Kristina Keneally's relentless ambition could cost Labor dearly

© 2021 Getty Images Senator Kristina Keneally (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Here is a story about Kristina Keneally. In mid-2020, when the preoccupying issue was how Carnival’s Ruby Princess had been allowed to disembark 2700 passengers into the community on March 19, 2020, leading to 28 COVID deaths and 10 per cent of Australia’s then total infections, Keneally was determined to insert herself into the debate over who was to blame.

As the shadow federal minister for home affairs, Keneally’s job was to challenge Peter Dutton and his Australian Border Force. Keneally argued that as the ABF and the federal department of agriculture had granted right of entry to the ship, the debacle was their fault.

Bret Walker SC led an inquiry into the Ruby Princess, and his comprehensive report found that NSW Health, inexperienced in managing the outbreak, had been solely responsible for the health assessments that cleared the passengers for disembarkation. Walker, who knew everything about the Ruby Princess down to its last rivet, gave Keneally a polite but firm rebuke: “Neither the ABF nor any ABF officers played any part in the mishap.”

Keneally was persistent, pressing reporters and editors to run her line. She persuaded the ABC’s 7.30 program to run her version of the Ruby Princess debacle, and it too was dismissed by Walker, whose advantage in the argument was that his only interest was in finding out what had happened.

The actions of the shadow minister were illustrative. Was this not what you would want from an opposition frontbencher? Energetic? Certainly. Determined? Without a doubt. Articulate? Yes, at first glance. Narcissistic, in the search to make it all about her? Well, this is politics. Intelligent? Not really, and this was the thing. It was a classic federal Labor missed opportunity. There was a case to be prosecuted against Dutton and the ABF, but it wasn’t the one Keneally was running. Bret Walker gave a hint: “The Australian Border Force, despite its portentous title, has no relevant responsibility for the processes by which, by reference to health risks to the Australian community, passengers were permitted to disembark.”

Keneally, however, failed to land what could have been a telling blow against Dutton’s ABF. By trying to prove its negligence, she missed the real story, which was its irrelevance. This “force” constructed by the Coalition government to thrust its black-uniformed chest beside the he-man Dutton was, in fact, little more than a posture. It had no real power to “keep our borders secure”. Was that a gun in their holster? No, it was a rubber stamp.

To expose this might have been politically astute, as it would have followed the fundamental law of effective campaigning, which is to feed what the public already believes. The Morrison government was not defined (yet) by its negligence, but by the masquerades and diversions it put on to paper over its negligence: a Potemkin Village government. The ABF’s role in permitting the Ruby Princess into Sydney was another of these stage sets, not a real force but a show of force.

Keneally’s determined but off-target ambition to insert herself will be recognisable in Labor HQ’s current push to land her the safe south-western Sydney electorate of Fowler, putting her in the lower house. The drive to grab a slice of the action is insatiable, but the tuning is again always a little off. This week, opportunely, Keneally was aboard the Quade Cooper bandwagon, calling for the New Zealand-born Australian rugby representative to be given Australian citizenship. ‘There is no more Australian value than standing up and looking after your mates,” she told the Herald’s Tom Decent after Cooper kicked a match-winning penalty goal for the Wallabies. “He’s an Australian hero, and he should be an Australian citizen.”

The headline was achieved, but again the content was not quite right. To rugby people, Cooper had just done his job with his boot, an outstanding performance after a chequered career. As for Australian heroes, non-rugby people would be quick to point out that Cooper is just a footballer; when it came to “looking after your mates”, it was hardly Simpson and his donkey.

Keneally’s hungry odyssey through NSW politics, dabbles into being CEO of Basketball Australia and commentator on Sky News, then into federal politics, is of a piece with this perception of restless personal ambition. Keneally once made a memorable and effective statement about being “nobody’s girl” in her ascent to the NSW Premier’s office, but she couldn’t have got there, she couldn’t have got into the senate, and she can’t get into Fowler, without entrenched Labor men all believing, at some point, that she was their girl. Quite possibly her skill was in out-thinking all of them. But the gender card will be harder to play when Keneally’s ambition leaves more capable Labor women in Canberra, of whom there are many, stunned and dismayed as she steamrolls them on her way to the top.

It’s no surprise that a political party is like any other organisation: the individual who wants it most usually gets the prize. The public recognises patterns, so they fit politicians into familiar moulds. Scott Morrison is literally Scotty from marketing, the flimflam man. Keneally is another recognisable type, the kiss-up executive, a genius at impressing the higher-ups.

The higher-ups are duly impressed. Paul Keating backed Keneally’s candidacy for Fowler, saying “on the diversity point, she’s a migrant herself”, hey, just like the legitimate putative Labor candidate, lawyer and Fowler resident Tu Le. Keating said Keneally would be a better local MP because she could “eke out a bigger share of the national income” for the underprivileged of south-western Sydney; in case he was now really sounding like a dotty uncle, he was more likely talking about himself and what he had done for the people of Blaxland as treasurer and prime minister between 1983 and 1996. Meanwhile, Albanese encouraged Tu Le to “hang in there” for another Labor job: “She’s 30 years old, I think she has a very bright future,” he said with enough condescension to crush the life out of a generation’s worth of ALP work in the south-west.

There’s no doubt Keneally is a sharp broker, a natural middle person who can interpolate herself into deals to grab a slice of the action. It’s another recognisable type; while often successful and even admired, they rarely change anyone’s vote. If Keneally had that transformative star quality, she might have won Bennelong when she ran in 2017 and federal Labor might be in a better position now.

The befouled Fowler candidacy is the type of thing that will cost Labor the next federal election because it confirms the most negative existing perceptions of the party. Keneally’s ambition is not news. Nor is the blindness and weakness of those in the Labor hierarchy who bend meekly when ambition shows up. The onus of an opposition is change; not to carry on as usual but to show it is a better alternative than what people voted for last time. Over recent federal elections, voters have been stubbornly set in their ways. So, it seems from this episode, is Labor: self-involved, tone-deaf to the real world, and no better than the other mob. If they can’t change, why should voters?

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