Kristina Ke­neally's can­di­dacy in Ben­ne­long is La­bor's 'go-for gov­ern­ment' strat­egy

The Guardian Australia - - News - Katharine Mur­phy Po­lit­i­cal ed­i­tor

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

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