November 2010


A matter of faith

By Jana Wendt
Kristina Keneally in action at Redfern Oval as part of a community touch football game, 2010. © Gregg Porteous / Newspix / News Limited
Kristina Keneally in action at Redfern Oval as part of a community touch football game, 2010. © Gregg Porteous / Newspix / News Limited
Meeting Kristina Keneally

There is nothing so likely to provoke misery as the belief all hope is gone. The flight of hope, by all accounts, is what the citizens of New South Wales see from their windows. The mood of the people, as described to me by a Labor government operative, is “beyond sullenness”. Sydney was once said to have an arrogant swagger, like that of its fast moneymen. Those were the days. Now it’s easier to picture it as a fallen high-flyer, rifling through garbage for a fag. When times were good, the natural beauty of the place reinforced the common sense of wellbeing. Sydney’s exquisite harbour, like the mirrored flanks of its office blocks, glistered with promise. Today, we the people incubate resentment that such beauty is tethered to a state that squandered beauty’s advantage. The surface activities of government are discounted. We look instead to the tangled churning depths below. Public attention is focused on the underpinnings, the machinations and the suspected hidden motives of a state no longer trusted to act in its citizens’ interests. Ask anyone: What is the state of the state of NSW? Lousy. MPs dancing in underpants. MPs rorting expenses. MPs impregnating parliamentary staffers. MPs in their offices watching porn.

The office of the premier in the state of despair is occupied by Kristina Kerscher Keneally of Ohio. More improbable than the fact that an American-born woman should become NSW premier is that, from the moment she moved in, the “beyond sullen” citizens liked her. They took to her despite the fact that, on the face of it, her promotion after fewer than seven years in the parliament (including just three as minister) was in tune with the Labor state’s recent best worst-practice. Keneally’s predecessor, Nathan Rees, was removed by the party machine, having replaced Morris Iemma, who was forced out by the party machine and unions. Iemma’s mistake was to try to keep the lights on. He had wanted to privatise electricity, a principled no-brainer for which he suffered political electrocution. Rees, too, in the 15 months allowed him, had tried to loosen the clinch of Labor mates and developers. Bang. Now it was Keneally’s turn to front the horror show.

Like Rees, Keneally was wrenched from a progression through the ministry to the premature premiership of the country’s most populous state, constituting 40% of the national economy. Rees’ parting gift was to call the then 40-year-old Keneally a puppet. Why condemn a politician felt to have strong promise – perhaps even on the national stage – to lead a reviled government to certain defeat within 15 months? One day, as we sat in her office on the fortieth floor of Sydney’s Governor Macquarie Tower, I asked Keneally why she had agreed to the job. Her reply was that even though she had been warned off by some, including the party machine, she believed it was her duty to take on the task, and to let the future look after itself. Doesn’t that sound like another piece of politician’s pap? Well, yes, dear Reader, it does. But could it be that things are not always as they seem? For Keneally is an unusual specimen in the political lab.

For one thing, she has not been specially bred for the purpose. Neither a former union hack nor a former ALP staffer, nor indeed a member of any political dynasty (the “holy families of Labor politics” John Button called them), she is instead an anomaly. In Australia, Keneally has worked for the St Vincent de Paul Society; in the US, she was a teacher of Native American and Mexican children. As an undergraduate at the Catholic University of Dayton in Ohio, she studied political science; later, she wrote a master’s thesis in theology. She often cites liberation theology, the Marxist-inspired, radical Catholic movement, as an inspiration. She is also the mother of two boys whose care had been her primary job before she entered parliament in March 2003. She lost a daughter, Caroline, at birth. When Keneally faced the cameras last December as the Labor Right faction’s hurriedly installed leader, she radiated a certain exoticism. It came courtesy of her American accent, her dark-eyed beauty and a particular quality, which on that first night eluded precise definition.

