Stars extinguished under the brutal glare of politics
Star candidates, as Labor knows well, often don’t work out.
The seat of Bennelong, suddenly the focus of enormous attention because Malcolm Turnbull’s government majority and personal future could swing on the result of next month’s byelection, is a case in point.
When Labor wanted a highcalibre challenger to run against John Howard in 2007, it turned to ABC journalist Maxine McKew. On the face of it, McKew was ideal. She was popular, widely respected, and very capable of carrying an articulate policy discussion when matched against Howard.
Indeed, she was accustomed to interviewing Howard. She had a reputation as fair, and so she did not fit the typical mould of a partisan. Her candidacy probably gave Labor the edge to make Howard only the second prime minister since Stanley Melbourne Bruce to lose his own seat at an election.
But just as shifting demographics and electoral redistributions that moved Bennelong’s borders west helped turn the seat Howard had held since 1974 into a marginal one, so did they work against McKew. She served just one term, losing in 2010 when the Liberals played a variation of the star game by picking tennis great John Alexander.
Yet a battle of the stars was not McKew’s only problem. She stayed loyal to Kevin Rudd to the end, perhaps to her personal cost. The critical factor that worked against her longevity in politics, however, was a lack of time in the Labor family.
For all her skill and experience, McKew had none of the tribal history that gives Labor MPs the stamina, knowledge and support of party culture to succeed long term. It is always difficult as an ALP outsider.
The same problem bedevilled other star recruits. Peter Garrett was hired by Mark Latham and rose to be a RuddGillard minister, but the party ultimately chewed him up. He went back to rock ’n’ roll.
Gareth Evans wooed Cheryl Kernot from the Australian Democrats to join Labor. She struggled, and lost her seat. Nova Peris ran a good race on the track, but her Labor career in Northern Territory was short-lived despite the fanfare of her introduction by Gillard: Peris didn’t cope and quit.
Which brings us to Keneally. The former Labor premier, despite her US upbringing, is a creature of the Labor Party. She is smart. She knows how the party operates. Her main downside is the risk of a brutal Liberal campaign that reminds Bennelong voters that the man who backed her to become NSW premier was the notorious Eddie Obeid, now in jail for corruption. No one suggests Keneally is corrupt, and she made it clear she was not Eddie’s “girl”. But ALP NSW general secretary Kaila Murnain was worried about something this year when she quietly rebuffed Keneally’s push to become state party president. Reminders of the NSW Labor government linger.
The Liberals have their own problems with stars. Alexander was a top tennis player. Pat Farmer was a solid ultramarathon runner. Neither translated well to politics, and now Alexander will battle to beat Keneally.
Keneally’s main downside is a brutal Liberal campaign reminding voters she was backed by Eddie Obeid