Kristina Keneally snuck up on John Alexander and Julie Bishop while he was campaigning in Eastwood Mall with Julie Bishop. Pic Nick Moir 15 nov 2017 Kristina Keneally snuck up on John Alexander while he was campaigning in Eastwood Mall with Julie Bishop. Pic Nick Moir 15 nov 2017
The farce of federal politics deepened yet again on Wednesday when the Bennelong byelection began with an ambush at Eastwood Mall.
“I feel you’re stalking me,” incumbent John Alexander joked when he bumped into his challenger, Kristina Keneally, just minutes before his scheduled media appearance was due to begin at noon.
Ms Keneally laughed off another joke from her rival about government being more fun than opposition before capping off the encounter with a comeback: “We’ll see how that goes for you”.
Labor shook up the byelection on Tuesday with the announcement of Ms Keneally as its candidate. The former premier has a national profile and name recognition that could turn the election into a referendum on an unpopular Prime Minister.
The Liberals were poised to return serve with some star power of their own on Wednesday, with a visit from the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. A recent poll showed more voters would prefer her to be in charge than the current PM.
But they were beaten to the punch at Eastwood Mall, when Ms Keneally began to hold her own press conference in precisely the spot Liberal minders had spent the morning staking out. They quietly fumed about an ambush.
Ms Keneally denied such tactics, while finding time to throw in a dig at her opponent, who says he is “temporarily” residing outside the north-west Sydney electorate and in Bondi while he scouts for new digs.
“I can’t speak for them,” she said. “But I do think Mr Alexander and Ms Bishop looked a little uncomfortable by the fact that two local residents … came up and spoke to them but that’s their problem.”
There was just one problem, a journalist pointed out. Ms Keneally is not herself a local.
“It’s technically, through some changes, been renamed Hunters Hill,” she said of the wealthy suburb she calls home, which she stressed was only 800 metres outside the electorate on the wrong side of Pittwater Road.
But Ms Keneally was keen to point out that she works and shops in the electorate: “I go to the gym [here].”
Minutes later and standing in the same spot, Ms Bishop addressed identity issues too, specifically those that caused Mr Alexander to resign over the weekend, as he too was caught up in a widening citizenship crisis, after he was unable to prove repeated assurances he was not a citizen of Britain by descent.
Within 30 seconds of rolling, Ms Bishop twice described Mr Alexander, a former international tennis champion whose father was born in Britain, as a “proud n”.
In the end, it was clear that the battle for Bennelong, a seat swapped between both major parties in the past decade, was more of a pitched battle about the records of two governments.
One is federal and currently in power, and one was a state government, led by Ms Keneally until it was routed in the 2011 election.
“The [federal] government’s no good,” Ms Keneally said.
But the words could have just have easily come from Ms Bishop’s mouth, albeit in the past tense.
“Bill Shorten has parachuted a former failed Labor premier in,” Ms Bishop said. “One of her first acts as Premier was to put Ian Macdonald in cabinet ??? he is now in jail.”
Ms Keneally called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to explain to local residents why power prices had risen so sharply under the state Liberal government. But what about under her own?
“Across all states and territories power prices went up,” she said.
The election is on December 16. The Liberals hold the seat on a two-party-preferred margin of 9.7 per cent.