Flat White

Kristina Keneally: Albo’s golden girl – or a golden goose?

3 June 2019

4:38 PM

3 June 2019

4:38 PM

The week just past in politics, the week to come:

Rarely in federal politics has there been as meteoric rise as spectacular as that of Labor’s glamour girl, Kristina Keneally.

The career of the former NSW premier, whose government was not just beaten but obliterated out in 2011, should have been similarly destroyed then and there.

But no, getting the biggest swing against an Australian government in living memory wasn’t her fault. She just happened to be the one in the hot seat when the music stopped. That she was placed in that seat thanks to factional machinations by the likes of Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi wasn’t her fault either. Of course.

And when she sought to resurrect that career by being Labor’s candidate in the 2017 Bennelong by-election, up against likeable but ageing tennis star and permanent backbencher John Alexander, billed as a star candidate and back by Bill Shorten and all Labor’s heavyweights, Keneally couldn’t crack it.

But Shorten thought enough of her to push for her coming to Canberra via disgraced senator Sam Dastyari’s seat in 2018, after Dasher dashed in shame over his Chinese connections.

You might have thought Keneally would have kept a low profile while she learned the Senate ropes. But no. She took an instant shine to the “look at me” stage that is Senate estimates; her immaculately groomed and perfumed presence combined with the one-time Sky News presenter’s feel for the news grab. She also became a fearless Twitter warrior, happily smiting her enemies left and right in 280 characters or less.

Then, in this year’s election campaign, she was chatelaine of the Bill Bus, the so-called Fair Go Express, gallivanting around Australia as Bill Shorten’s muse and campaign spokeswoman, tweeting and Instagramming all the while. If anyone could be labelled a totally rusted-on Shorten supporter, Keneally was that person. So much so she was assured of a Cabinet post had Shorten crossed the line as almost everyone expected.

Yet, when the electoral merde hit Labor’s fan on 18 May and Shorten somehow contrived to lose the unlosable election, Kenneally didn’t waste a moment. As soon as he resigned his leadership, she not only moved on, but has risen spectacularly since the coronation of new Labor leader Anthony Albanese. Just look at her Twitter profile: the pre-election pic of her and Shorten together was replaced in a flash with her and new best mate, Albo. She wasted no time shaking the Shorten dust from her well-shod feet to stake her claims to a status she must deem more worthy of her great political talents.

Thus it was that in less than a week, Keneally catapulted from a mere backbench senator to deputy Senate leader under the gender balance-obsessed Albo and, in the naming of the new shadow ministry, Labor spokeswoman for the controversial and highly sensitive Home Affairs portfolio. That she achieved all this over the political bodies of two well-regarded male colleagues, Ed Husic and Don Farrell, and split her Right faction in the process, makes her meteoric rise even more remarkable.

Particularly regarding Husic, a genuine policy thinker and contributor, a ground-breaking Muslim MP and potential Labor leader, it seems Albanese prefers a failed state premier who couldn’t even win a by-election against an undistinguished backbencher when the Coalition was tanking in the polls. Her ascent obscures the fact that Husic effectively refused to serve under Albo, and that all is not hunky-dory in the Labor caucus in the wake of its election loss.

Hopefully Husic’s noble Captain Oates impersonation is appreciated gratefully by Keneally, but now she’s got what she wanted all it’s achieved is one very talented shadow minister has been sacrificed for her, weakening the Labor team as a whole. Ed’s just collateral damage.

Looking forwards, now we have a portfolio contest between Keneally and Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton, who in April she labelled as “the most toxic person in the Liberal party”, and Dutton hasn’t wasted time to strike back and, with her social media posts and pre-return to politics Guardian columns playing to the luvvies and excoriating Dutton, boat turn backs and mandatory detention, her on-the-record contributions offer rich pickings for the government.

Whatever one thinks of the politics and morality of border protection and mandatory detention, the Home Affairs battle between Dutton and Keneally will be one to watch. When two politicians hate each other so much, the fireworks will be spectacular and no prisoners taken.

But looking backwards, the mysterious rise and rise of serial loser Kristina Keneally reminds one of Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about German turned American rocket scientist Wehrner von Braun, who he described, rightly, as “a man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience”.

Based on her Labor career up until now, a casual political observer would be entitled to conclude expedience helps shape Keneally’s allegiances too. In investing so much of his political capital as new Labor leader in fast-tracking Keneally, Albanese had better hope that should his leadership runs into trouble that KK returns his loyalty and doesn’t race to change her Twitter pic as she did for him when Shorten bit the dust.

But perhaps Lehrer’s scathing take on von Braun’s loyalties also applies to Albo and his star protégée: “When the rockets go up who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wehrner von Braun”.

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