7am is a daily news podcast brought to you by the publishers of The Saturday Paper and The Monthly.
How to listen? Submit Newsletter signup Submit Website Submit

Listen

7am Podcast

Why Labor is sending Keneally to Cabramatta

Over the past few weeks an internal brawl over who will represent the Labor party in the western Sydney seat of Fowler at the next federal election has been playing out in public.

Over the past few weeks an internal brawl over who will represent the Labor party in the western Sydney seat of Fowler at the next federal election has been playing out in public.

The move to parachute in a high profile Labor frontbencher, who doesn’t live in the seat, has exposed the rifts and rivalries within the party.

But it's also raised a bigger question..  Is Labor doing enough to make sure its candidates actually represent their voters?

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper Karen Middleton on what is really driving the battle for Fowler, and what it says about the Labor party.


Guest: Chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

 

The question of who will represent the Labor party in the Western Sydney seat of Fowler at the next federal election has turned into an all out brawl. 


The move to parachute in a high profile Labor frontbencher, who doesn’t live in the seat, has exposed deep rifts and rivalries within the party.

 

But it's also raised a bigger question: is Labor doing enough to make sure its candidates represent their voters?

 

Today, chief political correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Karen Middleton, on what’s really driving the battle for Fowler, and what this fight says about the Labor party.
 

It’s Wednesday, September 22. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:

Karen, for the last couple of weeks, the federal Labor Party has been consumed by this fight over who its candidate will be in this one particular seat in Western Sydney. Before we get into the details of that fight, what does the fact that it's even happening at all tell us about where Labor is at right now? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, it tells us that there's a federal election coming for a start, but it also tells us a bit about how many people have ambitions in the Labor Party, looking beyond that election, to their own prospects to be leader. 

 

And I think you're seeing a number of characters step forward, seek to exert some power here and you're getting a clear understanding of how a faction system works, the role of unions and generally how power is exercised to determine who's going to be a candidate, and what their allegiances might be afterwards.

 

RUBY:

OK, so it sounds like whatever it is that’s going on, it's touching on some fairly deep parts of the way the Labor Party works, and so it's not going to quieten down any time soon. But tell me how it all began. 

 

KAREN: 

Well, this chapter sort of goes to the race for the Senate. But if we step back from there, the key person involved in that, and in the race for Fowler, is Kristina Keneally. 

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“Through my mother. I am both a seventh generation Australian, and a migrant to this country.  I came from Australia, to Australia in 1994…”

 

KAREN: 

Now, anyone who's heard Kristina in politics knows that she has an American background. She's an Australian citizen, and she was preselected for the New South Wales parliament, the state parliament initially, in controversial circumstances. But she rose up through the ranks there and she ended up becoming New South Wales premier in 2009. 

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“I'm here as the Premier of New South Wales, my party have elected me as their leader, they’ve put their trust in me and I put it back in them..”

 

KAREN: 

The Labor Party under her lead was defeated massively in 2011.

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“And so I take responsibility for tonight's result and I can announce that I will not contest the leadership of the New South Wales Labor Party.”

 

KAREN: 

She took some time away from politics. Then she was head of Basketball Australia for a while and she became a presenter on Sky News. 

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“Welcome to The Friday Show, I am Kristina Keneally, this is Peta Credlin.” 

 

Archival Tape -- Peta Credlin:

“With my Learner plates well and truly behind me.”

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“Oh, nah nah nah mate, you got this. You so got this.”

 

KAREN: 

And then after that, she was recruited to re-enter politics at the federal level, this time as a candidate for the seat of Bennelong. 

 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“I am under no illusion, we do start out as the underdog.”

 

KAREN: 

Now, she didn't succeed in that case. That was in 2017. She was then chosen to fill the Senate vacancy that occurred when Labor's Sam Dastyari had to quit politics over his controversial dealings with Chinese interests. 

She's been in the parliament since about 2018, in that position. She's now serving as Labour's deputy leader in the Senate and she's the shadow Minister for Home Affairs. 

Archival Tape -- Kristina Keneally: 

“We must do everything we can to improve our border security, to stop illegal drug imports, to stop illegal weapon imports, to stop human trafficking, and to keep Australia and Australians safe.”

 

KAREN:
So all of this, really, is about Kristina Keneally's desire to stay in the parliament and, in fact, to move from the Senate to the Lower House. And that's because she's got ambitions to become the leader of the Labor Party and a Prime Minister has to come from the Lower House or the House of Representatives. They can't come from the Senate. 

 

RUBY:

Ok, so Kristina Keneally has had a long and interesting political career so far, and she’s got ambitions to one day lead the party. But why has that become an issue right now, what’s been happening in the background?

