The second extract from an as yet unpublished book by Kevin Balshaw, a senior staffer in Jeff Kennett’s office during the term of his government 1992-99, which sets out to examine not only the Kennett years but the changing dynamics of Australian politics.
The case that the Auditor General, like the rest of the public sector, was being exposed to competition not only didn’t wash, it confirmed a number of deep-seated fears emerging in the electorate. Competition policy and globalisation became the twin ogres threatening Australia’s traditional lifestyle and the values underpinning it, and its independence. The luxury of a life remote from the forces of evil enveloping the rest of the developed world was being eroded. The new world bridged our isolation, breaking down the factor of distance that had been both a barrier and protection. The fence around the home paddock was suddenly seen to have been breached and in need of repair. A third element rankled in the core of the democratic spirit the sheer arrogance of politicians who would pursue competition and globalisation as the foundations of economic rationalism. The theory lacked a human face. It was economics without a social edge. It was being put into place by politicians who are telling us rather than talking to us.
The perceived erosion of democracy was reinforced symbolically on Armistice Day, November 11, 1997 otherwise the anniversary of the hanging of Ned Kelly and of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government with the announcement of former minister Roger Pescott’s resignation from Parliament. Despite what I believe to have been his powerbroking role in the return of Kennett to the Liberal Party leadership in 1991 and Pescott’s own leadership ambitions, he was relegated to a junior ministry in the first Kennett term, a support role within the industry portfolio, and dumped in the second term. Pescott was bitter and felt let down and neglected with some justification, but he had failed to live up to the promise that surrounded him at the start of the 1990s.
His resignation from the seat of Mitcham was in protest at the undermining, as Pescott saw it, of the power of the Auditor General and a belief the AG would no longer be able to fulfil an independent watchdog role. This despite the fact the AG would in future be accountable to the Parliament and not solely to the government of the day.
Positioning the AG as an officer of the Parliament, in effect, was a significant change in status that should have been as strengthening the instrument of democracy. But there were underlying factors the element of competition, and a more subtle, philosophical change in the role of that office.
First, the AG’s office would be cut back and its annual audit across government and its specific audit projects would be open to competitive tender. A further change in this vein, allowing departments and agencies a say in the appointment of auditors, was seen as a measure to erode the independence of the AG.
Second, the AG was in a similar league to Allan Fels, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Both have a fairly strictly defined charter to investigate issues within their jurisdiction, consult with the parties involved and produce outcomes that keep the organisations within their respective jurisdictions accountable, advise their respective governments, inform the public and protect the public interest. One distinction Fels does have the power to act against breaches of the legislation that falls within his ambit. Baragwanath, like Fels, extended an essentially investigative and reporting role far outside what it was intended to be. They created images that evoked implicit trust in their judgments a faith in them as the last doorstep against excess and injustice. They courted a supportive media whose practitioners accepted their findings and proclamations pretty much without question. That’s not difficult to accept, given the media’s disposition to seize upon governments or corporates caught with their accounting or accountability pants down.
But it went beyond that with Baragwanath, as it has, and continues to do so, with Fels. Both very successfully blended their regulatory watchdog charters to encompass an active social conscience. Fels, as the overseer of the implementation and practice of competition, was not prepared to give the imprimateur to petroleum industry deregulation without retaining control in effect, putting the brakes on competition in the name of the public interest. The Federal Government, viewing this as the easy option and an avenue to placate the small business lobby and public concern, has been all for it. Baragwanath began branching out from his fundamental responsibility to audit government departments, agencies and programs to opening audit inquiries into the effectiveness of programs as measured against their set objectives. These were qualitative evaluations, against the quantitative assessments that were the fundamental task of his office.
Labor in the 80s had been plagued by a sequence of negative annual audit assessments that the then Coalition opposition and the media played for all they were worth. The annual AG’s report was hot property. From 1992, Baragwanath began to conduct increasing numbers of program investigations measuring not merely financial propriety and value for money, but social benefit and value. This rankled Kennett and Stockdale, to put it mildly. An auditor commenting on the effectiveness of specific programs in terms of community benefit, not on your life.
