Kristina Keneally to take Sam Dastyari’s Senate spot

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Bennelong Kristina Keneally address Labor supporters at the end of last year's byelection. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Labor candidate for Bennelong Kristina Keneally address Labor supporters at the end of last year's byelection. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally has put her hand up for the Senate spot left vacant by disgraced senator Sam Dastyari, after her two main rivals for the coveted job dropped away, in what one Labor insider called a "s---fight".

There were three possible candidates for the Senate spot, which belongs to the Centre Unity, the powerful Right faction of the NSW party - Tony Sheldon, the powerful and well-respected boss of the Transport Workers' Union, Kristina Keneally, the charismatic former premier and recently unsuccessful candidate for the Bennelong byelection, and the outside-chance contender Tara Moriarty, an official with the United Voice union.

"I have today indicated to the Labor Party my interest in the Senate vacancy," Keneally told Fairfax Media on Wednesday.

"I am humbled to be considered and look forward to further discussions within the Labor Party.

"Over the coming days I will be speaking with rank-and-file members of the NSW ALP and affiliated trade unions to the Labor Party to seek their support.

"I respect the ALP's nomination process and will work within it to earn the backing of our party's members and the affiliated trade unions."

Traditionally the spot has gone to the state party's general-secretary – Dastyari was a former NSW Secretary, as were his senate predecessors Mark Arbib and Matt Thistlethwaite.

But it is understood the current General Secretary (and the first woman to hold the job) Kaila Murnain, wants to fight a NSW election campaign before she considers moving into political candidacy.

So the ultimate decision was to be made by Murnain, in consultation with the Right-faction affiliated unions, such as the Australian Workers' Union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees' Association, and the Transport Workers' Union.

Sheldon was the unions' preferred choice, with his deep passion for campaigning and his pugnacity. The spot was understood to be his if he wanted it, but according to one Labor insider, it was unclear if Sheldon was interested in being a member of parliament, and if he was, he would be more likely to hold out for the next general election, when a plum six-year senate spot will be available on the NSW Labor ticket.

At a press conference on Wednesday about recent fatal truck crashes, Sheldon said he had not put his name forward "at this point" to make a "formal nomination". Later he said: "I haven't made a decision about my nomination, potential nomination, as yet."

Moriarty is seen as a solid performer but not frontbench material, and is more likely to be offered a seat in the NSW upper house, insiders say.

Which left Keneally as the last woman standing. AAP reported on Wednesday she was facing pressure from "influential unions" not to stand, and even her allies say she will be open to the sorts of attacks made on her during the Bennelong byelection - that she was elevated to the NSW premiership with the support of some of NSW's most notoriously corrupt politicians, Eddie Obeid and Ian MacDonald.

As one Labor insider put it: "There is no suggestion she's corrupt but she was the beneficiary of that position with the support of some questionable people."

Obviously the warriors of the NSW right have decided that line of attack is worth weathering, given the star power and vitality Keneally will bring to federal parliament.

Keneally paid tribute to Dastyari's "commitment to public service and passion for the Labor cause" and wished him well.

"It was Sam's dogged pursuit of the banks and his advocacy for their victims that forced the Turnbull government to create a banking royal commission," Keneally said.

"His intellect and energy will propel him to make contributions in future to building a fairer and more equitable Australia."

Official nominations for the spot close this Friday. Next month a joint sitting of the NSW state parliament will endorse the new senator.