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

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