Belinda Neal: a one-woman political phenomenon
The truism goes a politician should wear out a couple of pairs of shoes in the lead up to an election, but for the Labor Member for Robertson Belinda Neal, her best strategy for a last-ditch bid at career salvation would be to stay indoors and put her feet up.
You see Neal has a way of alienating people that’s unique for a back bencher in the Federal Parliament, especially one who took her seat by just 184 votes at the last election.
And now the ALP has a big decision to make. Turf out a sitting member married to one of the most powerful men in the NSW division, or stay with a candidate so deeply unpopular senior party figures think she’ll be annihilated come Federal Election time. It’s more complicated than it sounds.
March 6 looms as Neal’s D-day in the party, and The Punch headed to Robertson on the NSW Central Coast for a few days last week and was surprised to find a little hint of benevolence among voters for the woman nicknamed the Member for Iguanas.
We turned up in Gosford the day the Daily Telegraph splashed with a story claiming Neal offered to help an elderly ALP pre-selector move up the surgery waiting list in exchange for her vote.
Neal has denied it, and quite a few people we spoke to had trouble working out why the story was on the front page of Sydney’s biggest newspaper.
In fact Sue Tyrrell, the 3rd generator proprietor of Mannings Sports, said in her view Neal’s scandals were a media obsession, not a local one. Tyrrell described the now famous incident at Iguana Joes down the road as “a bit of a laugh”, and in the case of the most recent allegations, she’d give the local member the benefit of the doubt.
In spite of the Shooters Party poster in the front window of the shop, Tyrrell said she’d voted Labor at the last election, and would probably do so again this time.
The thing is, Tyrrell said she’d never had any dealings of her own with Neal. Those who have tell a different story.
The biggest problem The Punch could detect was in the under 25s – they all know each other, and they all know someone who was working at Iguanas the night Neal and her husband, NSW Minister John Della Bosca, had their run in with staff.
While The Punch was browsing for a new pair of pants in a clothes shop in Terrigal, Mel, 22, took time out from serving customers to explain how her entire social network wouldn’t vote for Neal in a pink fit.
Having served the sitting member herself a number of times she said her reputation for rudeness and arrogance was well-deserved, and pretty much nothing Kevin Rudd could say or do would be enough to convince Mel to put a 1 next to Neal’s name on the ballot paper.
Every other Gen-Y type The Punch spoke to agreed, and all of them seemed to know someone, who knows someone, who was at Iguanas on that night in June 2008. (Neal hasn’t been back since, which must drive her mad. Iguanas is a 7 minute stroll from her electorate office and is a great place to kick back with a beer and gaze out on Brisbane Water.)
Belinda Neal is not the first politician to be called rude and arrogant. But somehow it’s become a national story.
The Greens candidate Peter Freewater told The Punch Neal surviving pre-selection was the best thing that could happen to his chances of making it into the Federal Parliament.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be saying that because I don’t want to encourage the Labor Party to throw her out,” Freewater said. “Belinda Neal is the best thing to ever happen to my political career.”
The Liberal candidate Darren Jameson is quite sensibly keeping his mouth shut. It would certainly appear to be in the Liberal Party’s best interests to keep Neal on the hook.
(Although on the Liberal’s website there’s a piece quoting state director Mark Neeham calling for the ALP to dump Neal.)
The local FM morning crew on Star FM have started referring to the surf-lifesaving cop Jameson as “superman,” and The Punch can envisage the multiple photo opportunities for Jameson and his leader Tony Abbott in their sluggos on Terrigal Beach.
Every Superman needs a Wonderwoman, and many have their hopes pinned on local academic Deb O’Neill.
O’Neill is the only one challenging Neal (yes, the Neil/O’Neill thing is going to get annoying) for the ALP pre-selection. And after this weekend, when a large chunk of Neal’s branch members were ruled ineligible to take part in the ballot, she must be feeling pretty confident.
Neal didn’t have to face pre-selectors when she got the seat, having been parachuted in by the party’s top brass in a bunch that included Maxine McKew in Bennelong.
O’Neill, a 49-year-old mother and academic, is certainly very personally appealing and is selling a strong message of politics being about engagement with people. It’s pretty clear she’s up for to wearing out a few pairs of her own high heels if she wins on March 6.
She went close to wining the state seat of Terrigal away from the Liberal’s Chris Hartcher in 2003 and is under no illusion about what’s required to have such a slim margin go her way.
But predicting the outcome of pre-selections is a mug’s game. This one is up to 170 individuals with who knows what loyalties and allegiances.
Why does any of this matter to anyone outside the electoral boundaries of Robertson?
Herein lays the Belinda Neal phenomenon. She’s bigger than the 170 members of the ALP who’ll choose between her and O’Neill on March 6 to be their candidate at the Federal Election.
She’s bigger than the 95,000 or so people enrolled to vote in Robertson.
Somehow a woman who has no executive role in the Government and whose scandals by comparison to many others are relatively low level, has become a stain on Kevin Rudd’s copybook.
The fall out from the kerfuffle at Iguanas is that Neal is viewed nation-wide as being demonstrative of a certain type of politician who’s in it for power, not public good.
And a Government, which is currently struggling to defend its level of competence and ability to deliver on promises, can’t afford that kind of reputation.
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