Home Australia Kristina Keneally’s swap into safe Western Sydney seat sparks anger among Labor locals

Kristina Keneally’s swap into safe Western Sydney seat sparks anger among Labor locals

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There’s substantial anger among members of the Labor Party in Western Sydney that former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally is being parachuted into a very safe seat, pushing aside a promising local candidate in the process.

Senator Keneally plans to move from the upper house into the Labor stronghold of Fowler at the next election, even though she lives a long way from the electorate.

The seat, which takes in Liverpool, Cabramatta and Fairfield, is one of the most diverse in the nation and the Opposition holds it by a 14 per cent margin.

The incumbent MP, Chris Hayes, is retiring at the next election. He had publicly pushed for Tu Le, a local lawyer with Vietnamese heritage, to replace him, so that federal Labor would better reflect the diversity of the areas it represented.

“It’s pretty disappointing and disheartening not just for myself but for the local community to be taken for granted in this way,” Ms Le said.

“It’s very unfortunate that the voices of the local members aren’t heard.”

Ms Le, who represents exploited migrant workers and is a youth leader at the Vietnamese Buddhist Youth Association, said she had dedicated her life to serving her community.

She added that while she had “great respect” for Senator Keneally, the move was a “missed opportunity” by Labor to broaden the cultural diversity within its ranks and “walk the talk”.

“I don’t think that not living in the electorate will preclude you from being a great representative for the area, I just think that we need more diverse voices in Parliament.”

‘Labor is telling them who they can vote for’

Mr Hayes’s brother, Gerard, the national president of the influential Health Services Union, was even more scathing.

“It’s a bit like Hong Kong,” he said.

“People can vote, but Labor is telling them who they can vote for — irrespective of the candidate.”

“Why are we losing our base? Because we do stuff like this.”

Some federal MPs agree with that sentiment, but would only comment anonymously due to the potential of internal ramifications.

“This is Labor at its worst,” one said.

Another described it as “a bad look, which will disenfranchise the local community”.

A third pointed out Senator Keneally owned a property on Scotland Island in the affluent Pittwater area of Sydney, suggesting she would have a hard time understanding the day-to-day experience of many people in the Western Sydney Fowler electorate.

Senator Keneally was expected to formally announce her move in the coming days.

The former New South Wales Premier is well respected in the federal party and plays a key role in scrutinising the Morrison government.

She is close to Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, holds the important shadow portfolio of home affairs, and is widely regarded as a key player in a possible future Labor government.

The ABC has been told she intends to move to the electorate, and a formal announcement about her pre-selection plans is expected tomorrow or Saturday.

“I have been approached by ALP branch members urging me to consider nomination for the seat of Fowler,” Senator Keneally said in a statement.

“I am humbled by this encouragement.”

Senator Keneally’s move to Fowler has been speculated about for months.

She is currently the Opposition’s Deputy Senate Leader, but despite her seniority has been in a tussle with her right-faction colleague Deb O’Neill for top spot on the NSW Senate ticket at the next election. Senator O’Neill has strong union backing and the outcome had been uncertain.

If she had lost, Senator Keneally may have struggled to be re-elected from third spot on the ticket. Second place is reserved for a member of the party’s left-faction, most likely Jenny McAllister.

State powerbrokers back Keneally

Several of Senator Keneally’s allies spoke favourably to the ABC about the lower house move, dismissing criticism of her and claiming only a handful of people in the federal party were actually upset.

“Kristina is a hard worker, she will kick heads where required and we need that in the lower house,” one said.

“As a former New South Wales Premier and a senior member of our team, she will be well-known, well-liked and a powerful advocate for the people of Fowler, particularly if we are in government.”

In recent days, Senator Keneally has been speaking with community leaders in the electorate.

She is understood to have substantial support from state Labor powerbrokers.

Labor MPs say Mr Hayes and his close friend, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke, are both annoyed by the decision.

The two men declined interview requests from the ABC but yesterday, Mr Burke appeared surprised by the development when he appeared on Sky News.

“You’ve reported something that I wasn’t expecting in terms of the conversation today,” he said.

“If in these conversations a local community feels taken for granted, you make those decisions at your peril.”

Some community groups believe the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of meaningful connections between culturally and linguistically diverse communities and those who govern.

“I don’t think Kristina Keneally represents the community in Fairfield,” Winnie Dunn, general manager of the Western Sydney-based Sweatshop Literary Movement, said.

“It’s predominantly Assyrian and Vietnamese communities, and because she’s from the North Shore I just think that disconnect will be overwhelmingly difficult for her to bridge.”

“It’s much more important to have somebody who represents the community, who’s able to speak the language, who ideally grew up in the community who understands its nuances.”

Lower house switch opens path to future leadership

Some members of Labor’s right faction are angry that Mr Hayes decided to try to endorse Ms Le back in March, arguing he had no right to try to act as a kingmaker or name his replacement publicly.

Mr Albanese said Senator Keneally’s pre-selection was a matter for the NSW branch of the Labor Party, but he stressed that he looked forward to her contribution in Parliament “well into the future.”

Presuming her move to the lower house is successful, Senator Keneally will play a prominent role and is likely to now be one of several people mentioned in leadership chatter, should the party fail to win next year’s election.

She led the New South Wales state Labor Government to a landslide defeat in 2011 and in 2017 unsuccessfully contested the federal Sydney electorate of Bennelong at a by-election.

She was appointed to the Senate to replace Sam Dastyari in 2018. As NSW premier, Senator Keneally represented the state seat of Heffron, which takes in the inner-city Sydney suburbs of St Peters, Tempe and Alexandria.

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