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Jeff Kennett

Jeffrey Gibb Kennett AC (born 2 March 1948), Australian politician, was the Premier of Victoria from 1992 to 1999. He is also the current Chair of beyondblue (the National Depression Initiative) and President of the Hawthorn Football Club. On 24 June, 2008, he announced that he would be stepping down from his role at beyondblue.

Early life

Kennett was born in Melbourne on 2 March, 1948, and educated at Scotch College. Kennett was an unexceptional student academically, but did well in Scotch's Cadet Corps Unit. His failure to rise above the middle band academically almost led him to quit school in Fourth Form (Year 10 - 1963), but he was persuaded to stay on. His Fifth and Sixth Forms were an improvement, but he was still described in school reports as "[a] confident and at times helpful boy. Sometimes irritates. Sometimes works hard" (1964), and "[a] keen, pleasant, though sometimes erratic boy" (1965).

Leaving school, Kennett was persuaded by his father Ken to attend the Australian National University in Canberra, but lost interest and dropped out after one year of an economics degree. He returned to Melbourne and found work in the advertising department of the retail giant Myer - kindling an interest for advertising that would one day earn him his living.

Kennett's life in the regular workforce was cut short when, in 1968, he was conscripted into the Australian Army. Kennett was singled out as 'officer material' early in his career, and graduated third in his class from the gruelling Officer Training Unit (OTU) Scheyville, near Windsor NSW, outside Sydney. He was posted to Malaysia and Singapore as Second Lieutenant, commander of 1st Platoon, A Company, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR). This military career (and his earlier experience in the Scotch College Cadet Corps) has been noted by many biographers as an essential formative influence on the adult Kennett's character. His sense and regard for hierarchical loyalty, punctuality, and general intolerance of dissent or disobedience may be traced to this period. Mr Kennett's stint in the Australian Army was not the success it has been portrayed in sections of the media. Mr Kennett was not promoted to Lieutenant or indeed Captain during his service, many of his peers were.

Kennett returned to civilian life in 1970, reentering a deeply divided Australian society, split by the Vietnam War, of which Kennett was a firm supporter. Having returned to Myer, Kennett became impatient with his work, and so with Ian Fegan and Eran Nicols, he formed his own advertising company (KNF) in June 1971. Thereafter, in December 1972, Kennett married Felicity Kellar, an old friend whom he had first met on the Number 7 tram on the long trips to school. Their first son, Ed, was born in 1974, followed by a daughter Amy, and two more sons, Angus and Ross.

Political career

Interested in local politics since the early 1970s, Kennett was elected as a Liberal Member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Burwood in 1976. His preselection for the seat reportedly irritated then Premier Rupert Hamer, who disliked Kennett's campaigning style, and had endorsed the sitting member, Haddon Storey. Entering the government of Dick Hamer, Kennett was soon appointed as Minister for Housing, Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in 1981. He retained this post when Hamer was replaced as Liberal leader and Premier by Lindsay Thompson in June of that year. Following the defeat of the longstanding Liberal government in 1982, Kennett was the leading candidate to replace Lindsay Thompson, and on 26th October, he was elected Leader of the Liberal Party, despite being the youngest member of the outgoing Cabinet. He was an aggressive Leader of the Opposition, and was much criticised for his "bull-in-a-china-shop" style and his populist anti-government rhetoric.

Kennett's performance as Opposition Leader is a subject of debate. Economou sees his 1985 and 1988 election campaigns as weak, while Parkinson believes he was a significant asset in pushing the Labor government of John Cain in several key seats.. Whether judged a success or not, Kennett soon faced a challenge to his leadership of the party - from Ian Smith. Kennett survived easily, but increasingly, he seemed an erratic and unapproachable leader. He faced two more challenges to his leadership in 1986 and 1987 respectively. In 1987, in one notable incident Kennett referred to the Federal Liberal leader John Howard using colourful language in a mobile telephone conversation with Howard rival Andrew Peacock. The car-phone conversation damaged both Howard and Kennett, but aided Peacock in his push to return as Federal Liberal leader (1989).

Toward the end of its second term the Cain government had endured some loss in support and the Liberals were considered a good chance of winning the 1988 election. When Cain was returned with a small but workable majority, Kennett was again criticised within his own party, and in 1989 he was deposed as leader and replaced by Alan Brown, a little-known rural Member of the Legislative Assembly. A furious Kennett described Alan Hunt, the instigator of the coup, as "a man never to be trusted". He publicly pledged never to attempt a return to the Liberal leadership, but when Brown proved unable to challenge the government effectively, he allowed his supporters to stage a shock party-room coup and restore him to the leadership, unopposed, in 1991.