Kristina Keneally appears at the bottom of the stairs in her home in Sydney’s south. She is tucking in a silk shirt while quizzing her two boys about their school sports practice. Brendan, who is ten, is adamant his mother should cut up the apple intended for his lunch box. He passes the time before leaving for school by telling me in great detail about his artwork, while Daniel, aged 12, prints out a speech his mother is to deliver that morning. The boys’ father, Ben Keneally, has left early for an overseas flight. As her sons head off, Keneally is holding a large plastic cup to the nozzle of a coffee machine. One of her media staffers is briefing her on issues that may surface during a press conference scheduled for later in the day. They include, among other matters, burqas (a private member’s bill proposes a ban on them) and the still-resounding implications of the dire swings against Labor in NSW at the August election. A big blue ring-bound folder contains her briefing notes for the day. The electoral clock is ticking. The silly season, a political dead zone, is within sight and beyond that, the March election looms. No time to waste. Nor is procrastination likely: “Driven and competitive … a typical type-A personality” is Keneally’s self-assessment. A colleague quips that she makes lists of her lists. Keneally’s father served in the military, as did her mother’s father. The Kerscher household, which also included two younger brothers, was a highly organised concern. “It’s very much a cultural thing within our family of being analytical and task-driven.” Soon we are travelling on a minibus chauffeured by a security man to the day’s first event.

As we pull up at a city office building, an official greeter is in position. Keneally is to open a conference of university vice chancellors, business leaders and public sector researchers. Keneally’s arrivals are Arrivals. She is tall and her aerodynamically flicked coif usually bobs above the crowd. Athletic – a cyclist, an erstwhile basketballer, soccer player and rollerblader – she walks, as if the floorboards were piano keys, with springy steps. As she advances, her torso rotates widely from side to side, person to person. She is at ease with her sophistication, which accommodates an unconfected graciousness. She seems to enjoy her entrances.

Keneally had been woken at 5.30 am with bad news. An adviser alerted her to the front page of the morning’s Australian, which carried the latest Newspoll. The previous survey had the state ALP primary vote at a pulse-arrested 25%. On the two-party-preferred metric, the Liberals and Nationals had stood on 61%, against Labor’s 39%. Death. No change there. However, since the beginning of her premiership, Keneally’s personal satisfaction ratings defied the catastrophe of her party’s numbers. After Rees had bowed out on 34%, Keneally rose to 41%, then 47%. She remained there for four consecutive months, miraculously floating above the detested government while at the same time presiding over it. The morning’s black messenger had advised that the spell was broken. Like a glider caught in a downdraft, Keneally had fallen eight points and, for the first time, there was more dissatisfaction with her as premier than satisfaction. The party’s taint had evidently stained her, too. The afternoon’s scheduled press conference would inevitably throw up this alarming development.

While Keneally herself did not rise from the political class, neither was she without a connection to Australian Labor politics. When, as a delegate to Catholic World Youth Day in Poland in 1991, Kristina Kerscher met her future husband, 20-year-old Australian university student Ben Keneally, he was already a habitué of Labor political circles. A member of Young Labor, he sprang from a Labor family (his uncle, author Tom Keneally, had joined other celebrities to sing ‘It’s Time’ for Gough). Ben Keneally recalls discussing “how you assimilate personal values into a political context” with the American girl whose embrace of life commanded attention. They found they were kindred spirits: “We just discovered we had this relatively centrist but definitely left-of-centre perspective on the world. We weren’t bomb-throwing radicals but we were social justice oriented.”

For Kristina Kerscher, as the daughter and granddaughter of Australian women who had married Americans, there was symmetry to her ultimate move to Australia in 1994, her marriage two years later and her decision to take up citizenship in 2000. Through her husband she was introduced to grassroots Labor politics. She met John Watkins, a member of the NSW Left faction who went on to serve as deputy to Morris Iemma. Watkins, an unabashed fan, recalls the time when “this gorgeous American girl” appeared. (Perversely, Keneally’s accent has at times been seen as an obstacle to her political ambitions. She denies having had professional coaching but admits that some of her utterances do not translate easily into Australian. ‘Sure’ is problematic, and ‘Morris’, as in Iemma, comes out as ‘Mohrse’, as in Code.) “She was very open and vibrant, interesting and clear spoken, and interested in you … she was special,” says Watkins.

As Catholics, both Keneally and Watkins have had to vote with their conscience on contentious social issues. Their attitude to the task underscores the difficult terrain of the conscience vote for Catholic politicians. Most recently, Keneally voted in favour of adoption by couples of the same sex – legislation that Watkins, now retired from politics, says he would likely have opposed. Three years ago Watkins, as deputy premier, voted in favour of stem cell research; Keneally, then a minister, opposed it. I mention my conversation with Watkins about the Catholic conscience to Keneally. With a theologian’s rigour, she summarises the Church’s attitude. “This is an area that has waxed and waned – the emphasis on conscience – in the Catholic Church. In Vatican II it was very clear that Catholics have a duty to follow their conscience above all else. And Catholics have a duty to fully form their conscience … one needs to consider both faith and reason; one needs to understand the human experience, understand one’s own experience and understand the evidence that might exist in science, or whatever field of endeavour, and also understand scripture and tradition.” Keneally’s Catholicism anchors her life. She is prepared to say, unusually for an Australian politician, that she sometimes prays in the course of her day. She has approached her faith from every angle including the obscurely theoretical. Her master’s thesis, like her interest in liberation theology, is at the liberal end of the spectrum of Catholic belief. As a 25-year-old graduate student, Keneally mounted the argument that if, as the Church teaches, men and women are created in the image of God, then Woman has a theologically justifiable place at the heart of Catholic belief about the nature of the Divine. Analysing ancient texts, she made a Christian feminist case for the “christomorphic nature of women”. With all of Sydney – vexed infrastructure and all – laid out beyond her office windows, she reaches beyond the temporal. “If Christ’s incarnation doesn’t encompass all of humanity then, arguably, what you put at grave risk is whether women are saved by the incarnation and the death and the resurrection of Christ.”

It is an issue that rattles the foundations of Keneally’s faith. In his resistance to the ordination of women, Pope John Paul II “came as close as possible to declaring [the exclusion of women from the priesthood] an infallible teaching”. That would be “a really difficult position for me to accept”, says Keneally. So difficult, she allows, that “there may come a day when we do part company.” Keneally remembers back to when the local priest came calling at her school to recruit only boys as altar servers. She was indignant. “I would’ve liked to have had the opportunity, at least, to consider studying for the priesthood,” she says, leaning back on the sofa in a blue jacket and short skirt. It is difficult at this point not to imagine the premier in a different cut of dark suit.

Ben Keneally admits that one of his fears for his wife was the possibility of ridicule. He was concerned she might be stereotyped and “painted as some sort of bimbo because she’d fluffed one figure at a press conference”. The premier invokes something beyond her earthly realm: “The universe is very big. The world is big. The history of the world and the history of Australia and the history of New South Wales won’t rest in what happens in this second. It will be part of a larger story. Human existence is part of a larger story.” Her sangfroid extends to the expected electoral annihilation in March. “I made a deal with myself that ‘some day you will not be an MP, and you need to be prepared for that, and you need to be comfortable in that, and you need to know that you can do something else with your life’ … If I lose, and it spells the end of my career as a minister or in the executive government, then I did that knowing I gave it my absolute best shot.”

“At least she stopped the laughter and the ridicule,” whispers a party insider. The laughter – of the bitter variety – has been a response to serial transgressions under Labor’s 16-year rule. There are misdemeanours, petty and not so petty corruption, covert deals, oafish behaviour among MPs and ministers, and the famous ‘faceless men’ of the ALP machine (two of whom, Mark Arbib and Karl Bitar, are on secondment to the nation as federal senator and national secretary, respectively). There are crimes, as in the case of former Iemma minister Milton Orkopoulos, serving time for sexual assault. And there are broken promises. Take transport. A succession of premiers have proposed then postponed or cancelled a range of road and rail projects intended to relieve Sydney’s pressing need. Meriting special mention is the Epping to Parramatta rail link, whose umpteenth resurrection during the last federal election campaign by Labor prompted so much mirth among voters that the ALP’s polling collapsed in one of the affected seats. Transport is an open sore. Morris Iemma, who promoted Keneally into the ministry in 2007 as “a face for the future”, believes Keneally was wrong to produce a transport blueprint that deferred vital construction because funds were tight. “That was a victory for Treasury and their bean counters. We’ve got to offer people hope. At the end of the day, we’re traders in hope. That document says there’s no hope.”