And that was the second chain of constraint incorporated in the reforms to the AG’s office and work description. It was why Kennett wanted to clip his heels. It didn’t receive emphasis in the public arena, and maybe it was a shortfall on Kennett’s part not to explain the AG’s basic raison d’etre and what he should be doing what he was being paid to do for the people of Victoria. But it moulded into the public perception that the public protector, an untouchable, was having his molars removed.
This episode centred on Baragwanath, played up by the opposition and media, and headlined with the resignation of Pescott was the first tangible sign of an unrecoverable crack in the relationship between Kennett and the Victorian people. The slash and burn policies, as they were called, and the headlong rush to privatise anything worth a dollar and outsource anything that might save a dollar, caused genuine, lasting unrest. But this was seen to be a matter of trust the malicious meddling with a democracy vested in the people. As confirmation the trust had been broken, Labor’s Tony Robinson took Pescott’s seat of Mitcham on a swing above 10% (with, it should be mentioned, some active campaign support from the disaffected MP himself). The Government failed to heed the alarm that this signalled. It should have triggered a re-examination of the Government’s whole approach in this general area, even a broader, more positive response to constitutional issues and reform. Instead, it was dismissed as another errant by-election. The message was ignored.
Local government reform in particular was to bring latent community democracy to the surface as a real political force at the March, 2002, Victorian council elections, at which ordinary residents dynamited the ballot boxes. Whole councils were reshaped in some cases. In many others, longstanding councillors, pillars of the local society, were flung onto the municipal waste dump. Councils, councillors and their employees have long been treated with even greater disrespect and been regarded as even more irrelevant than politicians.
This may not have had a lot to do with Victoria’s local government reform under Kennett that saw the number of councils reduced from 210 to 78. The change was necessary and long overdue, given most of the councils were based on the old district roads boards established in the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. The council boundaries made no geographical sense, and no argument could be sustained for them on the basis of community of interest. Moreover, they represented a very costly duplication of facilities, equipment and services, functioning in an almost microscopic environment. The local Taj Mahals in which they presided were symbols of inefficiency. Jealousies and rivalry between councils was rife. There was little, if any, sharing of resources, and virtually no collaboration in running community programs.
The change brought them into the real, competitive world. It came at a cost in perception the loss to many towns of their own council, and a loss of jobs. It flowed in some respect in the same vein as the closure of schools, hospitals, local bank branches. The initial reaction was one of opposition to the removal of local services. The service remained, but it was no longer on a shop hoarding in main street.
But it coincided with the rise of community identity, along with a growing concern that public administration needs to be just that to serve the people in their own communities. In that respect, local government reform had a very beneficial result. It led residents to be more aware of what their councils were up to, and to be more expectant that they would serve their needs. Our councils can’t ignore us, even if the bastards in Spring Street and Canberra do. And it had come time for them to apply the standard of local democracy and exact retribution on any council or councillor who failed the test. Councils became a new political front.
Delivering a new politics for a new society has long been a central theme of Mark Latham, federal Labor frontbencher, member for the seat of Werriwa formerly held by Gough Whitlam, and generally described as the intellectual rebel of Australian politics. Latham’s agenda is that of the suburbs, moving in the direction of Australia’s New Labor. He draws the contrast between the powerful centre of Australian society, concentrated in the cosmopolitan heart of its main cities, and suburban Australia. They talk different languages, says Latham: “In lifestyle and political culture they are poles apart In the suburbs, politics is more pragmatic. People do not have the resources to distance themselves from neighbourhood problems. This has given them a resident’s view of society. Questions of public decency and service delivery are all-important. This is a political world without symbolism or dogma. People want to know what politicians can do for them in a tangible and constructive way. Politicians who define themselves in ideological terms are seen as irrelevant.”
Latham might also have noted metropolitan demographic trends, which are reinforcing the divide between the city centres and suburban regions. Increasingly people are tending to live, work and play in their own neighbourhoods. The city is alien and largely irrelevant to them. The third demographic, the one that has emerged as the bane of governments and the major political parties across the nation, is country Australia.
