Inside Story

Softening the blow

American-born Sara Dowse traces the career of American-born NSW premier Kristina Keneally

Sara Dowse 18 November 2010 3096 words

Kristina Keneally speaking at a union seminar last month. Unions NSW/Flickr

“Off with her head,” the Queen of Hearts cried, and only through the King’s kindness was Alice spared. Such was the case in Wonderland, but there’s not much kindness in New South Wales, or rabbits to pull out of hats, though there’ve been a fair few rats.

Premier Kristina Keneally, blonde as Alice but queenly in demeanour, is bound to have her head chopped off when voters go to the polls. The one salvation Keneally might hope for is that voters will see the opposition for the dismaying alternative it is. But this is beyond unlikely – right now voters don’t care. Labor must go. With a strong field of independents running and the Greens expecting to do well, it’s just possible that New South Wales, like Tasmania and Australia federally, will end up with a hung parliament. Even then, no one can remotely envisage Labor as the minority government.

Well before Keneally became premier, the party’s standing in the electorate was so poor that her predecessors had either decamped or been quickly decapitated. Bob Carr resigned as voter patience began running out. His successor Morris Iemma came across as a nice family man, if not the quick study Carr was, and managed against considerable odds to persuade voters to give Labor another chance in 2007 – a success that was due in large measure to the lamentable opposition. But three years later, after failing to privatise the state’s electricity and without the support of his party, Iemma resigned.

A “paradigm” had been set in place: the infamous revolving door of NSW Labor politics. Nathan Rees, a member of the Left faction and Iemma’s hapless replacement, tried to clean up the government by purging it of some of its least liked members, in particular the Right’s puppet-master Joe Tripodi. White-anted from the start, Rees lasted only fifteen months. This is when Keneally was installed. While it’s patently clear that no one ever expected her to win the March election, the hope has been that she will soften the blow. The real question is why she was willing to gulp from such a poisoned cup.

As this annus horribilis comes to a close, Keneally can look back on at least one disaster for each calendar month. There’s been a flood of personal scandals and resignations, nearly impossible to keep track of, including the media’s outing of David Campbell, and his eventual resignation, John Della Bosca’s retirement, and the charges of domestic violence against two MPs, one of them Phil Koperberg, the retiring member for the Blue Mountains. There’s the ongoing ICAC inquiry into Angela D’Amore’s alleged misuse of electorate office funds and the recent announcement from Diane Beamer that she won’t be on the ballot in 2011. Kerry Hickey, Alison Megarrity and Barry Collier also announced that they won’t be contesting, and since I started writing this article more have withdrawn from preselection.

Keneally has played her part in all of this, as a last-ditch effort to make way for new, desperately needed talent. Over the past five years cabinet has shed many of its most competent members. Bob Debus, for instance, retired after Iemma’s election and entered federal politics; his replacement, the above-mentioned Phil Koperberg, formerly the popular Blue Mountains fire chief, is now going too. It’s true that Labor needs new blood but, under present arrangements, it’s difficult to imagine where they’ll get it.

Instances of general government neglect and indifference have been legion, with transport issues leading the field. Public–private roadworks such as the Cross City and Lane Cove tunnels have had to be bailed out; CityRail has rolled out a futile series of new train schedules in an effort to ease peak-hour congestion. For the sixteen years Labor has held office no fewer than fifteen separate traffic plans have been announced, none of which has been implemented. (The incredulous public response to the Gillard–Keneally announcement during the federal election of an Epping-to-Parramatta railway line was a measure of just how cynical voters in New South Wales have become.)

Public hospitals have also been allowed to run down. Highly publicised incidents of unnecessary deaths have been attributed to overworked staff turning away serious cases, and at least two women have miscarried in hospital toilets while waiting to be admitted. The problems have been piling up for years but the government hung on for years by manufacturing spin. Some have even ventured to call New South Wales a failed state and, while this is doubtless hyperbole, most people living here feel that we’re inching towards the edge.

Over the years I’ve watched with interest as Keneally, keeping her head low, took on different portfolios – ageing, disability services, then infrastructure. One reason for my watchfulness was that she was born an American, like me, and was forced, as I was, to give up US citizenship on becoming an Australian. This is neither an easy nor a simple thing to do. Keneally became a naturalised Australian in 2000, four years after arriving here and three years before she entered NSW parliament as member for the state seat of Heffron. At the time, it was necessary for her to surrender US citizenship.

Changes in US law in the 1990s and changes in Australian law in 2007, however, mean that it’s now possible to hold dual citizenship; I was able to restore my American citizenship the year that Keneally surrendered hers. It’s conceivable that once the NSW government is voted out, Keneally might want to review her position, but not if she intends to remain in public office. Only an Australian citizen can sit in an Australian parliament, and the United States in turn bars its citizens from working in a policy role for a foreign government or holding office in a foreign state.

