THE ANNOUNCEMENT by former Premier Ted Baillieu yesterday that he will not recontest his seat of Hawthorn at the imminent election in Victoria has ignited a frenzy over who will be anointed in this bluest of blue-ribbon Liberal electorates in Melbourne’s east; one name that has been bandied about is that of another former Liberal Premier, Jeff Kennett, with a return to office also on the storyboard. The idea is a headache Victoria’s Liberals do not need.
It’s a pity that Ted Baillieu, who shouldered a disproportionate burden of arguably the worst aspects of the Liberal Party’s 11-year stint in opposition — and who, depending on who you listen to, had neither the appetite nor the stomach for the job of Premier in the first place — has announced he is leaving state Parliament for good; despite being a far more moderate Liberal than I am he could potentially have been one of the great Liberal Premiers of Victoria.
I was a little disappointed to hear yesterday that Baillieu has decided to vacate his ultra-safe seat of Hawthorn (reversing a commitment made some months ago to recontest it, and serve another full four-year term); he leaves with the very best wishes of this column for his next adventure in life, whatever that may be.
But I am also pleased because — without putting too fine a point on it — Baillieu has been, since his replacement as Premier by Denis Napthine 18 months ago, Yesterday’s Man, and the occupants of safe seats held by margins of close to 17% should either be serving in Cabinet or boast the high probability of doing so within the medium term.
Clearly Baillieu no longer fits these criteria. His departure is thus helpful for the Liberal Party to renew its ranks in the Victorian lower house.
Plenty of names are being bandied around less than 24 hours after his announcement; most are unsurprising, with some talk the resignation was an attempt by Baillieu to shoehorn Health minister Mary Wooldridge — trounced at preselection early this year in the neighbouring safe seat of Kew after her own electorate was abolished in a redistribution — into Hawthorn.
But Wooldridge has been preselected to an upper house seat to keep her in Parliament; that berth — vacated to enable her to run, and over which the Liberal Party attracted more political odium from the ALP than the exercise justified — should now be contested by Wooldridge, lest any move to shift her to Hawthorn reignites either the factional brawl that saw her shafted in Kew, the throwing of sticky muck by the ALP, or both.
It is, after all, 13 weeks from polling day: the Liberals can scarcely afford the indulgence of another vicious preselection fiasco.
I do not intend to offer any commentary on who should be preselected in Hawthorn, save to say that it shouldn’t be Wooldridge given she will remain in Spring Street anyway as a member of the Legislative Council.
The Hawthorn preselection is a matter for local branches in the area and the party’s administrative committee, and as I am based in a different part of Melbourne on the former count and have nothing to do with the latter, I am disinclined to endorse any of the putative candidates: some of whom I know personally, and others I don’t.
But I am certain that Jeff Kennett should not be a candidate, either for preselection, at the polls on 29 November, or as a prospective Premier after that election.
An article by Terry McCrann appeared late last night on the website of Melbourne’s Herald Sun advocating that Kennett not only be endorsed by the Liberals in Hawthorn, but that he lead the Coalition into the election campaign from outside Parliament — a la Campbell Newman in Queensland in 2012 — to resume his place as Premier of Victoria after a 15-year hiatus.
First things first: I was an unabashed advocate of Jeff Kennett, both during the lean years in opposition and after he won office; as a teenager growing up in Brisbane and watching from afar, I found the brash, blunt Kennett very likeable, very credible, and a bit of a character.
Nobody can credibly suggest the train wreck that had to be cleaned up at the time of the 1992 state election — engineered by perhaps the most inept Labor administration to hold office anywhere in Australia during the 20th century — could ever have been fixed without a change of government.
I first started coming to Melbourne as a tourist in 1990, visiting with reasonable frequency until finally moving here for good eight years later; I saw the decay and the desolation and the failure of Cain and Kirner and the misery and gloom this majestic city had been plunged into, and I saw — after 1992 — Melbourne progressively roar back to life under the stewardship of the Kennett government to stake its (rightful) claim to be the best city in the world.
I knew Kennett was in deep strife in mid-1999, when he inadvisedly described Melbourne as Victoria’s “beating heart” and its regional centres as its “toenails;” even so, the anticipated loss of seats went well beyond what any observer either expected or at the time believed. The rest is history.
Having fallen from office, Kennett swiftly resigned both the Liberal leadership and his seat of Burwood, which was won in a by-election by Labor.