Kennett endeavoured to weather the storm at home, to paint Victoria as once again a vibrant, growing, confident place, and to tread the national stage with his agenda for Australia’s future. At a community level on the home front, he embarked on an extensive round of speaking engagements in Melbourne’s suburbs fundraisers for Government MPs, breakfasts, lunches and dinners targeting small business operators, public meetings to give people the chance to let off steam about the local impact of his budget cuts, and at schools and universities. He went on country trips, sometimes for a single function such as the opening of a new business or community facility; on other occasions, day trips to the regional centres of Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo that each covered a number of key marginal seats, or to a cluster of towns within easy travel range. Until midway through the second term, when he clearly tired of it, he undertook several three-day odysseys to country centres each year. The extended trips covered up to a dozen towns at a time, at least one breakfast function, public meetings each night and meeting-place stops around a cafe51 in the town’s main street, sometimes at a barbeque lunch in the local park or for cakes and tea in a community centre.
In his second term, country Victoria was experiencing a significant turnaround, substantial resources were being poured into country areas (more on a dollar/per capita measure than in Melbourne) and the gaming revenue slush fund, the Community Support Fund, was financing local community projects right around the State.
Additionally, on three landmark occasions the Government had signalled a major shift in policy emphasis, which passed largely unheralded. Governor Richard McGarvie sowed the first seeds of a change in direction in his address to the opening of the second session of the 52nd Parliament on September 6, 1994, after Parliament was prorogued midway in Kennett’s first term: “The fundamental premise on which my Government’s agenda continues to be motivated is the integral link between financial, economic and social outcomes: none of these three can be satisfied in isolation.” Kennett, in his formal campaign launch for the 1996 election, spoke of ” the thread of quality which runs through our lives. These quality of life areas will rightly receive greater attention in a second term of a Coalition Government.” The election policy statement incorporated programs for young Victorians, support for community carers and extra funding for kindergartens. The social compact was spelled out even more directly in the address of another governor, Sir James Gobbo, at the opening of the second session of the 53rd Parliament on February 17, 1998, in which he pointed to “the next important step forward for Victoria.” This was based on the test of social advantage. “Budget programs, legislation and initiatives will be tested against four measures in what way they might improve outcomes in education, increase job opportunities, encourage safe, healthy lifestyles and build confident and cohesive communities The social advance of Victorians will be the central criterion in determining our State’s future direction.”
Here was a government still engaged in reform and mapping out plans for the future, but softening its message, heeding the cry of the people for a more human face. Changes in policy emphasis health and education and action on social problems such as drugs in particular underlined this was more than empty rhetoric. Kennett recognised the need to shift the focus, but he and his Government let slip the opportunity to develop it into a cohesive, consistent message, reinforce it and drum it into the backbench that this would be their ticket to another term in office.
The problem became evident from the midpoint of the first term. On his suburban and country tours, the public meetings and innumerable meetings with residents were fed a variety of the standard speech 75B despite endeavours to get him talking social advantage and regional development more specifically. Instead, he spoke of lifting confidence levels, government and community working together, people coming to understand the direction the State is heading, business starting again to invest. He went back to the lessons of the recession of 1990-91 and the Government’s 2001 and 2050 timeframes, the importance of small business and value adding industries. “What we are doing is for our children.” People were already beginning to question, yes, it’s for the future, but what about us now?
The Government did in fact have a comprehensive rural strategy, Rural Victoria 2001, which was detailed in a 40-page publication that Kennett released in Bendigo on January 31, 1995. The aim was to give a single focus to the Government’s program for country areas. Former Nationals’ leader, Peter Ross-Edwards, performed speaker introductions at the launch and described it as an exciting day for country Victoria.
The idea was to have a template message for the premier, ministers and MPs in rural areas and promote government programs in rural areas with a country edge to the message. It was designed to overcome the perception barrier in country areas that Melbourne is the centre of all the action and we’re being left out. The conceptual starting point was that this is one of the most difficult barriers of all to break to convince people outside the capital city that not only do they share the benefits of government policy, programs and capital works across all portfolios, but that whatever is done in Melbourne is for the benefit of everyone in the State. We’re not going to move the Museum of Victoria to Walpeup: it remains in Melbourne and it’s there for all Victorians to visit. Funding for specialist medical services in Melbourne, where the appropriate facilities and the expert staff are based, doesn’t just help the people adjacent to the service but anyone in the State who requires that service. And so on. But if you’re into self-flagellation or head-beating against brick walls, try it sometime it just doesn’t wash.
From then on, every government program that went into a country area and every new policy development incorporated a Rural Victoria 2001 component and was branded as such. In the latter part of the second term, teams of ministers were rostered for consultative trips to country centres branded Rural Victoria 2001.