First Term as Premier

Given the parlous state of Victoria's finances and the inability of the ALP to deal with billions of dollars in debt, Kennett was seen from the beginning of his second leadership stint as 'Premier-in-waiting'. The Liberals (in coalition with the National Party of Australia) won the October 1992 election in a landslide as a result of the public's disillusionment with the Labor government. In the second-largest landslide in history, the Liberals and Nationals attained a 34-seat majority in the Victorian Parliament and were thus uniquely placed to govern with little restraint.

In office, Kennett immediately instituted one of the most radical budget-cutting and privatisation programs undertaken by any Victorian government, in an effort to improve the State's economy. Having assumed office, the need for such radical action was reinforced when Kennett and his new Treasurer Alan Stockdale discovered that the outgoing Labor government had left them with $2.2 billion budget deficit, a net public sector debt of $33 billion and budget sector debt of $16 billion. To combat this debt, some fifty-thousand public servants were retrenched between 1992 and 1995. Moreover, in the first three years of the 'Kennett Revolution' (as the Premier himself came to term it), government funding for the public school system was slashed, with 350 government schools closed, and 7,000 teaching jobs removed. Other highly controversial moves included the sacking of 16,000 public transport workers in a major technological upgrade of the system, and the initiation of a huge scheme for privatisation of state-owned services, including the electricity (SEC) and gas (Gas & Fuel Corporation) utilities, as well as several prisons and other minor services. Between 1995 and 1998, $29 billion of state assets in gas and electricity alone were sold to private enterprise (for statistics, see Parkinson, Jeff, 1999).

In the wake of these changes, investment and population growth slowly resumed, though unemployment was to remain above the national average for the duration of Kennett's premiership. While the economic benefits were indisputable, the social cost of the Kennett reforms was questioned by many commentators, academics and those who suffered economically through the period of reform.

10 November 1992 saw the largest public protest in Melbourne since the Vietnam War, with an estimated 100,000 people marching in opposition to the retrenchment of so many workers and the massive budget cutbacks. A further spur to protest was the imposition in early 1992 of a poll tax of $100 on each Victorian household. Kennett was notably undeterred by this outrage, and famously commented that though there were 100,000 outside his office that day, there were 4.5 million who stayed at home or at work.

It is difficult to assess the merits or otherwise of Kennett's 'Revolution' in his first term, as many (including Auditor-General Ches Baragwanath) estimate that the true value of the reforms will not be apparent until well into the 21st Century.

The Kennett government also embarked on a series of high-profile capital-works projects, such as the restoration of Parliament House (never completed), construction of a new $250 million Melbourne Museum, and a new $130 million Melbourne Exhibition Centre (still known colloquially as 'Jeff's Shed'). Other projects, made possible in monetary terms by the early cutbacks and budget restructuring, included a $160 million expansion of the National Gallery of Victoria; $100 million for refurbishment of the State Library of Victoria; $65 million for a new Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre (MSAC); and $130 million for the construction of a new civic square on the site of the old Gas and Fuel Buildings, to be known as Federation Square. The poaching of the Formula 1 Grand Prix from Adelaide in 1993 was a particular coup for Kennett, who had worked hard with his friend Ron Walker to reach a deal with Formula-1 boss Bernie Ecclestone over a period of months.

The most controversial project of the Kennett era was the $1.85 billion Crown Casino, a gambling and entertainment centre on Melbourne's Southbank. Initial plans for a casino had been made under the Labor government, however the tendering process and construction occurred under Kennett. Allegations of financial inconsistencies in the tendering process (which eventually saw longtime Kennett supporters Ron Walker and Lloyd Williams successful) were to dog the Kennett government for many years, despite the verdict of an enquiry which found no wrongdoing on its behalf.

A $2 billion project to redevelop Melbourne's derelict Docklands area (to include a new football stadium) was also undertaken, in addition to the massive CityLink project, aimed a linking Melbourne's freeways, ease traffic problems in the inner city, and reduce commuting times from the outer suburbs to the CBD.

Second Term as Premier

Kennett's personal popularity remained high through his first term, though that of the government as a whole went through peaks and troughs. Without a by-election in the previous four years, the 1996 election shaped up as the first test of the 'Kennett Revolution' with the electorate. Though expected to win, the scale of the victory was unanticipated. On 30th March 1996, Kennett was reelected with a 32-seat majority, his prestige seemingly undiminished.

