Kristina Keneally takes Bennelong into the big time
Yesterday was a hot mess. So, naturally, it was a relief to everybody that today was relatively quiet. Senator Jacqui Lambie resigned, having had her British citizenship confirmed. The prime minister made clear that Liberal senator James Paterson’s marriage bill – seeking to take Australia's anti-discrimination laws backwards – was going nowhere. And Bill Shorten announced that former NSW premier Kristina Keneally was Labor’s candidate for the Bennelong byelection.
The word “relatively” is doing a lot of work in that paragraph, isn’t it?
It’s a tough choice, but today I’m going to focus on the Keneally story, given this is the one with the greatest chance of affecting who actually governs the country.
The first thing to say is that Keneally is not likely to beat the sitting MP, John Alexander, who is said to be popular in the electorate, and starts with a 10% margin. Leaked polling [$] suggests he was facing a 3% swing before Keneally announced, which still leaves a massive barrier to be hurdled.
The second thing to say is there is a chance Keneally won’t be facing John Alexander, who may struggle to renounce his British citizenship in time to safely nominate for the seat. If Keneally ended up facing an unknown, her chances would jump.
The third thing to know is that Keneally is a very, very good candidate. She is articulate, charming, and forceful. Don’t take my word for it – watch the last 22 seconds of this video today. She can deliver a line, but doesn’t need anyone to write lines for her: check out her old Guardian columns.
On the other hand, she comes with significant potential weaknesses. The government, from the prime minister down, began today to connect her to corrupt Labor MPs such as Eddie Obeid. Liberal MPs will hammer this theme. The extent of her vulnerability is hard to judge. Andrew Clennell, who has covered New South Wales politics for a long time, today writes [$] in the Australian both that “Without Obeid and Tripodi she would never have become premier, there is no doubt”, and “there is little question Keneally has a reputation for integrity and was more naive in her dealings with the Obeids and Tripodis than anything.”
But all of this discussion about whether Keneally can win misses the main point about her nomination.
There’s no doubt that Labor would like to win the seat. But until this morning, really it was just a run-of-the-mill byelection. The consensus was that Alexander could lose, but very probably wouldn’t. National issues would play a role, but perhaps not as much as you’d think. As Phillip Coorey wrote yesterday [$]: “Labor is anticipating Mr Alexander will hold the seat, if only because history shows candidates who are forced into byelections generally tend to be returned with a swing towards them. Byelections where a candidate quits for no good reason tend to swing the other way.”
Keneally’s nomination has, in one move, turned the byelection into a national story. She talked about local issues today, but she also made clear this was a chance for Bennelong voters to send a message to the prime minister himself: “I am 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’.”
Of course, that is exactly what Bennelong voters did ten years ago, when they turfed out John Howard. They knew then that the nation was watching; Keneally will be reminding them of the same thing, every day. And knowing that the nation is watching will change the equation for many of those voters.
It will also change the equation for Liberal MPs. One of their small consolations in recent months has been the idea that in an actual election – as opposed to a random weekend on which polling is being conducted – voters would come back to the Coalition, finally unwilling to crown Bill Shorten. But if Shorten is in Bennelong all the time, alongside his star candidate, and the seat swings hard, that comfort will vanish. Labor doesn’t need a victory; its hope will be to unsettle the government enough to start a panic. And of course Malcolm Turnbull will know this, and will be desperate not to lose. That will distract him – and he has enough distractions already.
One final note on Keneally herself. A puzzling thing about her is that, despite all her time in the public eye, she is a bit of an unknown quantity in terms of public popularity. Her government was famously trounced; her approval ratings at the end were unimpressive. And yet it’s very, very hard to tell whether this was just the inevitable reflection of a government that had not passed the sniff test for a long time.
Clennell tells an interesting story in his column today, saying he watched her on the byelection trail in 2010, and she was feted. “In fact, Keneally could not believe it when a few days later then Labor general secretary Sam Dastyari walked into her office and told her that she was about to lose the seat with a record swing. She told Dastyari his figures must be wrong given the reception she had received in the seat and told him to get out of her office. The swing — and loss — occurred.”
That story tells you two things. It tells you Keneally is probably – probably – well-liked. But it also tells you that a well-liked politician is not enough to save a dying government.
That is a lesson John Alexander and Malcolm Turnbull might be about to learn for themselves.
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