When in September it was announced that American TV queen Oprah Winfrey would bring her show to Sydney, attracting millions of viewers and potential tourists in a deal financially supported by Keneally’s government, I was reminded of the flight of hope. In the bowels of world-weary Labor, the feeling was that such an announcement just “picks the scab”. Voters would be asking themselves why the government was splurging on Oprah and skimping on them.

We are heading towards Luna Park in the minivan. There are two scheduled ‘good news’ events in the day – the handing over of cheques to two organisations working for children with disabilities. “You were to roll a giant dice, but I think that’s not happening,” an adviser informs Keneally. “I think the game broke,” adds another from the back seat.

At our destination the cameras are waiting. Keneally, engaged in animated conversation with her greeter, sets a cracking pace. Shutters click. Little children, some wearing thick lenses, are playing in a brightly decorated room. Keneally slips off her jacket and in one fluid movement lands on the floor beside a group to sing “Row, row, row your boat …” A quick speech, and back to the minivan. Next stop, next cheque, followed by the press conference. Someone has erected a lectern, which rises incongruously in the middle of parkland. Keneally, as always, moves energetically to the task. Television cameras and reporters surround her in a semicircle. As she turns to address them, there is the slightest flash of alarm in her eyes. Today, she begins, $1 million has gone to early intervention programs for children with disabilities. “It’s all part of our aim as a community, as a government, to build a more inclusive society.” Fifteen minutes in comes the first question on the morning’s Newspoll. Keneally detonates a lengthy, emphatic manifesto like a grenade. She lays out the Labor principles for which she insists she joined the party – “fairness, equity, social justice, equality of opportunity”. The tone is: ‘things-are-going-to-change’.

“In the days ahead, I’ll be articulating my vision, my direction … I will spend every day between now and March ensuring that I am living up to the expectations of the community and that I am articulating to the community what it is that I believe in …” She admonishes the misbehaving MPs who have crippled her government, in the style of a threatening headmistress. The election will be lost, she warns, if such misbehaviour continues. A reporter asks: “Has the reality just hit you that you are going to lose government?” Keneally delivers a well-worn line about never having underestimated the task she faced and concludes with, “I believe passionately, passionately, in those principles I’ve just outlined.” There is a moment when I could swear that Keneally’s eyes are moist. Near the conclusion of the long press conference, someone asks her about a burst water main in Sydney. Her usual rapid flow of words stalls as she tells the reporters she has not been briefed on the issue. After Keneally’s departure a group of journalists discusses her bravura performance with enthusiastic approval. But later, on the evening news, she is accused of parroting Julia Gillard’s ‘real Julia’ spiel, regarded as a desperation tactic when Labor’s federal campaign was failing. Keneally’s manifesto is derided as the “real Kristina” pitch. One TV story zooms in on a bullet point in the blue briefing folder open before Keneally on the lectern. “Water Main”, it reads.

From the gallery seats I can see Keneally marching into the Legislative Assembly for Question Time. A visit to the NSW ‘bear pit’ can be a sorry affair due to the number of stricken and wounded bears on show. The government’s backbench is a sad line-up of the rejected and the shamed. The session leads to an inevitable assault on the government’s Metropolitan Transport Plan; Keneally defends it through a shower of rowdy interjections. Midstream she pauses theatrically to perform a most un-parliamentary act. She marches across the chamber and snatches a document from the hands of an Opposition member, jabbing at it to prove a point. The moment illustrates her inclination to dramatic display. Earlier in the year, when one of her ministers committed the government to replacing potentially hazardous heaters in the state’s schools without cabinet authority, Keneally struck. As suspected backroom dealing is part of the NSW Labor curse, she has insisted on transparent decision-making. The wayward minister was made to face the media alongside her chastising leader and to make a squirming apology. This was widely read as humiliating. Keneally, though, parses her actions differently. “It was difficult for both of us … standing next to her in that press conference was actually a sign of support for her … I wasn’t going to send her out there on her own to face that barrage of criticism.”

