The unlikely journey of Kristina K.

From Toledo to Sydney via Poland: New South Wales's improbable, bike-riding American-born premier (© Illawarra Mercury)

“[A]lmost all of life is random,” Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan wrote in the book Bozo Sapiens. “If, forced by some higher power, you had to give a true account of how you came to be where and who you are, it would read like a chapter of accidents, in which the real skill was simply saying ‘yes’ to the right invitations, showing up for the better chances and being elsewhere for the worse.”

As we wander through life, we face small everyday choices that can sometimes lead to significantly different paths in life. A chance encounter can lead to a different career path or a new friendship — a path that might never had existed if one tiny choice, one tiny detail had been different.

Twenty years ago, it must have seemed unlikely that a young university graduate in a blue-collar Ohio town would go on to lay claim to one of the highest political offices in a foreign land 15,000 kilometres away by middle age.

This is exactly what happened to a young Toledo-area native named Kristina Kerscher, now Kristina Keneally, for whom a series of lucky breaks resulted in the intelligent and driven young woman from the Rust Belt becoming the leader of New South Wales, Australia’s largest state.

Kerscher’s first break in this unlikely journey came in the summer of 1991, when she attended the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in Poland.

It was there that a young Australian, named Ben Keneally, commented on the ring Kerscher was wearing.

Kerscher, by chance, was the daughter of an Australian war bride and her American husband who had settled in the United States years earlier.

The comment was the start of a romance that would lead Kerscher to relocate to Australia in 1994, move back to the States with her husband, where their son was born in 1998, and then back to Australia again.

When the now Kristina Keneally became a naturalized Australian citizen in 2000, there was still nothing to suggest that this transplanted American would become one of her new homeland’s top politicians in less than a decade.

It wasn’t her, but her husband, who had political ambitions. Ben Keneally had been an ambitious local politician in Sydney’s sprawling suburbia. He also had the benefit of a familiar surname as the nephew of Tom Keneally, one of Australia’s most famous writers and author of Schindler’s List.

But when he met with several powerful figures in the Australian Labor Party in 2002 to assess his chances of securing the party’s nomination in his constituency, he was given bad news. He would not only have to fight an incumbent who happened to be the sister of Laurie Brereton, a former federal cabinet minister who continued to enjoy “political warlord” status around Sydney; but that he would also be handicapped by Labor’s affirmative action policies for female candidates.

Instead of throwing in the towel, Ben Keneally suggested his American-born wife Kristina, who had become involved in Australian Labor politics as a constituency functionary, as an alternative.

With a combination of charm, political experience as a former Democratic political staffer in Ohio and as a Labor party organizer in Sydney, and a life path that was decidedly different from that taken by most Australian politicians, she soon won over local party organizers who were willing to help get her into the New South Wales state legislature.

She embraced her new homeland, having previously renounced her U.S. citizenship, and took advantage of Brereton’s temporary absence from the country to run against the incumbent.

Though Brereton had rushed back to Australia to try to save his sister’s political career, it was too little, too late. Kristina Keneally was duly nominated as the party’s candidate for a seat in the NSW state legislature.

Though she went on to be elected in 2003, she still faced four years of backbencher obscurity before being tapped for a secondary Cabinet post by then-premier Morris Iemma in 2007 .

Though Iemma had only been premier for two years, he was already nearing the end of his time in office. Since party leaders are elected by the caucus — unelected party members have no say — caucus members also feel free to dispose of any leader who has become unpopular or inconvenient.

Thus, the typical Australian first minister spends only three years in office before moving on, in stark contrast to the 8.9 years that the typical (or median) 20th century Manitoba premier spent in office.

By that standard, Iemma’s departure came right on schedule in 2008, when the premier emerged the loser from a factional battle and promptly resigned.

Nathan Rees, the young and athletic Water Services minister emerged as the new premier in 2008 despite having less than two years’ experience as an elected politician. But by late 2009, he was struggling with sagging popularity ratings and ongoing intra-party fratricide.

When he tried to remove one of Keneally’s early political sponsors in a reorganization, a move to oust Rees began to take form.

As had been the case in the Sydney suburbs in 2003, Kristina Keneally’s run for Premier offered something different in 2009.

When it came time for the caucus to choose between Rees and Keneally for the party leadership in late 2009, they decided to pin their hopes on the girl from Toledo, Ohio who had become a rising political star in Australia by way of a chance encounter at a Catholic youth rally in far-away Poland.

After becoming Premier in 2009 at age 40, Keneally’s poll numbers soared — at least temporarily — raising hopes that she might be just the person to keep NSW’s Labor dynasty, first elected in 1995, in office for another term.

Scandal and controversy caused her poll numbers to drop precipitously, however. When New South Wales voters go to the polls on March 26, polls suggest that, save for a miracle, the girl from Ohio — the “Catholic feminist with [an] American twang” according to Sydney’s Daily Telegraph — will become the ex-premier at the ripe old age of 42.

At age 42, Keneally’s strange adventure is likely far from over. Some have suggested that she could still have a promising future in Australian federal politics. Or doing any number of things that ex-premiers go on to do, from becoming ambassadors — the Australian embassy in Washington would be a logical choice — to pursuing a business career.

That future is for her and her family to sort out.

But it’s been a hell of a ride, one that reminds us that it’s the sheer randomness of life that makes it fun, and that just “being there” — anywhere — can make all the difference in the world.

Given the choice between staying put and getting out there and experiencing the world, consider the choices carefully but choose the latter as much as possible. You never know who you’ll run across or what adventures it will lead to.

Sources:

Love and loss on the way to the top – the real Kristina Keneally. The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), March 11, 2011.

Wikipedia: Premiers of New South Wales

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

4 Responses to The unlikely journey of Kristina K.

  1. Marty Gold says:

    Helluva story!

  2. cherenkov says:

    I concur with Marty. Great story! Well told.

  3. W. Krawec says:

    That is quite a fascinating story, and yes, a strong argument in favour of getting out there and experiencing the world.

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Marty, Cherenkov and Walter for the comments!

    It is an interesting story indeed.

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