La­bor serves up an ace with a shot


The se­lec­tion of Kristina Ke­neally as the La­bor can­di­date for the fed­eral seat of Ben­ne­long is a real boost for Bill Shorten.

The for­mer pre­mier of NSW had moved to within a stone’s throw of the elec­torate, which is 20-odd kilo­me­tres closer than the re­ported res­i­dence of for­mer ten­nis ace John Alexan­der who held the seat un­til a con­sti­tu­tional clause de­faulted him and he had to re­sign. The re­sul­tant by­elec­tion is a crit­i­cal mo­ment not just for an em­bat­tled Prime Min­is­ter but even more so per­haps for the Op­po­si­tion Leader.

It is hard to see Ke­neally win­ning Ben­ne­long be­cause the swing re­quired by her is 10 per cent. Given that the av­er­age swing in by-elec­tions is 6 per cent, it seems a bridge too far. Nonethe­less, with the govern­ment look­ing a com­plete mess and the PM — a leader with zero po­lit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence — look­ing even worse, with Ke­neally as the stan­dard bearer La­bor may well have an out­side chance of pulling off a his­toric vic­tory. But be­fore all the hands in La­bor race to open up the bar for a big cel­e­bra­tion, it is worth re­mem­ber­ing La­bor has held the seat for just a measly three years out of the past seven or eight decades.

The elec­torate is dif­fi­cult to char­ac­terise be­cause it in­cludes work­ing-class ar­eas as well as in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive har­bour­side ar­eas. Fur­ther­more, there is a very large Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion who de­mand and usu­ally get plenty of at­ten­tion.

When John Howard was de­feated as the sit­ting mem­ber and prime min­is­ter in 2007, the Chi­nese com­mu­nity de­fected en masse to Max­ine McKew, the star can­di­date La­bor pro­duced. Those very same peo­ple in East­wood did not feel she had given them the at­ten­tion they felt they de­served and switched back to the Lib­er­als and Alexan­der.

If her press con­fer­ence yes­ter­day was any in­di­ca­tion, Ke­neally will be a for­mi­da­ble cam­paigner. She used a great folksy tale to show her ap­par­ent em­pa­thy for Ben­ne­long vot­ers. She re­marked about a visit to Cen­tre­link at Ryde, the main town cen­tre in Ben­ne­long. Her long wait for ser­vice was frus­trat­ing for her and all the oth­ers in her sit­u­a­tion. When the Lib­er­als get in they al­ways cut ser­vices to or­di­nary peo­ple was the line she man­aged to re­peat sev­eral times be­tween the per­fect teeth. Not a hair out of place, and beau­ti­fully dressed as al­ways, she looked and sounded the part.

Her years on Sky News have sharp­ened her skills. She presents and ar­gues in a much stronger way than she could when she was pre­mier. Ke­neally had the mis­for­tune to end up in a conga line of pre­miers as La­bor changed lead­ers reg­u­larly in the vain, for­lorn hope it could ar­rest its slide into chaos. Six­teen years is too long to be in govern­ment and in this case NSW La­bor de­served to lose. In a form of mu­si­cal chairs, Ke­neally was forced into a role she was prob­a­bly not pre­pared for. That was then, but she is a dif­fer­ent politi­cian to­day. She is not afraid of a fight and in the hand-to-hand com­bat to come, she will give as good as she gets.

The Lib­er­als be­gan by at­tack- ing her over her links to Ed­die Obeid and Joe Tripodi. Given the way the In­de­pen­dent Com­mis­sion Against Cor­rup­tion in NSW praised her for the ev­i­dence she gave, this sort of per­sonal at­tack is not far short of pa­thetic.

For once, Mal­colm Turn­bull got the at­tack line right: “Don’t let Ke­neally do to Ben­ne­long what she did to NSW”. Not en­tirely fair, but in pol­i­tics any search for fair­ness will end in tears.

La­bor’s NSW gen­eral sec­re­tary Kaila Mur­nain, who has grown quickly in the job, pulled off a ma­jor coup in per­suad­ing Ke­neally to run. Now win, lose or draw, La­bor will be there at the fin­ish line a short head in front or, more likely, a nose be­hind.

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