When Kristina Keneally was catapulted into the leadership of the NSW Government in December 2009, a friend commented to me that NSW Labor must know they’re heading for disaster – “they’ve put in a woman as Premier and a woman as Deputy.” The inference was that the party was going to let the women go down with the sinking ship.
Certainly, and as I’ve commented on this blog before, deeply unpopular state governments in this country have shoved women to the front as a last-ditch tactic – Carmen Lawrence in WA and Joan Kirner in Victoria. Keneally’s predecessor, Nathan Rees, by all accounts a decent man and an effective politician, failed to either ignite the party with his leadership or address the causes of the rotting core of the apple. As Premier, Keneally has cut the core out, but having done so, finds herself with very little of the apple left.
Like most observers of things political, I think NSW Labor is heading for a pounding on 26th March. There will be a few interesting seat-by-seat competitions*, but Labor has seen the writing on the wall, not to mention the numbers in the polls, and has already entered what sporting teams euphemistically call, the ‘rebuilding’ phase. In her campaign address, Keneally anticipated the ‘time for a change’ theme by pointing out that the change has already occurred. And it’s true – the face and faces of the NSW Government since she assumed the leadership have changed, but the fact that so many of those faces disappeared due to scandal, conduct unbecoming, misappropriation and preemptive resignations does not necessarily presage a fresh start. If NSW Labor was a football team, it would go to the bottom of the league table, sack its coach, elect a new board, lose most of its big name players to retirements or better teams and start again by recruiting fresh, young talent. This, effectively, is what is happening.
The interesting thing about Keneally is that, if asked to come up with an archetypal political leader to appeal to mainstream Australia, she would come pretty close to the model. Attractive, athletic, practicing Catholic, conservative, mother of two, articulate, down-to-earth – even her American accent is a sort of mid-Pacific patois that is becoming more and more typical among young people raised on a diet of American TV and culture (don’t believe me? Hang around any university coffee shop for a couple of hours and just listen). Her credentials as an Australian, other than her citizenship, an Australian husband and two Aussie kids, include being the niece-in-law of one of Australia’s most admired authors, Thomas Keneally. Despite leading a party that lurched between scandal and bad headline, for the first six months of her premiership, Keneally led her opposition counterpart, Barry O’Farrell, as preferred premier in the polls. But ultimately her popular appeal could not counteract the dead weight of the party.
Despite the polls pointing to a Labor wipe-out and the fact that Sportingbet is currently offering odds of $9.00 on an ALP win to $1.04 on Liberal, I am unwilling to think of Barry O’Farrell as ‘Premier-in-waiting’ just yet. The NSW Opposition has a remarkable talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as they did in 2007, and it is yet unclear what the Liberal policies are on some of the issues over which Labor has been so loudly criticised – like energy, for instance. We have a Labor Party selling off the public energy assets while the Liberal Party says the government should have kept them under public ownership but the fact that O’Farrell has not put his policy on the table gives some cause for concern. Likewise, Labor’s transport policy has been a disaster, but there is no indication from the Opposition as to how it will be fixed.
I do not believe that Labor will win government in NSW in March, but under the optional-preferential electoral system it is likely that we will see a handful of independents and minor party members forming a voting bloc that may have considerable clout. A hung parliament? There’s a lot of that going around at the moment. Over the next few weeks I’ll have a look at some of the indies and minors worth watching.
As for Kristina Keneally, I hope she remains in parliament after the March election, as leader of the ALP or not. She alone has lent some dignity to the last year of the Labor demise and I believe she is entirely genuine in her attempt to reform the party, but as a sportswoman, she must know that a spell at the bottom of the ladder awaits.
*Interesting article by The Australian’s Peter Brent on the seat of Monaro – currently held by Labor’s Steve Whan since 2001. Whan is a popular local member, he is currently Minister for Primary Industries, Emergency Services and Rural Affairs and has strong local links – his father was the member for the federal seat of Eden-Monaro during the Whitlam government. Such things do count in country electorates.
Cartoon by Warren from The Punch