When Tanya Plibersek – who many believe would give Labor its best chance if she were leader now – was asked about the party parachuting Kristina Keneally into the safe seat of Fowler, she slid all around the place to avoid giving a direct answer to an awkward question.
What might be called the Keneally “Fowler solution” is the outcome of Labor’s dilemma over its Senate ticket.
Its two NSW senators from the right faction, Keneally and Deb O’Neill, were battling over who would get the ticket’s No.1 spot.
With the left in the second spot, the loser would be relegated to the third place, considered unwinnable.
Anthony Albanese claims Keneally, as Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate, would have been on the top of the ticket if she’d nominated. But O’Neill had strong union support.
Regardless, Keneally’s endorsement by the right faction for Fowler – being vacated at the election by the retirement of the popular Labor whip Chris Hayes – stopped a row.
But it started another one.
When he announced he was retiring Hayes strongly promoted a young lawyer, Tu Le, daughter of Vietnamese refugees, to succeed him. She ticked boxes on gender, diversity and local grounds.
Keneally pushing her aside has caused outrage in some Labor circles.
Labor MP and Muslim Anne Aly told the ABC: “Diversity and equality and multiculturalism can’t just be a trope that Labor pulls out and parades while wearing a sari and eating some kung pao chicken to make ourselves look good”.
She added, “I’m one of the few people of culturally, linguistically diverse backgrounds in the Parliament – this matters to me”.
Appearing on the ABC on Sunday, Plibersek was pressed about where she stood on the matter.
She tried a bluff: “I’m a glass half-full person. Aren’t we lucky in the Labor Party to have three fantastic women, all who want to be in Parliament representing the Labor Party”.
Several follow ups, and several dodges, later, Plibersek was where she started: “I think Kristina is a fantastic candidate who’s made a great contribution. I also think Deb O’Neill has made a wonderful contribution in the Senate, and Tu Le has got a big future.”
While Keneally’s installation may be a snub to some locals, it should be noted it doesn’t deprive ALP branch members of a rank-and-file ballot they would otherwise have had.
Through a peculiar arrangement that goes back decades and has its origins in branch stacking, the preselection process for Fowler, a seat designated for the right, is very top down.
The right faction selects its candidate, who is then rubber stamped by the party.
Keneally’s facilitated passage into Fowler is the latest break for the one-time NSW premier who lost the 2011 state election.
She was a favourite of Bill Shorten and the candidate chosen to contest the 2017 Bennelong byelection. Then after Sam Dastyari quit the Senate as a result of revelations he’d promoted Chinese interests, Keneally took the casual vacancy.
After the 2019 election Keneally became the opposition’s deputy Senate leader, elbowing out right numbers man Don Farrell.
This put her No.4 in Labor’s hierarchy. As home affairs spokeswoman she aggressively took the fight up to then home affairs minister Peter Dutton. They were well matched.
At Friday’s right faction meeting which endorsed her, Keneally described herself as the “accidental senator” and thought her “brawler” style better suited to the lower house.
Given her quick rise and her take-no-prisoners political approach, the question inevitably is: How high can Keneally hope to fly?
Those close to her say her move isn’t driven by leadership ambitions. Maybe not, but if her career up to now is any guide, it would be strange if she didn’t harbour them.
However she is not universally popular in the party and if Labor loses, it would be too early for her.
The favourite to become opposition leader would probably be Plibersek who, while on the left, would overwhelmingly win a ballot among the rank and file, which gets a 50 per cent say, with caucus having the other 50 per cent.