Rural Victoria was turning independent not so much the outright backlash as portrayed by Tony Parkinson in his book, “Jeff The Rise and Fall of a Political Phenomenon”, and by Susan Davies as a quiet fireside revolution. The coalition partner, the National Party, was bugger-all help in building the Government’s credentials in country areas. The Liberals were on their own in looking after the regional marginals in Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo. No National Party figure helped in the by-election campaign held in the summer of 1997 for Gippsland West, won by a former member of the ALP, Susan Davies, standing as an Independent. This followed the resignation of the former short-term leader of the Liberals in opposition, Alan Brown, who was known in his electorate as the Arthur Daly of Wonthaggi. In fact, a sizeable contingent of the Nationals in Gippsland West quietly swung their support behind Davies. It was left to Kennett to fly the flag and wear the loss.
Pat McNamara, as Deputy Premier and leader of the Nationals, was supposed to be the Government’s flag bearer in the country. McNamara paved the way in opposition for his appointment to head the portfolios of Police and Tourism, positions intended primarily to keep him occupied in Melbourne. He fell asleep on the job handling police effectively enough, doing little but attract criticism for his lack of activity in tourism, and the country trips for which he was noted and spent a small fortune on charter planes in opposition became more and more infrequent. McNamara was AWOL when Kennett phoned the ministerial office one mid-morning early in 1993. Kennett phoned McNamara’s home, a modest brick veneer on the outskirts of the central Victorian township of Nagambie. Pat and wife Merryl were building a new home on the banks of Lake Nagambie and planting the surrounding acreage with grape vines. A keen rower, Pat was prominent in the Nagambie Rowing Club and, with some backing from Tattersalls, helped ensure the club was as financially ripe and blooming as his vineyard. Mid-morning, a day early in the week, and Kennett found him at home. An electric charge went down the line. Deputy Premier or not, be at your desk in the office in an hour.
The ministerial change after Kennett’s numbers held up in the 1996 poll left the Nationals minus a minister, Bill Baxter (Ports and Roads in the first term). Baxter, a long term Upper House member, was appointed to a committee that was to oversee the refurbishment and full development in accord with its original plans of the Parliament building on Spring Street, complete with the unfinished dome. A compromise deal was done on the appointment. The main point of contention Baxter wanted continuing access to a ministerial car. But of far greater significance, Kennett took his revenge on McNamara and swapped his role for that of the first-term Agriculture Minister, Bill McGrath.
William Desmond McGrath, late 50s and early 60s through the period of government, was a very successful Wimmera wheat farmer and former VFL (pre-AFL) footballer, a tough guy. McGrath was known while he was Agriculture Minister as the Premier of Country Victoria. It was common for him to leave Parliament at the end of the day to attend functions in his electorate, centred some four hours away in Horsham, that night and be back in Parliament the next morning. He toured country areas with the fervour of someone who was going to keep them onside.
Bill had a bit of a media problem that we tried unsuccessfully to correct a tendency to forget the crisp lines on a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and to talk in incomprehensible 80-word sentences, but at least he was out there talking. The second term swap meant he was Minister for Police, a portfolio he handled fairly well but didn’t sit nearly so comfortably with him as that of agriculture. A pity in many respects.
McNamara, the new Minister for Agriculture, had been given riding orders from Kennett that he was being moved into the job to get him out into the country and get the Government’s rural message out there. Except for Nagambie, McNamara saw even less of the country than before. As insiders on his staff said, he’s lost the plot, doesn’t care. It was little wonder that after his resignation from Parliament in 2000 Labor easily captured his comparatively safe seat of Benalla.
That is symbolic of a life and death identity crisis that faces the Nationals, the party that in 1975 changed its name from Country Party in the ever to be unfulfilled ambition to win suburban seats. The assault on the cities was a pipe dream built on the community strength and large membership of the party in the country, a tranche of very traditional, conservative values, a position of power far outweighing the numbers that it held in Canberra, and an innate opportunism that enabled it, without a pang of conscience, to do deals with the political devil whenever that might advantage it.
