She was hailed as a trailblazer for women who could clean up the sleaze and corruption in the Labor Party.
The NSW Labor Party’s first female secretary, Kaila Murnain, 32, promised to end a toxic, sexist and destructive culture.
She was even promoted as having the potential of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, with Labor strategist Bruce Hawker praising her as a strong leader who was very “hands on”.
But Ms Murnain is now tipped to quit the job amid sensational claims of $100,000 in cash being dropped off to the Labor Party’s Sussex Street headquarters in a plastic Aldi bag by the Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.
Mr Huang was a prohibited donor under NSW laws because he is a property developer.
Senior Labor figures who support Ms Murnain insist her looming departure and the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) revelations are not linked, with Ms Murnain widely canvassing the idea of moving on after three years in the job.
But unions in NSW are actively discussing her exit strategy.
The New Daily has confirmed she is on leave from her job while she prepares to give evidence at ICAC and has not been attending the office or returning calls.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese declined to endorse her ongoing role, describing the allegations as ‘‘serious’’.
‘‘Look, it’s not a matter of me to have confidence in any individual in the Labor Party,’’ he said.
‘‘These are serious allegations. I am not going to give a running commentary on them while people are literally giving evidence.
‘‘I will simply say this. Electoral laws should be complied with by anyone in the process. Simple as that.’’
In a Shakespearean element to the tragedy, it was her predecessor as NSW ALP secretary, Jamie Clements, who allegedly accepted the Aldi bag containing $100,000 in cash.
Ms Murnain won her job in 2016 after Mr Clements resigned amid controversy.
The anti-corruption watchdog ICAC heard evidence on Tuesday the pair had a poisonous relationship.
A lawyer for Mr Clements challenged evidence in the ICAC hearing that Mr Clements had received the Aldi bag of cash.
He quizzed Labor’s community relations director Kenrick Cheah on whether Mr Clements and his deputy Ms Murnain ‘‘hated each others’ guts’’.
Mr Cheah replied it was well known the pair intensely disliked each other and denied he was using Mr Clements as ‘‘a scapegoat’’.
Ms Murnain was not the ALP secretary at the time of the alleged donation, but the ICAC hearings have heard evidence she saw the Aldi bag and advised Mr Cheah to ‘‘be careful’’ when he took the cash home because the banks had closed.
‘‘I don’t know if she knew how much was there, but she knew that there was a sizeable amount of money that I was taking home to keep safe to bring back the next day,” Mr Cheah said.
“Pretty sure Kaila was the one who said ‘be careful’, just in terms of safety.’’
When ICAC raided the NSW ALP offices during Labor’s national conference in Adelaide in December 2018, Ms Murnain released a statement that the ALP had disclosed all relevant documentation relating to the donations at the time to the NSW electoral commission.
But on Monday, counsel assisting the commission Scott Robertson revealed Ms Murnain had told ICAC she has reasons to believe the $100,000 donation at the centre of the raid was from a banned donor.
‘‘Ms Murnain has given evidence to the commission in a compulsory examination to the effect that Ernest Wong told her that a person had not, in fact, donated the funds that they had said that they had donated to the Labor Party in 2015,’’ Mr Robertson said.
‘‘Ms Murnain said that Mr Wong told her that Mr Huang Xiangmo was the true source of the funds said to have been donated by that other person.
‘‘Of course, Ms Murnain’s statement as to what Mr Wong is said to have told her is not, of itself, conclusive proof that there were one or more ‘straw donors’ or ‘pretend donors’ associated with the Chinese Friends of Labor function in 2015 or that there was a scheme to conceal the fact that Mr Huang was the true source of funds deposited in NSW Labor and Country Labor’s bank accounts.’’
Ms Murnain’s critics insist this news was a shock, given the ALP branch had suggested at the time of 2018 ICAC raids on the party’s Sussex Street headquarters the investigation was ‘‘a witch hunt’’.
The Newcastle-born party strategist joined the party at the age of 15 and has worked for the Labor Party for her entire adult life, including stints in the office of former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally.
But Ms Murnain is also a divisive figure in Labor circles who is known for her feuds with Mr Clements, NSW Labor MP Chris Minns and former Labor MP Emma Husar, with whom she fell out after the contents of a confidential investigation were leaked to the media.
Mr Minns ran against the current NSW Labor leader Jodi McKay and it was widely expected that Ms Murnain would leave the job if he had won the ballot.
Ms Murnain is due to give evidence at ICAC on Wednesday and Thursday.