 

KAREN: 

Well, what's happening in the background is that the factions are choosing their candidates for election. The right faction in the New South Wales Labour Party has the numbers, so it gets the most prominent position, number one on the Senate ticket. The left then gets the number two position and then the right, again because of the numbers, gets to put the third candidate in. 

 

The number one position has gone to Deborah O'Neill. She's currently in the Senate and she has the backing of the powerful Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, also known as the SDA, or the ‘Shoppies’, and that means Kristina Keneally's only option is number three. 

 

But that third spot is a bit precarious because unless there's a massive swing to Labor, it doesn't always win that third spot. In fact, it often wouldn't. So if you're put in the third position, you're not guaranteed of being re-elected. And that's the position that Kristina Keneally has found herself in. 

 

Now, Labor normally would look after a frontbencher of her profile and influence and role in the party. But that hasn't happened with Kristina Keneally in the Senate. So she started looking further afield and other people were helping her to find an alternative that would keep her in parliament. 

 

RUBY:

Right. OK, so we've got a senior high profile member of Labor, Kristina Keneally. She's a senator. She's a member of the shadow cabinet. But due to the party's factions, she is now facing being thrown out of parliament. And so this is about her and, I suppose, her allies trying to figure out how to respond to that situation, how to save herself. 

 

KAREN: 

That's right. Now, she could go for a marginal seat. But again, that's not looking after a senior member of the party that you want to retain in parliament. So she looked for a different kind of seat, one that was safer than that. And the response there was to look at the seat of Fowler in Sydney's western suburbs. It's a very safe Labor seat. It's held by retiring Labour MP who's also in the right faction, Chris Hayes. So that seemed like a neat solution for the New South Wales state branch of the party.

But there were some difficulties with this. Firstly, Kristina Keneally doesn't live in that electorate. She lives on Scotland Island up in the northern beaches, which is a kind of well heeled area of Sydney, not in the very diverse area of western Sydney that Fowler covers. It's a very culturally diverse seat. A large population there comes from different ethnic backgrounds, and about 20% of them have a background that is Vietnamese. 

 

So the second issue was that Chris Hayes had actually chosen somebody else to succeed him. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tu Le:

“I live and breathe in my community, I believe I do have an intuitive understanding of the struggles of my community...”

 

KAREN: 

What Chris Hayes did was he picked out this young woman, a 30 year old lawyer of Vietnamese Australian background called Tu Le.

 

Archival Tape -- Tu Le: 

“I truly understand the aspirations of a migrant family, of a refugee family, because that’s my story…”

 

KAREN: 

Now she's a highly qualified candidate by all reports. But Chris Hayes chose her in conjunction with Tony Burke, who is another senior member of the Labor frontbench, and he also has leadership ambitions. So sometimes when you're able to select a candidate in a particular seat, that becomes a person who might be able to vote for you in future. So Chris Hayes and Tony Burke together decided that Tu Le should be the candidate. And it's really not clear how much more widely they consulted about that. 

 

RUBY:

So we've got Kristina Keneally eyeing off this safe Labor seat in western Sydney. The problem being, though, that there is already a candidate that's been picked out for the seat, someone who actually lives there, and sounds like that they would be representative of the community as well. So what happened next, Karen? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, there was a deal to install Kristina Keneally instead.That was brokered by both the party general secretary in New South Wales, Bob Nanva, who had to solve that Senate problem and find something for Keneally, and also by Chris Bowen, who's another prominent frontbencher in Labor, who has the neighbouring seat of McMahon to the seat of Fowler. And he's also a leadership candidate, and has ambitions for bigger things in politics. 

 

But it's also, of course, raised this whole public debate about diversity, and whether Labor is trying hard enough to find candidates that represent the communities in a genuine sense. 

 

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

[Advertisement]

RUBY:

Karen, what has the response been to Kristina Keneally being placed into the seat of Fowler… particularly considering she’s from a very different part of Sydney, she’s  not necessarily representative of the community there - compared to the other candidate that was selected. So how has this been playing out? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, Tu Le it's been very unimpressed.

 

Archival Tape -- Tu Le: 

“I don't believe that there is enough diversity in our parliament and in the Australian Labor Party.”

 

KAREN: 

And rather than going quietly, which is what the party would often hope for and expect, she's been quite vocal about her disappointment, and about the need to get diversity candidates into the parliament. 

 

Archival Tape -- Tu Le: 

“If someone’s not going to stand up and fight for our best interests, then it's time that we stand up for ourselves and do it.”

 

KAREN: 

And she's been backed by some powerful voices within the Labor Party, 

 

Archival Tape -- Anne Aly:

“Multiculturalism can't just be a trope that Labor pulls out and parades, while wearing a sari and eating some kung pao chicken..”