Always a minority party of radical conservatives, but with ample public profile and political clout, the Nationals have failed dismally to cash in on the success trend of smaller, special interest parties in Australia. Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have been their traditional strongholds, and their support the length of the east coast has collapsed since the early 1970s but more spectacularly in the 1990s. Ironically, while increasing numbers of people are rejecting the major parties and seeking idealistic refuge in minority political outlets, most of them comparatively newly on the scene, as well as backing the independents, the Nationals are showing their age, that they are out of touch and in terminal decline. The scale of the Nationals’ dilemma is highlighted by the fact that until recent years they had a substantial membership. In fact, on a ratio of party members to parliamentarians, their membership far exceeded that of either the Liberals or Labor. But it’s ageing and declining.
The membership is also not nearly the conservative-activist force of old. Some of the former Country Party MPs courted, or at least countenanced, the support of the ultra-Right movement, the League of Rights, headed by Eric Butler. The League quietly encouraged its people to be active in conservative country political party branches Liberal and Country Party but without overtly waving their flag. The League of Rights’ influence in Victoria was strongest in the far west and throughout Gippsland to the west of the Latrobe Valley. A prominent spokesman in western Victoria told me in an interview in the early 1970s, strictly not for publication at the time, “No, the League doesn’t have members, it has supporters, and I am a supporter.” But he went on to talk about its influence with some country newspaper editors and with MPs, in Victoria and federally. That included, he intimated, with Malcolm Fraser, then in the wings awaiting the Liberal leadership. “Supporters” of the League had been to a meeting with Fraser and a number of senior Country Party figures. The impression was that they received more than a fair hearing.
The parliamentary wing of the Nationals, like the two majors, shifted towards the political middle ground in the 1990s. Until then, individual MPs concentrated attention on their electorates, effectively playing the role of independents, constantly in opposition mode to both major parties. The independent, local community stance and their strong membership base put them in exceptionally good light. Many of the Lower House Nationals in Victoria built up primary votes at least well into the 60% range, and some into the high 70s. Government and the coalition agreement undermined their standing. Some, like Ken Jasper in Murray Valley, stuck to their independent guns. But the Nationals were branded with the Kennett reforms, the reduction in services to country areas, the council amalgamations, and so on. They copped the Kennett Government flack and were unable to handle it. Some were by then ministers, no longer able to devote the time and attention they had previously to their electorates. To their constituents, they became absentee members and part of the despised political mainstream.
The Parliamentary Library says in an assessment of the 2001 election the prominence of country independents was in direct relation to the place and performance of the Nationals. “Uneasiness over the removal of ‘Country’ from its name has never completely disappeared, and accusations of the party as having ‘sold out’ to the Liberals have helped provide ammunition for dissident rural politicians (Nationals’ leader) John Anderson has not dismissed the ‘country independent’ phenomenon, noting after the election that his party would have to look at the reasons why many voters believe independents have something to offer them.”
As the Nationals’ support fell away and the two major parties here, as in America, competed more intensely for the middle ground, groups like the gun lobby and farm lobby and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party moved in to fill the conservative gap. They, however, have also fallen victims to the changing mood of the electorate.
Consider the Kennett situation a conservative coalition elected with an historic two-thirds majority across both houses of the Victorian Parliament in 1992, and which overall held its majority on a return to the polls in 1996. The lesson of hindsight is that Kennett had the numbers for the Liberals to rule without a binding coalition with the Nationals, as had Sir Henry Bolte and his successors for 27 years. Word around the Nationals’ ranks the day Kennett rolled Alan Brown and resumed the leadership in April, 1991, was that he would scrap the Brown-McNamara engineered coalition agreement a message spread without any supporting evidence by McNamara’s over-animated chief of staff and former PR hype merchant, John Sholl. Kennett stuck by the agreement for a couple of reasons. One was his wrong assumption that the Nationals would be the government’s stalwarts of change to ward off any backlash from his reform agenda in country Victoria. Second, anyone who took the effort to look at the Parliamentary library film of question time about the middle of the week prior to the leadership coup would have seen a trio in earnest discussion on the middle bench, as Kennett called it, as the questions’ session began: Kennett in the middle; on the left, leadership pretender and subsequent limp rag minister, Roger Pescott; and on the right the Nationals’ leader, Pat McNamara, who had been running strongly in the public arena for months to undermine Brown. Mr Beige, as Brown became known, took the stance that Labor was destroying itself, government was there for the taking (which it was), and a controlled low profile was the most effective approach in which he was encouraged and abetted by his core staff, including Alister Drysdale, later to be Premier Kennett’s chief of staff, briefly, then special adviser, and Brown’s chief press secretary, Tim Duncan, whom Kennett sacked and sent packing at 2 pm the day of his re-election as leader. The general notion that Kennett was drafted to the leadership by people like Tom Austin without Kennett’s knowledge, although Austin did have a central role in it, is far from the full story.
