ANALYSIS

Labor faction fight in Kristina Keneally's move to NSW lower house seat of Fowler

Senator for New South Wales Kristina Keneally. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Senator for New South Wales Kristina Keneally. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

There's one thing Labor does not like to talk about and that's how much unions and factions still run the party.

High profile, cut-through member of Labor's leadership team, Kristina Keneally is moving to switch chambers to give much needed grunt to Anthony Albanese's lower house team.

She is a former NSW premier and an "accidental senator", thanks to the 2016 double dissolution election and Sam Dastyari's political implosion, but the jostling for seats and positions ahead of the next federal election is being seen as open brawling and a considerable power play by the unions.

It is public and getting ugly. She is also renowned as a Labor team player and insiders say it is time to return the favour and back her when needed. Some Labor MPs are telling The Canberra Times it should not have come to this. And there are expectations of a backlash in Western Sydney.

There has also been a move by the powerful Health Services Union in NSW to withdraw support from the NSW right faction in protest against Senator Keneally's nomination for Fowler.

Senator Keneally is a popular, 20-year political veteran up - like many others - for re-election, but as Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate she was not guaranteed the top spot - or any other guaranteed winnable spot - on the NSW senate ticket, a situation regarded by one federal member as "remarkable".

Senator Keneally entered the upper house in 2018, taking Mr Dastyari's position. Importantly, he was elected in 2016 when more seats were up for grabs in the double dissolution full Senate election, but the re-election crunch has come now. Unless there is a landslide in the upper house vote, only two NSW senate seats are expected to go to the ALP.

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It is a bottleneck and the powerful NSW Right faction, which controls the state branch, has moved to resolve it.

The NSW Right again wanted top Senate spot for backbencher Deb O'Neill. Senator Keneally is also in the Right faction and backed by Chris Bowen, but importantly the "Shoppies" union, the SDA, supports Senator O'Neill. The leading SDA figure in NSW is the Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke. The second Senate ticket position goes to Labor's Left, in this case Senator Jenny McAllister.

Senator Keneally could have run against Senator O'Neill, but she did not. The Canberra Times has been told by numerous sources that "this is the way" of the NSW Right and that it is also the choice of the former premier.

Solving one problem created another. Kristina Keneally had to find a lower house seat. She gained significant ground in the 2017 Bennelong by-election, but ultimately failed against John Alexander.

With his looming retirement ALP whip Chris Hayes opened the field for his culturally diverse Western Sydney seat of Fowler, which takes in the suburbs of Cabramatta, Liverpool and parts of Fairfield. Anyone preselected gets a gift of safe margin of around 14 per cent. Hayes had openly anointed young Vietnamese-Australian lawyer Tu Le, while Mr Albanese has campaigned with her despite not being preselected.

Ms Le is disappointed and has told reporters that Senator Keneally's move is a missed opportunity to engage with the Vietnamese-Australian community in the electorate.

But, sources say promises were given by people not able to give promises.

And Mr Hayes and his family are not letting it go. His brother Gerard Hayes, who just happens to be HSU NSW secretary, has announced the union will split from Labor's Right faction in protest. It will not go to the left, it will be unaligned and will vote as independent in the upcoming ALP state conference.

Senator Keneally lives in the Northern Beaches but is looking to move with her husband into the electorate. Her statement on Friday says she was approached by ALP branch members to run in Fowler.

"I am humbled by this encouragement," she said.

"In recent days I have had many conversations with branch members in Fowler and others in the local community, and I have been touched by their enthusiasm and support."

"Serving this community, living in this community, and fighting for them is what I want to do."

It is understood that the party machine wants Senator Keneally in Fowler and it will most likely happen. Preselection in Fowler is not a rank and file matter anyway, as the electorate has had historical issues with branch stacking.

Most of Labor is understood to be confused and just watching how this all plays out. The move is not universally popular, despite the popularity of Kristina Keneally. There's worry about how it will play out at the next election.

Apart from anything, it is a gift to the Morrison government. When the focus should be on it and its handling of the COVID pandemic, Labor is again talking about itself.

This story 'This is the way': the factions and ructions in Keneally's lower house play first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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