The December 16 Bennelong byelection campaign descended into smear tactics from the moment Bill Shorten announced Kristina Keneally as Labor’s candidate on Tuesday.
With current polls showing the minority Turnbull government is on the nose with voters, the stakes escalated with a scramble for political dirt files.
Ms Keneally, the former New South Wales Premier and more recently employed as a Sky News commentator, was immediately denounced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Health Minister Greg Hunt as “a protege of Eddie Obeid”.
Although the Coalition is expected to retain Barnaby Joyce as the Nationals member for New England in its December 2 byelection, the seat of Bennelong, with an almost 10 per cent margin, could emerge as crucial to the government’s survival.
The personal attack on Ms Keneally by referencing Eddie Obeid, her corrupt and once NSW Right factional ally, was both raw and revealing.
It is true that Ms Keneally replaced the Left’s then-premier Nathan Rees with the support of Obeid and his Terrigals sub-faction, which included Joe Tripodi. Obeid is now in jail following a criminal conviction. Tripodi was found by the NSW ICAC to have acted corruptly.
On the day of his demise in 2009, Mr Rees famously declared: “Should I not be premier at the end of this day, let there be no doubt in the community’s mind that any challenger would be a puppet of Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi.”
Watch Bill Shorten and Kristina Keneally’s press conference:
Although Ms Keneally, born in Las Vegas to an American father and an Australian-born mother, became the state’s first female premier, Mr Rees bequeathed her a poisoned chalice by these remarks. (She renounced her US citizenship in 2002).
While she vehemently denied her strings were ever pulled by the Obeid/Tripodi gang within NSW Labor, ICAC’s public hearings soon exposed entrenched corruption within her party leading to its historic landslide defeat in 2011.
But it was in the ICAC witness box that Ms Keneally gave crucial, redeeming evidence about a doctored Cabinet minute which helped expose what amounted to a cross-party network through an Obeid-linked entity, Australian Water Holdings.
The prize, said ICAC, were riches “beyond the wildest dreams of avarice”.
AWH was lobbying both the Labor state government and then-premier Barry O’Farrell’s Coalition government to privatise all water infrastructure in north-west Sydney from the public utility Sydney Water.
With a potential customer cash flow worth billions, some AWH participants actively engaged in slush funding and influence peddling.
Those participants included members of the Obeid family, Liberal party lobbyists and officials and former NSW Liberal president and treasurer (and later senator) Arthur Sinodinos.
AWH was eventually thwarted by uncompromising advice to government from Sydney Water’s then-CEO Kerry Schott.
While his credibility as an ICAC witness suffered through repeated memory loss about his AWH involvement, Senator Sinodinos survived ICAC with no corrupt conduct findings against him. (Senator Sinodinos, a key backer of the Prime Minister, is on extended sick leave from his Cabinet duties).
ICAC’s investigation also cost Mr O’Farrell his premiership when, honourably, he resigned after having to recant his evidence that he did not receive a bottle of Grange Hermitage from AWH.
In now trying to discredit Ms Keneally as a candidate for Bennelong, the danger in re-opening the AWH wound became immediately apparent for the Liberal Party.
As the byelection campaign intensifies over the next five weeks the ghost of Obeid may only serve to expose an air of desperation by the government.
In John Alexander, the former Australian tennis star, the Liberal Party has the advantage of incumbency with a member who has won the seat twice. He has also earned credit by raising from the backbench the intractable problem of unaffordable housing.
The byelection is also a test of Labor leader Bill Shorten.
With the latest disastrous polls, a 10 per cent swing in Bennelong should be a walkover. It would establish an inexorable momentum to a change of government either sooner through any other government byelection defeats, or by 2019, the end of the current three-year term.
Were Mr Alexander to retain the seat, even narrowly under these pressured circumstances, he would become a political lifeline for Malcolm Turnbull and his knife-edged government – at least until the next crisis.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster and was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.