 

KAREN: 

People like Anne Aly from Western Australia, and Peter Khalil from Victoria, both of whom have ethnically diverse non-Anglo backgrounds. 

 

Archival Tape -- Anne Aly:

“To be in a position where they are pushing aside a community representative from one of the most multicultural electorates is hypocrisy.”

 

KAREN: 

They've spoken out about the need for that to increase the representations of ethnic groups in the parliament. 

 

And some members of the wider party have also expressed their disappointment that this is an opportunity lost.

 

RUBY:

And so how is Labor dealing with this criticism that's coming from within its own ranks? It's fairly significant, I would say, to have a number of sitting MPs criticise the preselection of one of their colleagues. 

 

KAREN:

It is. And they would prefer that this happened in private, not in public. It's not good for Anthony Albanese to have this happening in public. He has backed Kristina Keneally and said that they need to find a place for her. 

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese: 

“Kristina will bring considerable capacity to the house as she has done in the Senate, she’s an important part of my team…”

 

KAREN: 

But he's a bit hamstrung now on the question of diversity as well.

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese: 

“And by the way, our deputy leader in the Senate, Kristina Keneally, was born in the United States, came to Australia, and is another great Australian success story of a migrant who's come here and became the New South Wales premier.”

 

KAREN: 

He also emphasised Kristina Keneally's migrant background, coming from the US, and his own Italian surname as examples of the party's commitment to ethnic diversity. 

 

Archival Tape -- Anthony Albanese: 

“And guess what? In the next election there's someone called Albanese running for Prime Minister...”

 

KAREN: 

That didn't go down terribly well with some people in the party.  So you've got this all playing out in a public debate that's quite unseemly for Labor. 

 

RUBY:

Hmm. So there seems to be two big threads to this story, Karen. The first is that it's a question of whether or not Labor can choose people who accurately represent the electorates that they're being preselected for, and whether the party is diverse enough. And then the second issue, which is what's going on in the background, which sounds like a lot of people positioning themselves for potential future leadership positions. So on that second point, how is this likely to play out? And will leadership positioning override party’s need to have diverse and accurate representation? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, I think they'll try to have it all go quiet now because it's been not terrific to have it play out in public. But it does show you, I think, that there's jockeying going on in the background on future leadership. 

 

There is an election coming up. It's going to be a very tight race if you believe what the opinion polls say at the moment. And it's just interesting, I think, that there are candidates already looking to who comes after Anthony Albanese rather than focussing on pulling in behind him and getting him, and his party, elected to government. 

 

But it has really exposed the way these things happen and that sometimes what looks like the motivation on the surface is not the only motivation or agenda at play. And I think that's very obvious in this case. 

 

RUBY:

And what does it all mean for the people who live in Fowler, Karen? Because it seems like they're getting completely left out of this debate? 

 

KAREN: 

Well, you could say that. That's right. 

 

They haven't had the chance to preselect their own candidate properly for about three decades, they've had candidates imposed. 

 

And you could argue that they're a bit taken for granted, that they always vote Labor. And so this situation has prevailed for so long, it will be interesting to see whether there is any backlash to having a public brawl about who should be the candidate that doesn't involve them having any selection. We'll watch for the vote at the coming election. 

 

RUBY:

Karen, thank you so much for talking to me about all of this. 

 

KAREN: 

Thanks, Ruby. 

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:

Also in the news today,

 

Thousands of protesters, including many construction workers, marched through Melbourne’s CBD on Tuesday after a two week shutdown of the construction industry was imposed.

The protests were also attended by members of far-right groups and others opposed to the lockdowns. 

 

According to the Victorian government more than 400 Covid-19 cases have been directly linked to the construction sector.

 

And in New South Wales, the local government areas of Tweed, Byron Bay and Kempsey have entered into a snap seven-day lockdown.

 

The announcement of stay at home orders came after a worker from Sydney spent several days in the regional area, and later tested positive. 

 

The state recorded 1022 new local Covid-19 cases, and 10 deaths on Tuesday.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

 

[Theme Music Ends]

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. Images via ABC News

Morrison’s mandate

Barnaby Joyce acknowledges that a net-zero target is cabinet’s call. But what exactly is their mandate?

Image of ‘Scary Monsters’

‘Scary Monsters’ by Michelle de Kretser

Two satirical stories about fitting in, from the two-time Miles Franklin–winner

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body


Read on

Image of Jeremy Strong as Kendall Roy in HBO’s Succession season 3. Photograph by David Russell/HBO

Ties that bind: ‘Succession’ season three

Jeremy Strong’s performance in the HBO drama’s third season is masterful

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions