The unlikely spectre of Jeff Kennett looms over Victorian politics again. New Matilda understands that moves are afoot to draft the former Victorian Premier back to State Parliament and the leadership of the Party.
In a demonstration of the depths to which the once dominant Victorian Liberals have sunk, senior Party figures, led by powerbroker Ron Walker, have approached Kennett with a plea to rescue the Liberals from a looming electoral wipeout at the 25 November State election.
Walker, the influential former Federal Liberal treasurer and now Chairman of the Fairfax media group, is believed to have sounded out Kennett with a view to a mid-year return to Parliament after next month’s Commonwealth Games to oust terminally struggling current leader Robert Doyle. Sources say key Liberal figures Peter Costello and Michael Kroger have given the audacious plan the all clear.
Today’s resignation from his seat of Doncaster by Doyle’s Education Spokesman, Victor Perton, puts the heat on the plotters to bring forward their coup. Particularly after The Age this morning reported on speculation by senior Party figures that Kennett may seek to return to Parliament via Doncaster:
Mr Kennett said last night that he was ‘flat out’ with his commercial interests, as chairman of the national depression initiative beyondblue and president of the Hawthorn Football Club. Asked whether he ruled out a tilt for Doncaster, he said he had no further comment.
Kennett knows his refusal to rule out a return will spark speculation.
Since his 1999 election defeat, polling has consistently shown Kennett retains strong popularity (link here) amongst many voters who remember his efforts in transforming the moribund Victorian economy he inherited from the Cain/Kirner Labor Governments in 1992. And recent polling is understood to show Kennett’s popularity embossed by his beyondblue initiative.
But there are significant obstacles in Kennett’s way, not least:
*His wife, Felicity, has told him she’d leave him if he got into politics again;
*He’s just taken over as President of the Hawthorn Football Club (in Melbourne, where football is bigger than politics, this is a high profile job);
*Significant elements of the Liberal Party despise him after his autocratic leadership resulted in the 1999 election loss. They would fight his reinstatement;
*He is recovering from a recent hip replacement and was attacked in a bar owned by his son earlier this month. (link here)
And today’s Perton resignation is a political opportunity, not necessarily a practical leg-up for Kennett. Perton is quitting his seat at the November election, and unless he can be convinced to go earlier, Kennett would still need to find a seat.
Speculation about Doyle’s leadership flared on Monday when Doyle and potential challenger Ted Baillieu clashed in Shadow Cabinet (link here). But Baillieu is yet to convince senior Party figures that he is the man for the job.
Meanwhile, nervous backbenchers are looking for alternatives.
Perton’s departure highlights the extent of the Liberals’ crisis: Doncaster used to be a safe Liberal seat, but Perton’s margin was cut from 12.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent at the 2002 State election. The remaining 13 lonely Liberals in the 88 seat Legislative Assembly are staring at electoral disaster the worst result in the Victorian Party’s history, according to the latest Morgan poll (link here).
But if Kennett ran, Bracks would face a stern challenge. Polling indicates that voters are seeing another, softer side of Jeff and they like it.
Immediate attention will focus on next Tuesday’s Liberal Party room meeting the only meeting scheduled to take place before the Commonwealth Games, when Victorians will tune out of politics.
From time to time, former State leaders get asked to jump back into the political arena. Nick Greiner was one he was smart enough to say ‘no’ and stick to making big corporate bucks. But Jeff’s shot at the corporate world came and went with disappointing dotcom ventures, and friends say that, at 58, he still retains a lot of energy.
What is extraordinary is that discussion about a Kennett return has moved beyond dinner party blue-sky speculation to a seemingly serious option.
Some close observers, however, are yet to be convinced. A former adviser to Kennett put it this way:
The Liberal Party may need him but do they really want him? He earned a lot of enemies among the troops and in Exhibition Street [Liberal HQ] for the way he rode roughshod like a Brokeback Cowboy during the 1999 election campaign. He’s got everything to lose and absolutely nothing to gain by going back into politics.
Others are more scathing. One political observer labelled a Kennett return as ‘nothing but a Labor pipedream.’
But the truth is that the Liberal incumbent is a Labor dream. Doyle has not demonstrated a capacity to cut into the Premier’s enormous lead and, as long as he stays in the loop, Labor seems destined to remain in power in Victoria.
So what could Jeff Mk II offer Victoria? A brief campaign strategy might look like this:
The Bracks Government’s ‘Melbourne 2030’ strategy has attracted criticism from councils and residents. This could be a winner for Kennett. Voters in the wealthier suburbs with good infrastructure who are supposed to be moving to medium-density housing, are classic NIMBYs and object to development in their neighbourhoods. This is the type of issue that could swing votes in electorates that Bracks Labor has taken from the Liberals.
The Bracks Government’s mismanagement of key projects such as rural fast trains that don’t go fast and massive cost blowouts at the new Southern Cross station contrasts with an overall perception that the Kennett-Stockdale Government were at least good managers.
Business confidence is down, according to the latest Survey of Business Trends and Prospects by the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Clearly, if he can get the claws in on economic management, that’s a good issue for Jeff. But it was his Treasurer, Alan Stockdale, who did much of the economic heavy lifting in the Kennett years, and there is no Alan Stockdale in the current parliamentary Liberal Party.
Perceptions that the Bracks Government has been less accountable to Parliament might be exploited. But Labor would be sure to remind voters what Kennett did to the Auditor-General.
Finally, the warm and fuzzies:
With his beyondblue (link here) initiative, Kennett can talk convincingly about mental health issues, while attacking Labor on the mental health system’s failings and being ‘soft on drugs’ (link here).
If we do see the former Premier reappear in politics, it will be a different Jeff Kennett who faces the voters. Will the electorate embrace the prodigal Premier? Will his Party buy it?
Right now, his extraordinary rehabilitation depends on powerbrokers like Ron Walker, who was taking tea in Buckingham Palace with the Queen last night and kept his own counsel.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.