Kristina Keneally has a message for the Liberal warriors trying to torpedo her bid for Bennelong by tying her to the corruption of former Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid and his cronies.
“If that’s the best you can do, go for your lives,” she tells Fairfax Media with a laugh.
“I’m not fussed by it. Go and read the transcripts: they clearly show my actions and my integrity. Geoffrey Watson, the special counsel for ICAC, called me an ICAC hero. If the Liberals think they can make something out of that: knock yourselves out.”
While Labor polling shows the former NSW premier begins the byelection battle well behind – 44 to 56 on two-party-preferred terms – the government is taking no chances in light of the star candidate’s nomination, and has instantly launched an all-out assault on her record and integrity.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, whose majority is threatened if the former NSW leader turned television celebrity beats former tennis champ John Alexander on December 16, said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was behind her in the same way Obeid once was.
“The voters of Bennelong should back John Alexander, a great local member who has delivered in every respect for his community. He knows them, they know him. He is an n champion and he has been a champion of Bennelong,” he said.
“Don’t let Kristina Keneally do to Bennelong what she did to New South Wales.”
Other senior Liberals also entered the fray, with Health Minister Greg Hunt declaring: “Kristina Keneally fought for Eddie Obeid. John Alexander fought for on the international [tennis] courts.”
But Ms Keneally – convinced to stand at the byelection by a “persuasive” Mr Shorten at the weekend – said it was a familiar refrain.
“I’ve had plenty of my male political opponents try to suggest that somehow I’m not my own person. Well you know what guys, have a ball,” she said. “I’m proud of my record; I’m proud of my efforts. And I’ll stack them up against any of theirs anyday.”
Obeid was last year sentenced to five years in prison for misconduct in public office. His votes were key to elevating Ms Keneally to the NSW premiership in 2009, and she subsequently promoted Ian Macdonald – also later jailed for corruption – to cabinet.
But she proved a popular leader in her own right even as the government she led fell to pieces and was then demolished by NSW voters in 2011. She went on to be described as a “credible and conscientious” witness when she testified against Obeid at ICAC.
Ms Keneally wants to put all that behind her and talk about issues biting locally: cuts to services, the cost of higher education, the troubled NBN rollout.
She accepts she’s the “underdog” but believes she can prevail.
“We start out well behind in this race and we have a lot of ground to cover. But I wouldn’t put my hand up, Labor wouldn’t be putting its energy into it, if we didn’t think that it was winnable,” she said.
“I’ve had quite a number of offers to stand in safer seats, to take Senate vacancies. But I always felt it would be better to see someone come up through the ranks.
“But this is a really unique circumstance: a byelection in my own community; an opportunity to send a message loud and clear that the Turnbull government is atrocious; and quite possibly the chance to change the balance of power within the Parliament.”
First, she will resign from her job at Macquarie University – avoiding potential disqualification under section 44’s “office of profit under the crown” provision. She will also leave her job as a current affairs commentator at Sky News but may return if she loses the byelection.
While the 48-year-old was born a US citizen, she renounced her foreign allegiance in 2002, before she first ran for NSW state parliament.
Mr Alexander resigned from the seat on Saturday, days after Fairfax Media revealed he was likely to be a British dual citizen. He is now scrambling to renounce his foreign ties so he can recontest the seat, which he holds on a margin of close to 10 per cent.