Several worrying trends (for the Liberals) were obscured somewhat by the euphoria of victory. The government's sharp cuts to government services were particularly resented in country Victoria, where the Liberals and their coalition partners, National Party held almost all the seats. The loss of the Mildura seat to an independent Russell Savage was an indication of this disaffection, and when in February 1997 independent Susan Davies was elected to the seat of Gippsland West, this trend seemed set to continue.

However, the verdict of many was that the 'Kennett Revolution' was far from over - indeed it was seemingly set in stone with the opening of the Crown Casino in May, 1997. Kennett's profile continued to grow as he became a major commentator on national issues, including urging the new government of John Howard to introduce tax reform, and actively opposing the rise of the One Nation Party of Pauline Hanson. In this last case, Kennett did not shy away from criticising the media, but also the intransigence of the Howard government over its failure to actively oppose Hanson's agenda.

The government lost ground over the next few years, with high-profile disagreements with the Director of Public Prosecutions Bernard Bongiorno, and Auditor-General Ches Baragwanath fuelling criticism of Kennett's governmental style. Kennett's antipathy to Baragwanath led to 1997 legislation to restructure the office of the Auditor-General and set up Audit Victoria. While Kennett promised the independence of the office would be maintained, many saw his government's actions as an attempt to curb the Auditor-General's power to criticise government policy. Widespread community debate and substantial public dissent from Liberal MPs and Party members ensued, with MLA Roger Pescott resigning from Parliament at the height of the debate; citing his disagreement with this Bill and Kennett's style in general. The Liberal Party lost the by-election in Mitcham.

Further scandals involving the handling of contracts for the state emergency services response system damaged the credibility of Kennett in 1997-1998, while rural dissent continued to grow.

Personal difficulties also began to plague Kennett and his family. The strains of public life led to a trial separation between Felicity and Jeff in early 1998 (patched up by the end of the year), while earlier in Kennett's first term, public scrutiny had led to the forced sale of the KNF Advertising Company, despite all Kennett's involvement having been transferred to his wife's name. There were rumours in 1998 that Kennett might retire from politics; these were mostly centred around Phil Gude, a longtime minister (as industry and employment minister, 1992-1996, and minister for education, 1996-1999). These eventually came to nothing, but nevertheless, Kennett's position was no longer as rock solid as in the period 1992-1998.

In July 1998, Liberal MP , Peter McLellan, Member for Frankston East, resigned from the party in protest over alleged corrupt Liberal Party Senate preselection, changes to WorkCover and the auditor-general’s office. Again, Kennett failed to pick up the warning signs of declining support for his style of leadership.

Labor leader John Brumby took care to capitalise on each of Kennett's (perceived) mistakes over this period, though his absences in rural electorates were misunderstood by many Labor MPs, and led to his replacement by Steve Bracks in early 1999. Bracks, who came from Ballarat, was popular in rural areas and was seen as a fresh alternative to Brumby, who nevertheless remained a key figure in the shadow cabinet. Despite the appeal of Bracks, Kennett entered the 1999 election campaign with a seemingly unassailable lead, and most commentators and opinion polls agreed that he would win a third term. On the morning of the election a leading political journalist, Ewen Hannan, predicted that 'Labor supporters will be crying into their beers tonight'.

1999 election loss

The Liberals lost 13 seats to Labor, led by Steve Bracks, at the 1999 election, most of them in regional centres such as Ballarat and Bendigo. The final result in the Legislative Assembly was: Labor, 42 seats; the Liberals and Nationals, 43; with three independents holding the balance of power. Independents Russell Savage and Susan Davies were joined by a third Independent, Craig Ingram. Negotiations began between Kennett's Liberal Party and the three independents. While Kennett acceded to their demands, his perceived poor treatment of Savage and Davies in the previous parliament meant that they held a position that they would never agree to support a Liberal Party minority government while Kennett remained leader. The Liberal negotiators did not reveal this to their party and Labor was ultimately successful in winning their support to form a government, after signing a Charter of Good Government, pledging to restore services to rural areas, and promising parliamentary reforms.

The defeat of the Kennett government was almost totally unexpected. Kennett's supporters urged the Liberal Party to force a vote of 'no confidence' on the floor of the parliament in a last-ditch effort to force Savage, Davies and Ingram to support the Liberal government; however with the Liberal Party divided on Kennett's future role, Kennett resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party and from Parliament, saying he wished to have no further involvement in politics. The consequent Burwood by-election was won by the Labor Party.

