Tu Le says Labor ‘learned the hard way’ after Kristina Keneally loses safe seat

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The would-be candidate who Labor looked over in its disastrous bid to parachute former senator Kristina Keneally into the seat of Fowler says the party has “learned the hard way” that voters want genuine representation, suggesting she would have won the seat.

As Labor looked set to win majority government on Sunday, Fowler, a previously safe seat in Sydney’s south-west, had bucked the national trend by producing a 16% swing against Keneally in favour of local independent Dai Le.

Keneally was installed as the party’s candidate in the seat, despite living on Sydney’s affluent northern beaches, as part of a factional deal to avoid a fight with her Labor right colleague Deborah O’Neill over preselection for a winnable spot on the NSW Senate ticket.

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

Backed by Labor power-brokers, the deal upset the plans of Tu Le, a Vietnamese Australian lawyer from western Sydney who had the backing of retiring Fowler MP Chris Hayes and planned to run for preselection.

The decision was widely criticised because Keneally was not from the area and did not reflect the seat’s high-level of ethnic diversity.

After Keneally conceded on Sunday, Tu Le told the Guardian both major parties had been taught a lesson about the importance of listening to local communities, likening Keneally’s loss in Fowler to the teal wave which swept through the Liberal party heartland at Saturday’s election.

“There’s obviously a lot of lessons to be learned here and I think all parties need to think twice about these decisions they make,” she said.

“Overall I think it was a fantastic result for the ALP and it’s unfortunate what has occurred in Fowler. But if this is what it takes for us to actually listen to local community voices then I think sometimes it is a lesson that has to be learned the hard way.

“Even in the campaign, you never see the leader of a party visit Fowler” as Albanese did in the final week of the campaign, she said.

“Ultimately I think the community benefits from that and really the community has won in this case because they made their voices heard very clearly and sent a clear message [that] you can’t take us for granted,” she said.

The independent who won the seat, Dai Le, said she believed Labor had been punished for its “arrogance”.

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

The loss in Fowler sparked immediate recriminations in the New South Wales Labor party, with one senior MP telling the Guardian there was “no doubt” Tu Le would have won the seat.

Related: Labor victory means Murugappan family set to return home to Biloela

While Tu Le said she didn’t want to “dwell on the past”, she said: “I think I would have had a high chance of winning it.”

Part of that, she said, came down to the fact that Keneally’s controversial preselection had elevated Fowler to a national story, and had prompted Dai Le to run.

“I think there is a good chance Dai Le would not have run if I was the candidate,” she said.

On Sunday Sally Sitou, who won Labor for Reid, another seat in Sydney’s west, said the party needed to “reflect” on the result in Fowler. Sitou, the child of Chinese Australian migrants, said her victory showed there “ought to be a place for people from different backgrounds in our parliament”.

Tu Le agreed, telling the Guardian it would have “absolutely” mattered that Keneally did not reflect the high level of diversity in Fowler.

“I don’t think it happens the same in any other similar democracy where you just have outsiders with absolutely no connection to the local community coming in and representing them,” she said.

“It should be a given.”

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