If you’re not from New South Wales you might be wondering who the heck is Kristina Keneally, and what’s all the fuss about her being given a job by the new Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
You might recall Senator Keneally from her ‘attack dog’ role during the federal election.
She was the smiling-faced assassin brought out on numerous occasions by Bill Shorten to regale the media with witty attacks on the government so that he didn’t have to dirty his own hands by doing so.
This was a good use of Senator Keneally’s strengths, given the Labor senator is what the media would call ‘good talent’, that is, she knows how to convincingly deliver a killer line.
That’s hardly surprising, in one of her previous lives she was a political commentator and host on Sky News Australia.
Before that, Senator Keneally was also the first female premier of NSW.
Whether she was a good premier might depend on your political perspective.
When Senator Keneally won a leadership spill to become NSW Labor leader in 2009, she inherited a discredited state government at the tail-end of its tenure that had irretrievably been damaged by allegations of corruption against some of its MPs.
Less than 18 months later, Senator Keneally led her team to the worst defeat of a sitting government in NSW’s history.
Following a couple of years as the CEO of Basketball Australia, and then three more working with Sky News Australia, the Labor loyalist tried to enter federal politics in 2017 but failed to defeat the Liberals’ John Alexander in the Bennelong by-election.
Political luck finally turned her way a couple of months later, when Senator Keneally was chosen to replace one of her NSW colleagues, Sam Dastyari, after he resigned in disgrace from the Senate.
The missing piece in this potted version of the Kristina Keneally story is that the Senator is a member of Labor’s NSW Right, once considered the most ruthless and powerful of all the party’s factions.
Senator Keneally became premier because the NSW Right decided to overthrow the sitting premier and install one of its own. She followed Mr Dastyari because he’s also from the NSW Right and the faction replaced him with another of its own.
The curious thing about new Labor leader Anthony Albanese insisting that Senator Keneally be in his shadow ministry is that he’s not from the NSW Right. In fact he’s from the faction that is its complete opposite, the NSW Left.
To put it in context, Mr Albanese’s ultimatum is like the NSW captain insisting on having someone from Queensland in his State of Origin team. Or the All Blacks captain making a similar demand for one of the Wallabies.
It suggests the new Labor leader might be trying to be unconventional and shake things up a bit – particularly if this disrupts the power balance within the Labor caucus in a way that makes matters easier for him.
This is what we sometimes forget (or don’t know) about Labor – its decisions and policies are determined by its dominant factions. Mr Albanese might be the party’s new leader, but the factions decide who will be in the shadow ministry.
If a politician is a factional warlord with zero ministerial potential but wants to be a shadow minister, then he or she will be. Mr Albanese’s only choice is to allocate the shadow ministry jobs among the list of Labor MPs that he is provided by the factions.
Yet on this occasion, the new leader insisted that the NSW Right drop one of its preferred MPs for the ministry and put forward Senator Keneally instead. Another member of the faction, Ed Husic, subsequently ‘volunteered’ to make way for his ‘good friend’, Senator Keneally.
I thank my good friend Ed Husic for his gracious and strong support for me to stand for the front bench. Ed is talented, he enjoys wide support in the NSW Right & across the ALP. I am certain he will play a big role in an Albanese Labor Government. pic.twitter.com/JFSRD8ZAxj
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) May 29, 2019
This seemingly small capitulation by the NSW Right seems to confirm that the once mighty faction is all over the place. We also saw some of its members, such as Senator Keneally, publicly back Mr Albanese when he first declared his candidacy for the Labor leadership, while others in the old pro-Shorten camp campaigned against him.
Even though Mr Albanese might be forced by the Right factions to give his predecessor a position in the shadow ministry, he levelled the scoreboard by forcing the Right to give up another of its positions to Senator Keneally, who has swiftly become an Albanese loyalist.
Her addition to the front bench will also help the new Labor leader boost his gender equity credentials. Once the Victorian Right’s Richard Marles becomes deputy leader (by factional fiat), it will be the first time since 2013 that Labor has had men in both leadership positions.
Senator Keneally is also campaigning to replace another man from the Right, Don Farrell, to become deputy to Labor’s leader in the Senate, Penny Wong.
Senator Farrell is from the South Australian Right, and a fierce factional warrior who will not easily, or quietly, give up his position. He was pressured to make way for Senator Wong on Labor’s ticket in 2013 and then lost his seat altogether.
Having stared down Labor’s Right to install Senator Keneally on his front bench, Mr Albanese will be weighing up the risks of also pushing for her to become deputy in the Senate.
If Senator Farrell stays in the role, it will leave Labor looking unbalanced with men in three of its four leadership positions.
It might also indicate that Mr Albanese has found the limits of his leadership influence on Labor’s Right factions.