Labor Senator Kristina Keneally is proving to be an electoral asset for Labor on the campaign trail. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
Labor Senator Kristina Keneally is proving to be an electoral asset for Labor on the campaign trail. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Attack dog ripping into Labor’s rivals

IT WAS the first moment in the election campaign where Bill Shorten looked really chuffed.

Electric cars, somewhat unexpectedly, had become the first battleground of the campaign. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was proclaiming that Labor's target for electric car sales, to make up 50 per cent of the market by 2030, would see tradies forced to give up their utes.

At a press conference last week, the Opposition Leader duly defended Labor's plan. But Mr Shorten left it to a relatively new senator to land the killer blows. Step forward Kristina Keneally.

As she spoke she produced a series of photos detailing the Coalition's apparent love for electric cars.

"Here he is, Joshie (Frydenberg) - hanging out by some electric vehicles," she said as Mr Shorten's smile began to broaden.

Bill Shorten couldn’t contain his amusement when Kristina Keneally laid into the Coalition over it’s electric car attacks last week.
Bill Shorten couldn’t contain his amusement when Kristina Keneally laid into the Coalition over it’s electric car attacks last week.

When she laid into Liberal MP Jason Falinski, saying he "hadn't been on the cutting edge of anything since he came out of the womb", Mr Shorten was so amused, he had to use his hand to muffle his chuckles.

A few days later, Ms Keneally also stole the show. But this was all fury, no wit.

Asked about Liberal Peter Dutton's criticism of the Labor candidate for his seat, Ali France, who he had claimed was "using her disability as an excuse" to not to buy a house in the electorate, Ms Keneally let rip.

"Mr Dutton is a thug, Mr Dutton is mean, Mr Dutton is the most toxic man in the Liberal Party," she said.

Mr Dutton apologised an hour later.

SECRET WEAPON

Ms Keneally is not a shadow minister but nevertheless she has emerged as one of the most familiar faces on Labor's campaign - and the party's most formidable attack dog.

An expert in strategic communication said Ms Keneally could be Labor's "secret weapon" - at once humanising the somewhat wooden Mr Shorten, connecting with voters and showing up the Coalition's relative dearth of female frontbench MPs.

But there is a danger Ms Keneally's notable electoral losses could tarnish her brand.

Not well known outside NSW, Ms Keneally took over the senate seat vacated by Sam Dastyari in February 2018.

Before that she was a minister in various NSW Labor governments before taking on the role of state premier between 2009 and 2011.

Despite leading Labor to a landslide defeat in 2011, Ms Keneally was able to resurrect her political career. She built a national profile as a Sky News presenter and took a tilt at the 2017 by-election for the seat of Bennelong in Sydney's north.

She lost that electoral battle too - although she increased Labor's vote. But it was a fight that brought her national attention. Just months later, in early 2018, she was drafted into the senate.

Now she's accompanying Mr Shorten in Labor's big red battle bus.

Kristina Keneally was NSW Premier from 2009 to 2011.
Kristina Keneally was NSW Premier from 2009 to 2011.

SHOWING UP THE GOVERNMENT

Latrobe University strategic communication lecturer Natalie McKenna told news.com.au Labor had very deliberately put Ms Keneally centre stage. Her role was to reach out to a target market the Coalition had alienated in some ways - women.

"She's confident, a bit funny, a bit nasty, she's taking the piss and that's quite attractive to some voters," Ms McKenna said.

"A confident, funny women is something the Government are clearly lacking in so (Ms Keneally) is attractive, especially to women who like that in their female politicians.

"Julie Bishop was a large part of the last few elections as the confident, well-spoken, intelligent women and the audience likes that. Now that someone is in the Opposition."

Ms McKenna said Ms Keneally could be a "secret weapon" for Labor in the campaign.

"If you think about prominent Labor figures, it's Bill Shorten, Tanya Plibersek and I think they are trying to bring Kristina Keneally into that."

Her high profile in the campaign has also helped her widen her brand beyond NSW.

Labor and Kristina Keneally fought fiercely, and with some humour, to try and win the Sydney seat of Bennelong off the Liberals in a 2017 by-election. But to no avail. Picture: John Feder
Labor and Kristina Keneally fought fiercely, and with some humour, to try and win the Sydney seat of Bennelong off the Liberals in a 2017 by-election. But to no avail. Picture: John Feder

WHAM

Putting her so close to Mr Shorten was very deliberate. No one other than Mr Shorten himself has been a more frequent presence on the "Bill bus".

"Bill Shorten could defiantly improve his communication skills, especially on camera. She is humanising him," Ms McKenna said.

Ms McKenna noted a video released by Labor filmed on the campaign coach that seemed to catch the pair in a more relaxed moment between engagements. They discuss Bunnings, Footloose, the band Wham and generally mock one another.

"That video is one of the cleverest I've seen in some time. It was absolutely brilliant. They're seen as approachable, there's a very Australian mateship there," Ms McKenna said.

"And '80s pop music is very relatable to Gen X; nothing in that video is a mistake.

"They come across as the colleagues you'd like to have."

But however off-the-cuff it may have looked, the lecturer said Ms Keneally's presentation was constructed and packaged. Snippets of her attacks are edited by Labor and set free on social media, perfect to be shared among an audience that might not watch the evening news.

With the departure from parliament of Julie Bishop, the Liberals are lacking a female heavy hitter who can connect with the public. Picture: Kym Smith
With the departure from parliament of Julie Bishop, the Liberals are lacking a female heavy hitter who can connect with the public. Picture: Kym Smith

Ms McKenna said there were a couple of other politicians who also managed to cut through with the audience - and their names might surprise you.

"Alan Tudge (Liberal MP for Aston in Melbourne) is not the most obvious person but he's done a lot in the local community, he posts a lot on social media and his brand is very much the guy next door, the local dad and he comes across as quite genuine even if he isn't out there in the media," she said.

Her second pick? Clive Palmer from the United Australia Party.

"He's an amazing brand. His whole strategy is to be the king of the memes and young people see him as an exemplar when it comes to the use of social media," Ms McKenna said.

But can Mr Palmer still be a positive brand when he his Townsville refinery closed, causing hundreds of people to lose their jobs? Yes, said Ms McKenna. From her observations, many people who see Mr Palmer's social media may know little about his business dealings.

Kristina Keneally has rarely been far from with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as she accompanies him crisscrossing the country on the battle bus. Picture: Kym Smith
Kristina Keneally has rarely been far from with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten as she accompanies him crisscrossing the country on the battle bus. Picture: Kym Smith

DANGER

Ms McKenna said while Ms Keneally was highly visible right now, things can move quickly.

Her political losses in NSW could be used by the Coalition to take some of the sheen of her character. She didn't have to face a public vote to take her Senate seat.

And Labor will be furiously using focus group and other analytical tools to gauge if she really is resonating with voters.

"It could be an issue for her. Labor will be testing her out and seeing how the feedback goes and if she's not being received well by the public, they will change their approach," Ms McKenna said.

If she's still doling out cutting one liners in a month's time, take it as read that the feedback came back with a big tick.

And if Labor goes onto win the election that could mean Ms Keneally is a shoo-in for a major role.

Kristina Keneally (left), who for a time had a show on Sky News with former PM Tony Abbott’s press secretary Peta Credlin. Picture: Tim Hunter
Kristina Keneally (left), who for a time had a show on Sky News with former PM Tony Abbott’s press secretary Peta Credlin. Picture: Tim Hunter
She’s got a sense of humour, sure. But don’t mess with Kristina Keneally. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
She’s got a sense of humour, sure. But don’t mess with Kristina Keneally. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch


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