Kristina Keneally's candidacy in Bennelong is Labor's 'go-for government' strategy
As Bill Shorten took to social media to confirm Labor had drafted a star candidate for the looming political contest in Bennelong – the former New South Wales premier Kristina Keneally – people back in Canberra were talking about a go-for-government strategy.
With the dual citizenship fiasco continuing to erupt on multiple fronts, and the Liberal party still unclear whether John Alexander will be cleared to defend the seat he has held by a margin of just under 10%, Labor lined up its ducks, and confirmed on Tuesday Keneally would run in what will be a ferociously contested byelection in Bennelong.
The day one messaging was delivered with equally ruthless precision. Keneally told reporters in Sydney on Tuesday she was running, not because Alexander (“a lovely guy”, great at tennis, sloppy with paperwork) was a dual citizen – but as a referendum on the performance of the Turnbull government.
With all the stature and experience of a former state premier, and the polish of a professional broadcaster, Keneally smiled genially as she went for Malcolm Turnbull’s throat.
She said Turnbull had allowed a “crisis” to envelope the parliament on his watch. Flanked by Shorten, Keneally told reporters she was running “because this is a moment, this is an opportunity for the community in which I live to stand up and say to Malcolm Turnbull: Your government is awful. Enough is enough.”
“We have had enough of your poor services. We have had enough of your poor policies and we have had enough of your poor leadership,” she said.
Shorten cast Labor as the underdog in the byelection contest on 16 December. “It’s tough for us. This is a 10% Liberal seat.” Shorten said he admired Keneally’s accomplishments “but she’s not guaranteed of success here”.
“We are behind as we speak. But she’s a fighter. I’m a fighter, and the people of Bennelong have got a chance to send a wake-up call to Mr Turnbull and his government, because they do need a fair bit of waking up.”
The Labor leader reinforced Keneally’s message that the Bennelong byelection was an opportunity to send a message to Canberra.
“It’s not about the personalities,” he said. “It may have been triggered by John Alexander falling foul of the constitution but it’s actually not about Mr Alexander. The people of Bennelong have an opportunity to send a message to Mr Turnbull.”
The answer to the “why Keneally?” question is obvious. The political contest is highly combustible. The Turnbull government, as of now, does not have a working majority on the floor of the House of Representatives, and more byelections associated with the citizenship fiasco are not only possible but probable.
Both frenemies and enemies are circling Turnbull. Quite literally, anything could happen between now and Christmas, or during the opening stretches of 2018.
The rationale is simple: when you are in a gun fight and government is the prize, don’t bring a knife.
So what are her chances? Despite not residing within the boundaries of Bennelong, Keneally lives close enough to be comfortable, and has obvious familial ties to that area of Sydney.
Doubtless the Liberal party will throw everything but the kitchen sink at Keneally, who was premier of NSW at a time when Labor’s brand went toxic in the state. We can expect a close and ugly battle.
While it’s obvious the candidate carries historical baggage, and her opponents will attempt to sink her with it (Greg Hunt was first cab off the rank, declaring her “Eddie Obeid’s protege”), Keneally’s candidacy will mean the Liberal party will have to get its act together, and quickly, because serious sandbagging will be required.
Labor will throw everything it has at the seat, and voters in Bennelong have proved a bolshie lot when push comes to shove.
Recent history shows once they get tired of a political contest which isn’t serving their interests, they’ve been bold enough to turf out a sitting prime minister. Just ask John Howard whether a star recruit can win Bennelong. He would have to tell you yes.
So of course a candidate of Keneally’s calibre and credentials has a shot, and a reasonable one.
But we also have to ask some questions which are relevant beyond the default obsession of politicians and their adrenaline-charged backrooms, which is winning™ one news cycle, and then the one after that, and then the one after that – a phenomenon that bakes short-termism into the Australian political system, to the obvious cost of voters.
This is a deft move by Labor politically, emblematic of Shorten’s ruthless and often highly successful instincts to outflank his opponents, but it also carries long-term consequences.
If Keneally creates the desired upset and wins the seat on 16 December, and starts a new phase of her political career in Canberra, she has a public profile to rival Shorten’s and experience at the apex of a government, which he lacks.
Is she supposed to sit politely on the backbench and tend her constituency?
Keneally’s star burns so brightly she couldn’t even get through her first press conference as Labor’s candidate for Bennelong without being asked would she like to be prime minister.
What are your long term ambitions, Kristina?
So, while it’s clear Labor won on Tuesday, created the moment, generated the headlines – tomorrow always remains another story.
Kristina Keneally said the people of Bennelong had the opportunity to send a message to Canberra. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP