There are two broad theories on Jeff Kennett’s 24-hour political resurrection: that Kennett was a serious challenger, believing that he had the authority and energy to reassert himself on Victoria’s political scene and save the State Liberals from electoral disaster. Or, alternatively, that the ‘Return of Jeff’ was a sham from the start.
Both theories carry some weight and which one you believe really depends on how much conspiracy you serve with your cornflakes.
The sham theory goes like this: Kennett decided to launch a pre-emptive strike at the leadership to flush out his protÃ©gÃ©, Ted Baillieu, who’d been prevaricating for months about whether to take the job from the floundering Robert Doyle.
Thanks to Bill Leak.
Baillieu had the numbers, but did he have the ticker? Frustrated by the sight of Doyle taking his Party to unplumbed depths in the polls, Kennett effectively challenged Baillieu to put up or shut up.
Either way, it was a crazy-brave risk by Kennett. In the end, Baillieu took the challenge, and the leadership. But not before significant damage had been caused to Kennett, John Howard, Peter Costello and the State Liberal Party.
But this story goes deeper than Kennett’s motivation for making a spectacular splash back into politics. It goes to the media’s handling of the story and why it allowed itself to be ambushed by Kennett’s challenge, despite being given the story on a platter more than two months ago.
First, some background. Last Thursday’s sudden rise of Jeff came as a shock to almost everyone except New Matilda subscribers, who read about it here 10 weeks ago, on 22 February. On that date New Matilda published my report on the secret Kennett comeback, which revealed the Kennett plot, the identity of one of the plotters (John Fairfax Chairman Ron Walker), the timeline, and the implications of one of the more audacious political takeover attempts since Brutus stabbed Caesar.
Back then, I wrote:
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.
Pretty clear, pretty unequivocal. For the rest of the story, click here.
I expected that story to create a stir, particularly given my experience as a former Victorian political reporter for The Age who covered Kennett’s career both as Opposition Leader and Premier, and as a political writer for Crikey.com.au.
While Kennett had always coyly kept the door open for an unlikely return, this prospect had never been taken seriously. Here was the chance to flush him out. But the story was ignored by the rest of the media. The only media outlet to mention the story back then was my old publication, Crikey which, to its credit, wrote: ‘New Matilda this week features Hugo Kelly until recently of Crikey predicting Jeff Kennett will lead the Victorian liberal (sic).’
(I had a personal stake in this story. The week before, I’d been sacked by Crikey for reporting comments by Kennett’s former advisor, Alastair Drysdale, that Doyle was to be replaced before the next State election. Drysdale complained to Crikey, alleging he’d made the comments off the record. Crikey responded by sacking me without seeking my response. I didn’t know it then, but Drysdale was ultra-sensitive about the story because he was one of the conspirators working for Kennett’s return.)
And that was it. Not a mention of the story in radio, TV or the papers. And it’s not as if the press gallery didn’t know about it. New Matilda contacted key media in advance, including The Age and the Herald Sun, assuring them of its accuracy and seeking republishing rights. We also issued a media release trumpeting the scoop.
So why were Victorians kept in the dark about the looming Jeff challenge?
First, because it seemed the press were unable to confirm that Jeff would make a comeback. When New Matilda rang the Herald Sun with the news the morning before publication there was a long silence at the other end of the phone before the paper declined to run the story. Some reporters went as far as ringing their usual sources, who apparently quickly rejected the story out of hand. In fairness, the Kennett coup was such a tightly-held secret that many senior politicians simply didn’t know. Others chose to remain silent.
And second, because there was an easier story on the doorstep: Baillieu had clashed with Doyle in Shadow Cabinet 24 hours earlier, and speculation centred on whether Baillieu would challenge for the leadership. There was no room for the Kennett complication in this simple equation despite the occasional hint from Jeff that he was getting restless, wistfully speculating that he hadn’t necessarily turned his back on politics for ever.
I don’t believe the media actively suppressed the story. But the fact that (apparently) no other journalist made determined enquiries to follow it up highlights a failing of our media. This will not come as a shocking revelation to readers of New Matilda a publication established two years ago to fill some of the gaps left by the increasingly monocultural ‘serious’ mainstream media.
This is not a conspiracy story about Big Media, but a demonstration of what happens when otherwise competent and professional journalists and editors lack the wit and imagination to investigate the story beyond the obvious.
The media will do whatever it takes to get the story if it’s placed right in front of them like one kilometre down a mineshaft but there are limits to its perseverence, particularly when gathered together in a press gallery, where reporters can be tempted to seek safety in consensus.
So what or who was behind the Jeff Push, and was it for real?
I believe the man who started the ball rolling last week was the Liberals’ Upper House leader, Philip Davis, an erstwhile Doyle supporter who told the Leader he no longer had his backing. It was this that drove Doyle to quit.
Already, two senior frontbenchers, Phil Honeywood and Victor Perton, had resigned in recent months, followed by Doyle’s chief of staff and media advisor. It was death by a thousand cuts, and Davis’s decision to remove his support was the final straw.
Doyle quit, throwing open the leadership and giving the Kennett forces who had opposed him since he overthrew Dennis Napthine before the last election the chance to move.
When Kennett announced his interest in standing on Thursday, the idea had clearly filtered through to Canberra. John Howard’s clear support for Kennett in his comments that night, indicated that he’d been briefed at a high level on Kennett’s availability and desire to return to the job. Then Howard
went on Neil Mitchell’s 3AW morning radio program, and effectively anointed Jeff as ‘overwhelmingly the best person’ for the job.
Just two hours later, Kennett announced he was pulling the pin on his comeback.
Howard was left embarrassed and furious, as was Peter Costello who, under pressure after the PM’s comments, went out and publicly endorsed his old enemy, Jeff.
This was the response of a source close to the PM, who told The Age on Saturday, ‘Jeff has f*cked up, big time. He has pissed off a whole lot of people and he will regret this decision for the rest of his life.’
So, if it was a sham, Kennett managed to suck in some heavy-hitters.
As for Baillieu, he’s started behind the eight ball already after Howard publicly indicated that any alternative candidate would be inferior to Kennett. Making his debut as Opposition Leader at a nervous press conference on Monday, Baillieu looked every inch a beginner. Grimly reading glib lines from a lectern (‘I ‘ve got a passion for Victoria …’), he looked aloof, unprepared and uncomfortable.
If the whole ‘Return of Jeff’ blitzkreig was an elaborate charade to get Baillieu up, it was a risky maneouvre that has only succeeded in installing a reluctant second-best leader at the helm, with a lot to prove.
But the results should not be measured quite yet. Because Baillieu has taken the job without bloodshed, he will be able to reshape the party in his own terms, perhaps giving the Liberals the stability they have lacked since Kennett left seven long years ago.
And if his protÃ©gÃ© can minimise the size of the Party’s looming loss at the November 25 election, maybe Jeff will have the last laugh yet.
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