Ben Keneally, says Morris Iemma, “had everything you would want in a political candidate”. Despite suggestions that he might have sought preselection himself instead of his wife, Keneally pleads insufficient fire in the belly. Although fascinated by the political process, Keneally laughs that he “wasn’t putting numbers into branches”. His friendship from Young Labor days with the Right faction’s controversial fixer, Joe Tripodi, led some to assume Tripodi was counting numbers for him. “He was seen to be influencing preselections in various places … there was a lot of rumour around … but I wasn’t doing anything to further that.” Instead, Keneally moved into public policy development, eventually acting as deputy chief of staff to Morris Iemma. “Politics is an incredibly personal business … The whole person is on display and involved in it. It forges both powerful attachments and friendships, and also forces heart-rending breaches. So there are a lot of people in politics who have a lot of scar tissue …” Is his wife one of them? “She’s managed to bring together what was an incredibly fractious team in the shadow of a very likely defeat … So to date, she hasn’t had that problem of people going out and doing awful things to her.” Indeed the strategic leaking that plagued Keneally’s predecessor largely seems to have stopped. Ben Keneally pauses uncomfortably, to consider what politics might require of his wife. “Does she have to do awful things to people, by dint of those forces that are at work, that can be bigger than friendship? … I suspect, on the whole, she will do better than most in managing hard conversations.”

In the weeks that followed, Keneally blitzed the state with a series of announcements – strengthening whistleblower legislation, supporting curbs on political donations, calling for fresh blood in Labor preselections – in an effort to scrub the government clean. She also surrendered to unions on workplace safety, reneging on a deal with Canberra. Better war with the PM than trouble with the industrial wing. Joe Tripodi, who was demoted by Keneally’s predecessor, remained on the backbench. Is Tripodi a friend? “Yes,” says Keneally, staccato. “I wouldn’t characterise him as any closer than anyone else in here … The decisions about who’s in cabinet are mine, and mine alone.” She also exposes a building block of her own make-up. “I don’t have time or inclination to be sentimental … I see sentimentality as a trap … It’s how I’ve always been … perhaps the experience of moving countries, of losing my daughter … have made me appreciate that sentimentality can take you backwards – it could trap you somewhere. I’m much more pragmatic … I’d like to think that people could see [compassion] in me but compassion has to lead to practical action.”

On Sunday morning at the church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Keneallys are in attendance. There is a respectable full house in the old brick church in Kensington, in the premier’s southern Sydney electorate of Heffron. This was also the church of Deirdre Grusovin, the previous MP for the seat and member of the iconic ALP Brereton clan, whom Keneally defeated in a scarifying battle for preselection. Iemma recalls how Keneally, as the candidate imposed by the party, worked hard to win over the branches; the word coming back, he remembers, was that Keneally was healing the wounds, persisting through knockbacks and, finally, making the peace. “She had managed – with one or two exceptions – to wash all the blood away.”

The readings for the mass are about humility and its opposite, pride. From the Book of Sirach: “There is no cure for the proud man’s malady / Since an evil growth has taken root in him.” The parish priest delivers a sermon on the theme in which he invokes a story about Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The American president, it is said, used to take his important guests for a walk outside before dinner. He would invite them to look into the night sky and to contemplate the vastness of the Andromeda galaxy with its trillion stars. “Now that we’re all small enough,” he would say, “let’s go inside.”

In the pews a former card-carrying American Democrat, now the forty-second premier of NSW, listens attentively. In her inaugural parliamentary speech, she had listed her ideals. One of them was “energy and enthusiasm for life itself”. Keneally has that in abundance, as well as a concomitant unwillingness to give into despair. It is the quality that illuminates her. In one of our conversations she recalled the words of an old theology professor: “There is no greater sign of the collective human race’s expression of optimism but that they continue to give birth to creatures who will die.”

Jana Wendt
Jana Wendt is a former TV journalist and columnist for the Bulletin, and the author of A Matter of Principle and Nice Work.

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