Flat White

Celebrity pollies and turncoats may flame in – but most simply flameout

22 September 2020

1:31 PM

22 September 2020

1:31 PM

No-one could accuse Senator Kristina Keneally of being a turncoat, but a political ‘celebrity’? I reckon she’d settle for that. 

Labor warrior Keneally, from the New South Wales Right, thrives in the spotlights the national political stage provides her. It equips her with both the status and the opportunity to orchestrate her brand of megaphone politics.  

Many voters find her style resonant of a fingernail down a blackboard, but this doesn’t trouble the Senator a jot. Being noticed, after all, is a means to an end — and for Keneally, the end means a senior role in a future Labor government.

Australian voters tend to recoil from artificial set-piece political stunts, preferring politicians who simply get on with their jobs. Keneally prefers the former. It’s lights, camera, action preferably with four or five TV networks present and a bevy of breathless reporters. 

This cuts across an electorate which prefers politicians who place voter concerns at the centre of their narrative, rather than personal career concerns.

More of Keneally in a moment.

Speaking of set-piece performances, who could forget the excruciating awkwardness of Peter Garrett’s switch from the musical to the political stage? Or Julia Gillard’s parachuted ‘star’ Nova Peris, who lasted a mere 2.5 years as a Senator.

Garrett’s flirtation with politics was a desperate act by Labor for someone — anyone — to pay attention to them. It was also a political miscalculation roughly the size of Montana. Many political observers agree that Garrett would have been far more influential had he remained outside the parliament.    

Garrett’s overt unease with the strictures applying to members of parliament showed in his every utterance and action from the moment he sat in the green chamber to the moment he departed.

Not to be daunted by failure, however, Labor pinned its hopes on one Sam ‘Dasher’ Dastyari, as the next ALP stunt man.

Everybody’s mate, the brash Dastyari flamed out spectacularly in late 2017 over his murky links with Chinese interests.  

Labor colleagues, senior ones in particular, were quick to highlight the trust deficit as a major impediment to a comeback of any kind by Dastyari. His political career ended in tatters and he has, thankfully, scarcely been heard of since.  

Former tennis player, John Alexander, could be said to have been a celeb candidate for the Liberals, but having taken the former Howard seat of Bennelong back from that other ‘flame out’ former ABC journalist Maxine McKew, Alexander has been a tad on the quiet side. McKew, for her part, will naturally be honoured among Labor’s greats for having beaten Howard by a couple of thousand votes 2007, yet he held the seat for 33 years to McKew’s wildly unspectacular three.

On the turncoat front politics Australian style can get nasty; very nasty. Mal Colston discovered this when, in 1996, he jumped the ALP ship opting for a Senate seat as an independent (and the job of deputy president, with all its perks). After that — and his vote with the Howard government ensuring the privatisation of Telstra — Colston was loathed by key people in his former Party and many others besides. All sorts of skeletons Labor had been happy to keep in the closet suddenly came tumbling out.

Perhaps the most spectacular of defections was Cheryl Kernot’s. After building a presence in the Senate as a member of the Democrats and as their leader, she joined the ALP, resigned from the Senate and ran for the lower house seat of Dickson.

It was eventually revealed that she and Labor’s high profile former Senate leader, Gareth Evans, who made his own ill-starred move to the Reps, had been engaged in an intimate relationship which soured even further the already toxic relationships with her former colleagues and many of her new. The entire exercise was a political disaster.

So, back to Kristina. She was handed a Labor Senate seat despite failing to topple John Alexander in the by-election for Bennelong, one of the string bought on in 2018 thanks to Section 44 issues, and a less than 15 month stint as NSW premier that ended in electoral rout.

Last week Kristina was back in the news. Astonishingly, for the normally garrulous Keneally, on this occasion she had precisely nothing to say. 

Last Friday it was reported that Keneally’s political future had sparked a brawl within Labor’s NSW Right faction, with its most powerful ­unions divided over whether she should be handed a winnable spot on the Senate ticket or be forced to contest a marginal seat in the House of Representatives.

While it was reported the Health Services Union is backing Keneally to take the top spot for the Party on the NSW Senate ticket at the next election, the state’s biggest right-wing union — the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association — is understood to be firmly behind conservative incumbent Deborah O’Neill.  

Tough times for Kristina, it seems as the preselection is slugged out in the public domain.

The Senator meanwhile will be loving the attention the spate is giving her.  

Her stridency through the Covid-19 crisis, though, became emblematic of Labor’s jarring and futile efforts to derail the national task of getting help to those needing it and of finding a policy path through the pandemic.

Keneally used the Ruby Princess debacle to attack the government — but as it turned out, the wrong government. It was the health authorities in NSW to whom she should have been directing her confected outrage, but true to form Keneally didn’t let an opportunity for potential publicity get derailed by that.  

This Senator is a master of stating the obvious and then claiming it as a stroke of wisdom, presumably on the basis that voters are too stupid to reach conclusions on their own.  

If the so-called Labor power brokers had good sense they would see to it that another candidate gets the top spot on the Senate ticket and that Australia is relieved of the need to endure further tedium from this eventual flameout.

John Simpson is a Melbourne company director.

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