And of course, Kennett had a flirtation with returning (and leading from outside Parliament) in 2006 that was countenanced and swiftly abandoned in favour of Baillieu’s ascension to the Liberal leadership in his stead.
Now, let’s be blunt about a few things.
At 66 years of age (and 67 next March) Kennett is no longer the youthful, bounding mass of energy he was as Premier in the 1990s; whilst he would hardly require any time to come to grips with the job of Premier — after all, he held it for seven years — there is no reason to believe incumbent Denis Napthine would make way for him.
Like Kennett, Napthine aspired to the role for years, and after just 18 months (and remaining popular with voters) would seem loath to forego the opportunity to govern in majority — and without the albatross of the insidious Frankston MP Geoff Shaw around his neck or the consequent razor-thin numbers in Parliament to have to contend with.
It is inconceivable Kennett would stand in Hawthorn to serve as a mere cabinet minister, let alone as a backbencher. Enough said.
Even if he were to stand, win, and resume the Premiership, how long would it last? Kennett will be over 70 by the time of the 2018 election. Bob Menzies quit the Prime Ministership at 71. John Howard was beaten at 68. Kennett’s hero, Sir Henry Bolte, quit as Premier of Victoria in 1972 at 64. Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, 77 when forced from office in 1987, was widely regarded as senile by that time.
And if he stood at the election as Premier-in-waiting and the Coalition lost, what then? The idea Kennett wouldn’t quit Parliament again — forcing a by-election again — beggars belief.
One of the big “unknowns” here is how voters would respond; I think it’s fair to say Melbourne would respond very favourably to a Kennett return. After all, the city stuck to him like glue in 1999, with only a couple of metropolitan electorates falling to the ALP.
But the regions, so affronted by the words and deeds of Kennett and his government to swing to Labor in 1999, for the first time ever in some areas, is a different equation altogether.
Perhaps the conciliatory words Kennett has uttered in their direction ever since would cut the ice; or speaking of ice, perhaps (as one Independent MP said at the time) it would remain the case that hell would have to freeze first before some of those towns and communities ever cast a vote for Jeff Kennett again.
There’s one other aspect of all of this that I find deeply troubling, and it’s this: for Kennett — who first became Liberal leader in 1982 — to resume the role now and fly the flag as the party’s leader would be tantamount to an admission that for more than 30 years, the Victorian Liberals have been unable to produce any other viable leader than Jeffrey Gibb Kennett.
It’s true that there are two outstanding candidates, as McCrann notes — Planning minister Matthew Guy and Treasurer Michael O’Brien — either or both of whom will probably end up in Kennett’s old office in Treasury Place in the fullness of time.
But for Kennett to come back now (and especially if he were to be restored to the Premiership by voters), one or both of those glittering, embryonic careers might very well be cut short or left unfulfilled.
As much as I love Jeffrey — and I do — I think it would send a dreadful signal to the electorate, to the rank and file of the Liberal Party, and not least to the ALP, that the best the Liberal Party can do is return to the leader it had 32 years ago when it lost an election after almost three decades in government.
Frankly, McCrann is right: Victoria is in sore need of a dose of Kennett-style government.
But the best thing Victorian voters can do, as they enter polling booths on 29 November, is to vote for their local Liberal and National Party candidates to secure four more years of Coalition government under Denis Napthine.
Freed of the ridiculous constraints of tight numbers and virtual minority status, and freed of the contemptible presence of Shaw, I believe Napthine will deliver precisely the brand of energetic, get-Victoria-moving government that McCrann, and other Kennett-era nostalgics, clearly yearn for. The hunger to succeed is writ large on his face. The only thing holding him back from getting on with it is the impossibly compromised state of the numbers in Parliament.
McCrann is right about one thing though: the alternative is a union-infested, CFMEU-controlled Labor government led by the immature, puerile, imbecilic dickhead Daniel Andrews, and any government led by him could confidently be expected to make the hopeless Bracks-Brumby years and the ruinous Cain-Kirner years look like a veritable golden age by comparison.
I really want to know what readers* think today; it’s my head refusing to endorse a Kennett return — in my heart, I’d love to watch him tear Andrews to bits and reclaim the job I never thought he should have lost.
*Any rank and file Liberal members reading can post here using a pseudonym. Email addresses will remain confidential.