Australians seem to have softened to the idea of Americans generally, and certainly to one of their number being so prominent in Australian public life. When Keneally’s origins are mentioned it’s frequently as a curiosity, and mostly with approval. The question of her accent almost never comes up. (It may have something to do with television or with my having been here so long, but over the decades the differences between American and Australian accents seem to have blurred.) In any case, Keneally’s mother and grandmother were born in Australia, so the accent wasn’t unknown to her, and nor was the idea of Australia.

But adapting to a new country is difficult, and NSW Labor politics might still have come as quite a shock. Keneally appeared a little gung-ho and naive in her earlier portfolios, like an innocent who had mistakenly wandered into dangerous, alien territory. She seemed uneasy in media conferences, and never gave the impression that she might go as far as she has. But she progressed steadily through the ranks until she reached the powerful position of planning minister, a portfolio formerly held by Frank Sartor, who ran it like a fiefdom, batting off local councils like so many pesky insects and gaining an unenviable reputation in the process. Ironically, it was Rees who promoted her, in a bid to clean up the government’s image. As planning minister she acquitted herself well enough, fending off accusations that she was no less compliant with developers than her predecessor, and little of the mud that was thrown at her then has stuck.

When the party chose Keneally for premier no one believed that it was anything but a desperate bid to shore up the government’s sinking fortunes. After all, it wasn’t the first time a woman had been given the leadership of a seemingly doomed government. She was the cleaner-upper – the woman left holding the baby, one is tempted to say. It’s a pattern that was set with Carmen Lawrence’s ascendancy to the Western Australian premiership in 1990. In the wake of the “WA Inc” scandals, she replaced the sitting premier, Peter Dowding, Brian Burke’s successor, but was unable to turn the electorate around and was defeated at the polls in 1993. In 1995, the Victorian Labor government was in marginally better shape when Joan Kirner became premier, but its fortunes were fading fast. Manufacturing was shrinking, unemployment was high, the deficit was ballooning. After a year of Kirner’s leadership, during which she was subjected to some of the most vitriolic abuse ever dished out to a female politician, voters elected Jeff Kennett.

That sort of treatment of a woman premier seems less likely today. Earlier this year, in an attempt to establish his shaky feminist credentials, Tony Abbott wryly remarked that he lived in a state with a female premier and a female governor, and in a country where a female prime minister was sworn in by a female governor-general. Keneally has drawn swords with Gillard recently over the federal-state workplace agreement, but as far as I’m aware no one has described it as a catfight. If image is reality, then we’ve come a long way.

But while we no longer think it remarkable that women are elected to high office, can we honestly suggest they’re in power? Admittedly, politicians of either sex find it hard to wield true power, as the “shellacking” Barack Obama took in the US mid-term election shows very vividly, but the position Gillard and Keneally were put in almost guaranteed defeat. If it remains to be seen how Gillard fares, it is almost certain Keneally will fail. A recent Newspoll has the NSW Labor government with an approval rating of 23 per cent – the lowest since polling began – and Keneally’s popularity has taken a dive as well.

When she took over as premier Keneally was maligned as the tool of Labor Right powerbrokers Joe Tripodi and Eddie Obeid. As the axe had begun to fall on his well-exposed neck, Rees had warned that any successor of his would be no more than their puppet. Given the way things work in New South Wales and the fact that Keneally’s husband Ben was known to be a friend of Tripodi, this was not a farfetched supposition. But as Keneally has famously said, she is “nobody’s girl.”

Earlier, in the lead-up to Morris Iemma’s demise, and perhaps still under the impression that the government was independent from the party, Keneally had joined other cabinet members in attacking the NSW party machine. But that was before she was elevated to the premiership, and how independently she has operated since then is yet to be fully assessed. Certainly she had the Right’s backing when she challenged Rees, and she has recently capitulated to that wing of the party by reneging on Gillard’s workplace agreement; but without the support of the unions she hasn’t a prayer of preventing a bloodbath next March.

But politics is a two-way street and, like any ambitious politician, Keneally seizes her opportunities. When attacked for some jiggery-pokery that took place on her watch as planning minister, she exhibited impressive parliamentary debating skills, and soon after becoming premier she blossomed as a media presence. In those two arenas – the bear pits of NSW parliament and the news media – she has continued to excel, and her panache did a bit to freshen up the government’s image in the opening months of this year.

But in the end she hasn’t been able to change the party. Former NSW education minister Rodney Cavalier, who became what might be called the party’s Jeremiah after his defeat in 1988, has written a searing analysis of its accelerating implosion in his new book, Power Crisis. Cavalier points to several reasons for the seemingly terminal decline: a drastic drop in the number of branches and overall branch membership; the plethora of staffers with no experience other than working for the party or as union officials and no other motive save the desire to become MPs and eventually ministers; and the obdurate union control of the party’s annual conference, with affiliated unions guaranteed 50 per cent of the conference vote, resulting in the Right’s dominance and politicians hostage to its patronage. Having lost a significant number of individual members – those all-important people who leaflet letterboxes and hand out how-to-vote cards – NSW Labor relies on union money and the sweat of union members to get elected.

