Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 17 March 2022


Once more in politics, we have serious allegations being levied by friends of a dead woman. This time, however, it concerns Labor.

Phillip CooreyPolitical editor

One of the many to offer condolences over last week’s tragic and sudden death of Victorian Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching was the Dalai Lama.

In a letter to Kitching’s husband Andrew Landeryou, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people expressed his sadness at the death of “our good friend”.

“Senator Kitching was a steadfast supporter and a friend of the Tibetan people,” he said.

Kimberley Kitching, left, put noses out of joint in the Labor hierarchy. It was an open secret that Penny Wong, among others, did not like her.   Alex Ellinghausen

“As you know, I had the opportunity to meet her when she visited Dharamsala in 2017 with a delegation of parliamentarians.”

There are not many MPs, let alone obscure backbenchers, who would receive such a shout-out from one so distinguished, especially someone who had spent such a short time in Parliament.

She left an admirable legacy for an opposition politician, let alone a backbencher and junior shadow minister.

This column does not pretend to have known Kitching as well as others, but even from a distance, it was always passing strange that the better she performed, the more she seemed to be marginalised.

It was always passing strange that the better she performed, the more she seemed to be punished.

Kitching had variously been demoted, shifted sideways and ostracised – and, at the time of her death, was fighting for her preselection. She had an underlying health issue but her closest friends and colleagues believe the treatment she received, especially the preselection uncertainty and threats, was a contributing factor.

Despite her impish and deferential demeanour, Kitching was tough and determined, and knew how to fight the factional game. What she would make of assumptions of such frailty we’ll never know, but those who knew her best say she was stressed.

What has happened in the wake of her death has not just exposed long-running fault lines inside the ALP, but allegations of behaviour that, had it occurred inside the government, would have sparked a national pile-on on the Prime Minister.

Once more in politics, we have serious allegations being levied by friends of a dead woman. This time, however, it concerns Labor.

Kitching died from a suspected heart attack, aged just 52. She had been in Parliament only since 2016, when she filled the casual vacancy created by the resignation of Stephen Conroy.

In Parliament to make a difference

From the outset, she was targeted, especially by the Left, by virtue of being a close friend of then Labor leader Bill Shorten, who used his authority to parachute her into the Senate.

However, it soon became apparent Kitching was there to make a difference, not serve as some Right factional drone whose sole purpose was to vote for Shorten against Anthony Albanese, should push come to shove.

Not since an impatient and ambitious Kevin Rudd entered Parliament in 1998 had there been such “impertinence” from a backbencher on foreign policy.

Late last decade and early into this one, when Labor was adhering firmly to the Keating doctrine on China, Kitching was a vocal and early critic of an increasingly sinister Beijing, be it its human rights record in Tibet or against the Uighurs, or its growing regional belligerence.

Factional allegiance to Bill Shorten

As has also been well-documented over the past week, she pushed hard, despite internal resistance, for laws to enable the sanctioning of foreign human rights violators, only to have her thunder stolen by foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong when the push became a global cause célèbre.

These same Magnitsky sanctions, as they are known, are now being used by the government against Russian oligarchs.

In short, Kitching was targeted because of her factional allegiance with Shorten, her apparent undermining of Wong and other superiors, her close working relationships with many conservatives who shared her national security concerns, and her ability.

Right to the end, she was defiant. Less than a month before she died, she broke ranks by naming under parliamentary privilege a Chinese businessman as the person anonymously accused by ASIO boss Mike Burgess the week before of trying to corrupt Australian democracy.

Asked by a journalist why she had done so, she responded: “Sometimes you have to do the right thing, sovereignty has to count for something.”

Keen on domestic issues, too

She was, as her friend and journalist Rob Harris wrote, a patriot.

Kitching was also a strong performer on domestic issues, especially in Senate estimates. As spokeswoman for government accountability, it was Kitching who raised the issue of Australia Post executives being gifted watches, something which caused Scott Morrison to lose his composure and demand the head of then chief executive Christine Holgate.

This backfired badly for Morrison. Kitching’s reward was to be moved out of her portfolio, which was given to Kristina Keneally.

Kitching put noses out of joint in the Labor hierarchy. It was an open secret that Wong and Labor Senate deputy leader Keneally did not like her, and that Albanese was indifferent at best.

The basic allegation being levelled at Wong and Keneally is that they bullied a colleague, while Albanese turned a blind eye, all of which contributed to her death.

The response from those subject to the allegations has been to not engage in an unedifying brawl so soon after Kitching’s death.

Awkward aftermath

“Now they’re saying it’s disrespectful to say how they disrespected her,” says one of Kitching’s friends.

The situation has become so awkward that Wong, who by virtue of being Senate leader would be expected to attend the funeral, confirmed she would do so only after first contending she had fundraising obligations in the Northern Territory.

Albanese has sought to wash his hands of the preselection imbroglio in Victoria that left Kitching hanging in the breeze, despite the fact the ALP national executive has been running the Victorian division since a branch-stacking scandal in 2020.

Albanese has already instructed the executive to rubber-stamp the preselections of lower house MPs in Victoria, but not Senate candidates.

Kitching had been left to swing amid efforts to oust Albanese’s sworn enemy and veteran senator Kim Carr.

The Opposition Leader’s discomfort was evident on Wednesday when he took umbrage at Kitching’s reported description of Wong and Keneally as “mean girls”, saying it was a disrespectful term for women so accomplished.

Bunkum. “Mean girls” is a mild pejorative women tend to use against other women, derived from an iconic teen comedy/drama of the same name that satirised the clique mentality of girls in high school USA. It’s about as offensive as “boys’ club”.

Scott Morrison, who would be subject to demands for an inquiry had this occurred in his ranks, suggested Albanese put a process in place. No chance of that, especially so close to an election.

This week has shown us that the so-called culture of bullying is not confined to any one political party. It’s another reminder of the danger of throwing stones.

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