Fresh female face of fatigued NSW politics


Kristina KeneallyUpon the defeat last week of NSW Premier Nathan Rees, Kristina Keneally became NSW Labor's first female leader and the first female premier for NSW.

NSW has had few female MPs: there are 1933 former male MPs but only 52 females. NSW has trailed other states and the commonwealth on almost every measure of women's achievement. The Northern Territory has had a female First Minister and the ACT has had two. WA, Victoria and Queensland have had female premiers. In NSW, only Rosemary Foot, who became Liberal Deputy in 1983, set an Australian record for women in politics.

In the States, only Anna Bligh in Queensland has retained government at an election. Perhaps this explains why some observers think women tend to be handed the leadership when no-one else wants it.

Another cynical explanation for women being installed as leaders is that men have made a mess and the housewives and mothers of politics are expected to clean up after them. Well, male premiers have been shaping NSW for over 150 years, so Keneally must clean up after 41 predecessors.

What is certain is that it would be unfair to expect any woman to decline a position, especially when women seldom get a second chance. In her memoir Chika, Kerry Chikarovski described the exhilaration and terror of having an opportunity to lead the party. She believed that women must take chances. If nothing else, it should make the way easier for those who come after.  

Keneally's Catholic faith has been noted, but her relative youth and inexperience seem more significant. She is two weeks short of her 41st birthday. Only Nick Greiner (Liberal premier 1988–1992) was younger on attaining office, and he had won an election. According to David Clune and Ken Turner in their book on 20th century NSW premiers, the average age was 51.

Clune and Turner note that the time of waiting as an MP averaged 15 years, but has been falling. Since Neville Wran, who attained office in 1976, the average time of waiting for premiers was just eight years. Keneally has been in parliament for six years and a minister for one. She has not been a member in opposition.

Indeed, it might be lack of experience outside government that makes so many Labor MPs in 2009 seem unappreciative of the privilege they seem determined to lose at the 2011 election. 

The new premier and her supporters have begun emphasising the need to rebuild trust in government. Since Prime Minister Howard campaigned in 2004 on trust, Raimond Gaita in Breach of Trust and John Uhr in Terms of Trust have explored this concept in some depth.

Gaita distinguishes between a politician claiming to be trustworthy in the sense of being predictable or reliable, and the moral connotations in claiming that you can believe what she says. Uhr distinguishes 'trust-as-consistency' from 'trust-as-integrity'. The first member of the pairs focuses on delivering responsible outcomes, whereas the second is about honest means. Ideally the two are inseparable.

Defeated premier Nathan Rees had attempted to make a clean start without the negative influence of right wing powerbrokers. But when he secured State Conference approval to choose his own Cabinet and demoted Joe Tripodi in particular, one delegate described Rees as 'dead meat'.

Keneally did not reinstate Tripodi and is continuing with the legislation designed to address corruption or perceptions of undue influence by taking developers' donations out of election campaigns. These are important steps in establishing consistency and independence from factions, but they suggest that Rees was already on the right path and cast doubt on the need to replace him.

Some left wing trade unions have threatened to withdraw support from the ALP because of the treatment of Rees. Keneally will also know that should Rees leave parliament, a by-election in Toongabbie would be such a disaster that her support within the party could disappear overnight.

Keneally could be correct in claiming that she has lots of policy ideas that will benefit the people of NSW. She is certainly a fresh face for a fatigued party. It remains to be seen whether she can meet expectations.

With an election due in March 2011 she has little time to secure the sorts of policy achievements that might make Labor re-electable.

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney. 

Topic tags: Tony Smith, Kristina Keneally, NSW politics, Labor, Tony Abbott, female politicians, catholic, Rees



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Existing comments

I asked Keneally then Minister for Planning at a Redwatch Meeting earlier in the year (Redwatch is a community group engaging with Redfern Waterloo development and heritage issues) as to whether the Metro Strategy (the blueprint for Sydney) was a planning strategy or a political strategy, in making the observation that development seemed to be going into areas that avoided a backlash, such as into areas that are blue chip liberal like the upper north shore, or in areas tending to 'green' and she replied - of course we are not fools.

Perhaps so but a foolish admission when the question of her integrity arises.

bruce lay | 08 December 2009  

On the one hand, Grameen Bank prefers to make loans to women, on the rationale that women make more productive use of the funds and that there are less defaults.

On the other hand, slavish faith in her (male) predecessor caused Anna Bligh to pour $600 million of scarce taxpayer funds down the hole that was the Traveston Crossing dam proposal, so that the Q State is now too broke to fund restoration/reparation.

Bligh's holiday host and board member of civil contractor Thiess, was Bob Hawke's (female) Minister for White Boards.

Bligh's Brain, Mike Kaiser, is now helping facilitate the National Broadband Network for a mere $450,000 per year.

How many nursing scholarships are foregone to pay Mr Kaiser his $450,000 per year?

How many nursing scholarships will never be created because $600 million was mislaid in the Traveston mire?

Could the Grameen Bank and its customers have made better use of this $600,450,000?

David Arthur | 08 December 2009  

A ‘waiting for something to happen’ comment from Tony Smith perhaps? Some cynics may say that Kristina Keneally is a pale distant shadow of Nancy Astor [nee Langhorne] [1879-1967], the first woman to take her seat [December 1st 1919] in The British House of Commons – but not the first elected. Constance Markiewicz, a Sinn Fein activist doing time in Holloway Prison holds that distiction.

Some cynics may also say that despite the apparent energy of the moment Kristina Keneally will not survive NSW ALP machine’s career assassins for long if she breaks the strings that bind her to the Terrigal Clan. Whichever way the bottle spins I am reasonably sure that she will quickly discover that ‘Pioneers may be picturesque figures, but they are often rather lonely ones’ as indeed Nancy Astor did – to her sorrow. In any event it is too late for the NSW Labor.

Dermott Ryder | 08 December 2009  

In paragrapgh 7 Smith claims Kenneally has "been a minister for one(year)". This is incorrect. She became a Minister immediately after the March 2007 election.

Smith's 1970s hyperbole about cleaning up the sins of 41 male predecessors when you easily could have equally said that she has inherited the successes of 41 male predecessors is a distraction from enabling us from concentrating on the real problems.

To quote Chikarovski is certainly interesting too. She probably set back the cause of women when she led her party to a complete drubbing at the 1999 election after an abysmal campaign. (Even her chief backers Photios and Phillips lost their seats.)

Perhaps Kenneally is the Chikarovski that the NSW ALP had to have from he who must be Obeid!

Paul Crittenden | 08 December 2009  

I don't think Kristina will be any shining light, coming from the right of the ALP. NSW is in a mess & I don't think neither the alp or liberals can fix it. A new broom all round is required

Peter Hood | 12 December 2009  

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