A third reason may have been that keeping the Nationals in the fold meant they were less likely to ripple the waters, and the unified image signified a stability, which was not a known Kennett trait at the time. Labor had played him to great effect as a loose cannon, an impression he confirmed in the autumn parliamentary session of 1992 with what was called the quantum leap a threat, part of a campaign to force Premier Joan Kirner to call an election, that a coalition government would strip all outgoing Labor MPs of their superannuation entitlements because of the supposed damage they had caused the state.
Kennett did get out there and took his agenda to the front line, in community halls, tours, the media, in his intervention to review health services, but in the end, as showed in the focus groups conducted as the 1999 campaign approached, his government was not believable on social and community services no matter what restorative initiatives it put forward or what it tried to do to soften the image.
The persona of Kennett was the government of Victoria. The public and media read Kennett for everything the government did, every service and program it operated. Irrespective of which portfolio came under attention, the headlines pronounced “Kennett”, and only rarely the government or the minister directly responsible. But Kennett, and by implication his government, were unbelievable on the core social issues education, health and social services. The policy strategy team identified this as a problem early in its planning towards the 1999 election, and the message came across in plain language in the focus groups. It came back to the cuts in budgets and services, particularly to the removal of local shopfront services regardless of what had been put in their place. It came back to arrogance, a perception he wasn’t listening. As a prominent placard at one of our country town stops declared, “Listen to the people, you arrogant bastard.” And there was the perception he was toying with the sacred institution of democracy, and the spirit of community democracy was rising like a tidal wave to swamp him.
Policy development for the 1999 Victorian campaign was an intricate, painstaking, complex political exercise extending over more than a year. The team within his office comprised chief of staff Anna Cronin, his principal adviser, Tony Cudmore, principal media adviser, Steve Murphy, and myself. It included Industry Minister Mark Birrell and Health Minister Rob Knowles, the Liberal Party state director, Dr Peter Poggioli, and, as required, the managing director of Quantum Market Research (the former AMR Quantum), Simon McCall, a representative of the party’s advertising agency, and former Government communications director, Peter Bennett.
Kennett handed me a pile of initial statements prepared by ministers, who had been asked to project their portfolio objectives and programs out a decade from 2001. He determined we were to take the high ground and offer a long term vision. This had political motives, beyond doubt, but would portray a government that, as he often said, was getting on with the business of government and letting the politics take care of itself. He was anything but nonchalant or dismissive about elections, but this was almost to make it seem as if the election was incidental to more important things. We were to look not across the boundary of the millennium or to the next election, but the next strategic timeframe in the Kennett/Victorian agenda from 2001 to 2011. The majority of the ministerial statements fell short on inspiration, vision and strategy. They were essays without the substance of practical initiatives. They were mired in the here and now rather than the longer term, reflecting the ministers’ preoccupation with the administration and resolution of immediate problems in their current programs.
The process in my estimation ranks second only to the Fightback program developed by John Hewson in 1990. It produced no fewer than 27 policy statements ranging up to 38 pages, a total of 515 pages, and six special initiative statements covering establishment of the Australian Institute of Depression (BeyondBlue, as it became, with the latter day Citizen Kennett as chairman), declaration of Port Phillip Bay as a marine park, development of the Australian Garden of native flora at Cranbourne, the regeneration of more than 50 regional botanic gardens and gardens of significance throughout the State, the appointment of a Minister for Decentralisation to drive rural initiatives, and establishment of a network of service centres Vic Shops to maintain a face-to-face presence for government services in local communities.