What it would take to change all this, Cavalier argues, is a parliamentary leader willing to take on both the unions and the party executive, as Whitlam did federally after Labor’s defeat in 1969. But this would take time, and planning, and persuasion. On the face of things it doesn’t seem likely that Keneally would mount such a challenge. She may not even know enough of the history.

Despite Cavalier’s rather low opinion of her, it’s important to note that Keneally doesn’t fit the mould of the Right-dominated, perks-crazed minister. (Nor, to be fair, do other Labor MPs, such as Carmel Tebbutt or Verity Firth or Rees himself, to name some, but they do seem to be in the minority.) Before her 2003 preselection for Heffron, Keneally was a full-time mother, active in the party branch and the local community, certainly, but no union apparatchik. Her mentor, she claims, was John Watkins, the highly respected deputy leader under Iemma, in whose campaign office she once worked. Her public commitment to Catholicism has lent further credence to the belief that she’s beholden to the Right, but this has been misleading. As she would have it, Keneally’s libertarian Catholicism has more in common with the activism of the Berrigan brothers in the United States or Archbishop Romero in El Salvador than with the variety espoused by Sydney’s Cardinal Pell.

As well as her Catholicism, Keneally has another defining characteristic that might give her reserves of strength. Curiously enough, the fact of her not being Australian-born might be a more profound key to her character than merely a quirk of her biography. When she spoke at a recent ceremony marking the acknowledgement of the Euroa people in the NSW constitution, her thanks to them for “welcoming this American woman into their families” was plainly heartfelt. She has worked with indigenous people, and credits her stint teaching First American children in New Mexico as one of the defining periods of her life.

Her youth in Toledo, Ohio, might have been influential as well. Slightly larger than Canberra, Toledo, or “Glass City,” is on the southwest tip of Lake Erie and smack in the middle of some of the most productive agricultural areas in America. Until the onslaught of globalisation it was a significant port and manufacturing centre. While we in New South Wales are ready to believe that nothing could be worse than the fix we’re in, the situation in Ohio, the centre of the US rust belt, is arguably just as bad. Ohio has always been an important American state, something of a bellwether for the nation, with a political landscape delineated by its rural–urban divide. John Boehner, Republican leader in the federal House of Representatives and soon to be House speaker, hails from Ohio and represents the suburban-rural sector; Democrat Dennis Kucinich, one of the House’s most steadfast liberals and twice contestant for presidential nomination, represents the state’s tenth congressional district. As an active Democrat in Toledo, an intern on the staff of Ohio’s lieutenant governor Paul Leonard, and for a time a member of the Teamster’s Union, Keneally couldn’t have been a total stranger to the rough and tumble of state politics.

“Rough and tumble” would certainly characterise her preselection and, for all her protesting, it’s difficult to credit that her success in gaining the seat was anything other than the kind of machination Cavalier rails against. The sitting member at the time was Deirdre Grusovin, sister of Labor heavyweight Laurie Brereton and stalwart supporter of Franca Arena, a prominent crusader against the pederasty she claimed to be rife among parliamentarians and members of the judiciary. With her unsubstantiated accusations, Arena did quite a bit of damage, and her relentless campaigning resulted in one well-known suicide.

Bob Carr, who was premier at the time, was determined to rid the parliament of both Arena and Grusovin. The machine was set in motion and Kristina’s husband, Ben Keneally, an active party member and prime parliamentary material, was widely believed to be the choice for Grusovin’s replacement. But before this could happen, feminism intervened. The party’s affirmative action policy discouraged replacing Grusovin with a male, and Kristina stepped up to the plate.

So, one reasonably tough cookie. In fact it was Keneally’s angry response to Cavalier – her suggestion, perhaps correct, that he doesn’t know what to make of “modern women” in politics – that prompted this article. We 1970s feminists often ask ourselves what went wrong – how so many of our prayers have been answered but not quite as we’d imagined. The dream back then was to change the way that politics works, how governments are run, how societies are ordered. Of course, we were radicals, and it would be grossly unfair to measure our female politicians by these standards, or to be dismayed by how well they conform to the demands of power politics. Still, it would be nice if we could vote for a woman knowing that she stands for something better.

And the wider significance for Labor? Despite the stoush between Keneally and Gillard over the workplace agreement, and Gillard’s more honourable stance in it, there’s no use in pretending the NSW disease has been quarantined. The events of 2010 have shown just how deeply federal Labor is infected. Senator Mark Arbib, architect of the revolving door and key facilitator of Rudd’s replacement by Gillard, has been promoted to the federal ministry; Karl Bitar, a one-time head honcho in New South Wales whose fetish for polls and focus groups has been denounced by no less a person than Greg Combet, remains the party’s national secretary.

As far as one can fathom (my requests for an interview have been rejected), Keneally has been okay with this; and with rumours she’s to be rewarded with a seat in federal parliament, I suppose she’s had little choice. Come the debacle in March, she may lose her head, though perhaps not her place in the unfolding saga of Labor’s sad decline. •