandal.
Ms Keneally yesterday attacked Mr Turnbull over his comments in which he linked her to Obeid.
“You know what, it’s not the first time some man has tried to suggest I’m not my own woman and frankly I don’t care what they say. I care what they’re doing to the families of Bennelong,” she said.
“I don’t even understand the Prime Minister’s comments on this. It’s a mishmash of waffle.
“I’ve had bloke after bloke in my parliamentary career try to suggest I wasn’t capable of stand- ing up and acting on my own. I could talk about all those Liberal figures who went through ICAC but I’m not going to do that. They can come at me however they like.”
Ms Keneally described Mr Alexander as a “lovely guy and I have great admiration for what he did in his sporting achievements (but) that’s not what this is about”. She said the Turnbull government was “failing the country” on issues such as Medicare cuts and power prices.
When asked by The Australian if she could not be accused herself of having led a failed government, she defended her legacy as premier. “I’m proud of things we did in government,” Ms Keneally said. “I think we changed the way disability (services) are delivered in NSW. I left the state in good financial shape. I’m proud we secured federal funding for a Parramatta to Epping rail link (which her successor Barry O’Farrell later refused).”
Ms Keneally and her family moved within 800m of the seat of Bennelong two years ago. She could not say whether she would run for office again if she failed in Bennelong.
“That hasn’t even been discussed. I’m having this particular go at politics. I’m standing up for the people of Bennelong and that’s all I’m doing.”
Kristina Keneally in Ryde yesterday announcing her plans to run against John Alexander in the Bennelong by-election on December 16