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Hidden behind the ugly preselection fight in the seat of Fowler is a factional battle over the Labor Party’s future leadership. By Karen Middleton.

Inside Kristina Keneally’s preselection battle

Labor’s preselection wars have exposed tangled rivalries and tensions in the party’s powerful New South Wales branch, dragging in unions, the party office, the federal leader and a growing line of aspirants hoping to succeed him.

The move to parachute senior Labor frontbencher Kristina Keneally from the senate into the safe lower house seat of Fowler has become a proxy war for future would-be leaders jockeying for position.

Keneally’s preselection for the Western Sydney seat involves two separate but intersecting sets of manoeuvres and some key shadow players in the background.

Keneally has displaced a 30-year-old local lawyer of Vietnamese heritage, Tu Le, who was recruited and publicly endorsed by the retiring incumbent, Chris Hayes.

The move has sparked a public fight about Labor’s commitment to diversity and a private fight between future leadership contenders.

Fowler is peculiar in that Labor has not had a rank-and-file preselection there for more than 30 years. Deemed vulnerable to branch-stacking because of its ethnic mix, it has had its candidates installed rather than elected ever since.

But Hayes’ anointing of Tu Le angered some Labor figures, who argue there was a lack of consultation. They point to similarly qualified candidates with longer histories in the party who were passed over.

Le spoke out this week, saying she was disappointed both for herself and for the missed opportunity to get a Vietnamese Australian into parliament.

“I think the issue is beyond me and it’s much more than the Fowler debacle that we have now,” she told the ABC. “I think it really is about an issue of representation and diversity and whether we are doing enough on those fronts.”

Labor MPs Anne Aly, from Western Australia, and Peter Khalil, from Victoria, also criticised the party’s failure to practise what it preached. Federal leader Anthony Albanese said Keneally was a “great Australian success story of a migrant who’s come here” from the United States.

“We’ll have a range of very good candidates putting themselves forward at the next election and it will be a team that I’m very proud of,” Albanese said, adding that Le would have “a bright future”.

While some have applauded Le for speaking up, others said she would enhance her future prospects in the party if she expressed disappointment and then quietly accepted the outcome. They point out that many now-prominent Labor figures did not win preselection at their first attempt.

One of those who took several tries, Ed Husic, is a close friend of Keneally and said she had a “proven ability to fight for the Labor cause” – a sentiment repeated by former prime minister Paul Keating. But Husic, Australia’s first Muslim federal MP, also said the party must do better.

“I think what needs to happen within our party is serious conversations,” he told Sky News, “taking a stocktake of what our membership looks like, what our parliamentary representation looks like, and what we need to do to make that change.”

That is the public debate. The private fight is at least as revealing about the state of Labor.

Hayes’ recruiting efforts were backed by senior frontbencher Tony Burke, who is close to Anthony Albanese.

The move to install Keneally was led by fellow frontbencher Chris Bowen and the party’s NSW general secretary, Bob Nanva.

Burke and Bowen each have good arguments in favour of their candidate. But both also harbour federal leadership ambitions.

Recruiting candidates helps add to a person’s numbers in future leadership spills – the oldest trick in the political book. But now all the players are seeking to distance themselves from the public mess.

Last week, Burke said Kristina Keneally “really needs to be a member of parliament”. But, he added: “If, in these conversations, a local community feels taken for granted, you make those decisions at your peril. So, working all of this through with the local community is going to be really important.”

Bowen said Keneally was a member of Labor’s “front row” and that “we also need our front row in the house of representatives”.

Moving to the lower house enlivens Keneally’s leadership ambitions, too. Prime ministers can’t govern from the senate.

When a fourth leadership aspirant, former deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, was asked on the ABC’s Insiders program if she backed the move, she declined to endorse it directly.

“I don’t have a vote in this decision,” she said, adding it was great to have so many strong female candidates. Colleagues interpreted that as not a vote in favour of adding another female candidate for the leadership.

Keneally’s shift to Fowler came about for two reasons.

She was interested in moving to the lower house, encouraged to do so by the likes of Keating.

But, more existentially, she was being relegated to an effectively unwinnable spot on the senate ticket and urgently needed somewhere to jump.

As the most recently arrived of the NSW Labor senate team up for re-election, she was to be in the third spot – likely unwinnable without a big swing in Labor’s favour – unless the national executive intervened. The left faction gets the second spot, the right first and third.

Labor generally protects its senior frontbenchers from preselection problems. Keneally is Labor’s deputy senate leader and a former premier. But nothing was being done.

The first senate spot was going to Senator Deborah O’Neill, the former MP for the Central Coast marginal seat of Robertson, who lost that seat in 2013 and then won union endorsement for the senate.

O’Neill has the strong backing of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association, or SDA. When Albanese took on the opposition leadership, Keneally displaced the SDA’s most prominent senate figure, South Australian senator Don Farrell, as the right’s nominee for senate deputy. The Shoppies, as they are also known, refused to support dropping O’Neill down the senate ticket in Keneally’s favour. The Australian Workers’ Union is also backing that position. On Thursday night, the NSW Right faction selected Chinese Australian Jason Yatsen Li for the third spot, after O’Neill and Senator Jenny McAllister.

Albanese had advocated publicly for Keneally to be in the No. 1 spot. He could have asked the national executive to override the ticket and install Keneally but didn’t. Some speculate he did not have the numbers to insist. Equally, the party could not afford to dump a high-profile frontbencher and former premier and Nanva had to resolve that.

It seems Keneally spoke to Nanva, Bowen and others, and the Fowler move was born. But it blindsided Hayes and Burke. It is not clear that Albanese knew of it either.

This week, various sources alleged that both O’Neill and Keneally had separately been given their senate positions on the proviso they would stay only a limited time. Both women deny any such deals.

Of O’Neill, they said she was supposed to run for her old marginal seat of Robertson at the following election – something then NSW Labor president Michael Lee, who was present at the meeting where her candidacy was sealed, says she did not agree to do.

Of Keneally, it was suggested she promised the right-wing unions to stay only three years in the senate. She denied this when contacted by The Saturday Paper.

What is clear is that Keneally had been promised a diplomatic posting – most likely ambassador to the United States – if Bill Shorten had won the 2019 election.

The underlying point in all these machinations is that there are many agendas at play in the Fowler furore, and diversity is only one of them.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 18, 2021 as "Inside Kristina Keneally’s preselection battle".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.