Independent who beat Kristina Keneally in western Sydney seat says Labor was ‘arrogant’

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP</span>
Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

The independent candidate who defied a national swing towards Labor by defeating Kristina Keneally in the formerly safe seat of Fowler in Sydney’s south-west says the party was punished for its “arrogance” in parachuting the former NSW premier into the seat.

As vote counting continued on Sunday, the party’s abject showing in Fowler marked a stunning outlier to the national result.

As results across the country pointed to the increased likelihood of a majority Labor government, Keneally looked set to lose the seat to independent Dai Le.

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On Sunday evening, she Tweeted a concession, saying that “at the end of today, it seems that Labor will not claim victory in Fowler”.

“I congratulate Dai Le and wish her well. Thank you to the people who voted Labor & the volunteers on our campaign,” she wrote.

“And congratulations to Albo & Labor - a better future for Australia lies ahead.”

It marked an abject loss in a seat Labor would have usually been expected to retain easily, but with 75% of the vote counted, Keneally’s primary vote had gone backwards by 18.6%.

Labor had suffered a 16.3% swing against it, enough to lose a seat which the party has held continuously since 1984 and went into the election holding with a 14% margin.

Li, the deputy mayor of Fairfield and a former state Liberal party candidate, said even she had been surprised by the size of the swing against Labor, but said she believed it was a sign that voters felt “insulted” by the decision to impose Keneally onto the seat.

Independent Dai Le has won the seat of Fowler.
Independent Dai Le has won the seat of Fowler. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

“I think the ALP was arrogant. They took us for granted and just thought, ‘it doesn’t matter, we can put anyone there and those people are stupid enough to vote for us’,” she told the Guardian.

She said she campaigned on local issues – such as healthcare and roads – but also that issues such as the difficulty of accessing small business support during the lockdown for people from non-English backgrounds had been a huge issue in what is one of the most diverse electorates in the country.

“The candidate was completely opposite to the values, and to the makeup of the electorate,” she said.

“During the lockdowns there was a divide drawn between western Sydney and the northern beaches and eastern suburbs. We were the ones in the hard lockdowns. People remembered that. They felt it. And then Labor decides to bring someone in from the northern suburbs to represent us. Can you imagine? It was a slap in the face. People were insulted. I had people come up to me who had voted Labor their whole lives who were just so angry.”

The decision to parachute Keneally into a highly diverse, working-class seat despite living on affluent Scotland Island in Sydney’s northern beaches was also criticised at the time by the retiring MP Chris Hayes, who had championed local lawyer Tu Le as his preferred successor.

After the result on Sunday, Hayes told the Guardian he stood by the criticisms he made at the time.

“I made my case out for Tu Le some time ago but Sussex Street had a different view than me and the rest is history,” he said.

“I still stand by the comments I made last year. Tu Le is a sensational young woman who would have delivered for her community.

“She’s not only a young woman who would have replaced me, but also in one of the most diverse areas in the whole country [we would have] showed our position as a party on multiculturalism by having a young woman of a diverse background.

“But that wasn’t to be. The community has certainly reacted in a very predictable way I think.”

Labor’s results in other western Sydney seats stood in stark contrast to the result in Fowler. Sally Sitou picked up the seat of Reid with an almost 9% swing, Andrew Charlton was able to hold on to Parramatta and won a small swing to Labor. In Bennelong, the seat held by retiring Liberal party MP John Alexander on a margin of 6.9%, Labor’s Jerome Laxale held a slim lead on Sunday with about 60% of the votes counted.

Sitou said on Sunday that the party should “reflect” on the results in western Sydney and the role that diverse candidates could play.

“I think that there’ll be things that we need to reflect on and certainly me winning Reid really lifts my spirits and makes me think that there ought to be a place for people from different backgrounds in our parliament,” she said.

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Asked directly about Keneally’s bid for Fowler, Sitou said it was something “that the party is going to have to look at”.

Her election in Reid, she said, was “a real demonstration that people want to see someone who reflects the community represent the community”.

Keneally’s likely loss sparked immediate recriminations within the NSW Labor party, with one figure saying the former premier should be “finished” in light of the poor result, noting the former NSW premier previously lost a 2017 byelection in Bennelong. Keneally did secure a 7% swing in the byelection.

Others however were more circumspect. Another senior Labor party MP said despite the poor result Keneally had “done everything she should have” during the campaign. The same MP said that Keneally’s result compared poorly against another candidate who was parachuted into a western Sydney seat – Charlton in Parramatta – because she was facing a prominent local independent rather than a genuine Liberal challenger.

“Having said that there’s no doubt Tu Le would have won the seat,” the MP said.

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