Rumoured returns to politics

After the Liberals' second election defeat in 2002, rumours began that Kennett was planning a comeback to politics. The issue came to a head in May 2006 after the sudden resignation of the Liberal Party leader, Robert Doyle, when Kennett announced he would contemplate standing in a by-election for the seat vacated by Doyle and offering himself as party leader. His stance was supported by Prime Minister John Howard, who rated him as the party's best hope to win the November 2006 state election. But within 24 hours Kennett announced he would withdraw from the race rather than challenge Ted Baillieu, whom Kennett had been grooming for the top post since 1999. John Howard was reported to have been "embarrassed" by having publicly supported Kennett before his decision not to re-enter politics.

In 2008, it was rumoured that Kennett is intending to stand for Lord Mayor of Melbourne. Despite endorsing current Lord Mayor John So in the 2001 mayoral elections, Kennett was recently quoted as saying "I think the city is ready for a change". Kennett would not commit to running for Lord Mayor, but has admitted he had been approached by "a range of interests" to run for the position. Kennett's decision to retire from beyondblue President has heightened speculation that he is planning to contest.

Life after politics

Kennett currently chairs beyondblue (the National Depression Initiative), a body that was largely formed by the efforts of the Victorian State Government. He has held the position since 2000, when he became beyondblue's inaugural chairman. For a brief period during 2002, Kennett was a radio presenter for Melbourne station 3AK, continuing an interest in mass-communication which was also a feature of his premiership. He also serves on the boards of Australian Seniors Finance, a reverse mortgage company, and SelecTV, a satellite television group.

In 2005 Kennett was made Vice President of his beloved Hawthorn Football Club, and in a ceremony on 14 December 2005, he officially took over the presidency from Ian Dicker.

In the Australia Day Honours of 2005, Kennett received Australia's highest civilian honour, when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC). He was also awarded an honorary doctorate - Hon DBus (Honoris Causa) - by The University of Ballarat.

Kennett had hip replacement surgery in December 2005.

In 2006 Kennett was attacked while celebrating his son's birthday in a Richmond bar and received minor abrasions; the attacker is awaiting trial.

Kennett's name remains associated with one of the two largest factions in the fractious Victorian Division of the Liberal Party. The battles between the "Kennett/Baillieu faction" and the "Kroger/Costello faction" (associated with Michael Kroger and Peter Costello) are often fierce

In July 2008 Kennett provoked a gay rights storm by backing a football club that sacked a trainer for being gay. "The Hawthorn president and potential Melbourne lord mayor sparked calls for his sacking after saying Bonnie Doon Football Club was within its rights to sack veteran trainer Ken Campagnolo after it found out he was gay."

Mr Kennett is quoted as saying "When you are in charge of a group of young boys, as this club was as I understand it, it's got to make sure." Mr Kennett said it was as if the club had a pedophile trainer. "It's the same if you have a pedophile there as a masseur, right?"

Further reading

The material for this revised entry was obtained from the major biographical and reference works on Kennett's life and career. These are:

  • John Aldford & Diedre O'Neill, Contract State: public management and the Kennett government, Geelong: Centre for Applied Research, 1994.
  • Brian Costar & Nick Economou (eds), The Kennett revolution : Victorian politics in the 1990s, Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999.
  • Barry Donovan, Steve Bracks and Jeff Kennett: My part in their Rise and Fall, Melbourne: Information Australia, 2000.
  • Tony Parkinson, Jeff: The Rise and Fall of a Political Phenomenon, Penguin: Melbourne, 2000.

Other important materials include:

  • The Age (newspaper), various editions (this paper enjoyed a notoriously difficult relationship with the former Premier, but is the best primary source for the events of 1992-1999).
  • The Australian (newspaper), various editions.
  • Geoffrey Blainey, A History fo Victoria, Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Jeff Kennett, Policies and principles for Victoria, Melbourne: Sir Robert Menzies Lecture Trust, Monash University, 1993.
  • Jeff Kennett, Victoria’s Commonsense Revolution, Melbourne: Alfred Deakin Lecture Trust, 1995.
  • Jeff Kennett, Australia - defining a model for the new millennium, London: University of London, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 1998.
  • George Megalogenis, The Longest Decade, Melbourne: Scribe, 2006.
  • Paul Strangio & Brian Costar, The Victorian Premiers: 1856-2006, Annandale: Federation Press, 2006.

An unpublished, highly one-sided official history of the Kennett government remains in the archives of the State Government of Victoria. Entitled 'The Kennett Ascendancy', the work was written by Dr Malcolm J Kennedy (formerly of Monash University) at a cost of $100,000. It remains unlikely to see the light of day under Steve Bracks' government, however John Brumby did attempt to find a publisher in 1999, but none came forward (see the notes to Blainey's history).

References

External links

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