This last proposal attracted very little attention, but in fact was a significant initiative arising from a comprehensive review of Multimedia Victoria and the online government strategy. The shopfront service centres were to be branded Vic Shop, with the Victorian V-logo, blue on white, aimed to become as commonplace and well known as Post shops. They would provide a direct, over the counter service for people a government presence that would have instant access to departments, call centres and online information that could provide on the spot answers to any inquiries. More than 100 of the Vic Shop centres were planned. They would offset any reticence about the use of IVR or online services and provide the reassurance of personal access to the government, although they would offer online access and help with it.
Associated with this, Victoria also had the advantage a good selling point that it was far more advanced than anywhere else in Australia and any of the benchmark American states in online information, services and transactions. Queues of people, the elderly in particular, were lining up to use the free Internet linked computers installed in every library around the State and, through the Skills.net program, in neighbourhood houses and community centres. Computers were going into schools at an increasing rate and a huge exercise was undertaken to develop the schools’online network for both teachers and students.
But similar to the situation with the Vic Shops, the online advantage was not sold effectively and failed to attract attention in the campaign. Here was a means, in fact, of creating an online community of Victorians and giving them global access, and, importantly, access into government. But people saw it as impersonal and not a real substitute for the service they had known in the past they could not see beyond the cuts and closures of the first term.
Kennett reverted to his oft repeated themes: “We take a long term view of Victoria and its place within Australia and the global environment. Only by doing so can we deliver the short and medium term benefits. Our policy framework is sound, consistent and provides the certainty in which businesses, families and individuals are able to plan for their future.” As possibly a prophetic note, he added: “There are no guarantees in life, but we can substantially increase the odds of success by taking the solid foundation we have built, and working for the future ”
No one was listening: the electors who would consign him to history were focused on the man playing president.
This raises the question as to the extent that detailed policy platforms matter and what impact they are likely to make, particularly when the population at large has a divergent perception. Is it more effective simply to play to the media with balloons and stunts that make colourful pictures? Or should they contrive the critical decisive call that makes up people’s minds firmly one way or the other.
In this respect, a notable feature of the 1999 Victorian campaign was the lack of a polarising debate. To that alone I credit much of the ennui that resulted in people saying we can bring Kennett back to earth. It was not, as some have argued, that too many Victorians thought they could teach the arrogant bastard a lesson but he’d still get back in. There was simply nothing to fire them up either way. Kennett the great and divisive leader, the man dominant on the national stage, was going down because there was nothing on offer to stir up the media or the general population. Steve Bracks fell over the line, partly at least, on the count of disinterest.
Parkinson, quoting a Labor Party campaign insider: “We went out of our way to create any diversions, to keep Kennett and Stockdale off-message. We had something every day to ensure that Jeff was answering questions about anything other than the economy. This was our big vulnerability (Labor saw this as) Kennett’s biggest failure in the campaign: his inability to shape the agenda in the crucial last days by steering the public debate back onto core issues of financial management and the levels of confidence in the local economy.”
Kennett thought there could be a reaction the Government is certain to win, so people could approach the election thinking they could give it a kick in the pants. But what he didn’t pick up was that the attitude was far stronger than this as in, people rejecting him because they saw him as arrogant. It was not just a soft backlash, but a serial rejection. And, as Parkinson has read it, he was off-message.
In the absence of a divisive public issue, the 1999 campaign was fought and determined on the presidential figure of Jeff and Labor’s tactic of working quietly in the country and marginal suburban areas, particularly Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo where they reaped big gains.
Contrast that with the Federal election, which was marked by the issues of boat people, the concocted children overboard scandal and the spectre of international terrorism in the background all played very deceptively by the Howard Government, but all significantly external issues with threats attached. The majority of Australians were not so much interested in their country becoming a smart nation. Beazley’s focus on this and his equivocating stand on the external issues didn’t help. No, they were more concerned with the protection of their collective arse. The Yellow Peril that failed to materialise in the 1960s was at the border, even if it might have been more by accident or desperation than design.
Everyone has a view of politics and politicians, most of them derogatory or dismissive. Political emotions are easily stirred because governments cop full frontal blame for most of the world’s ills and most of the ills or disappointments that afflict individuals. But do they care, going about their day-to-day lives? Are they remotely interested much of the time? The answers are no and no. Politics is a comparatively small, incestuous set. It feeds off rumour, scandal and scheming, and of course media headlines and comment columns written in the main for a political audience, misinterpreted in the corridors of power as the public perception. Not political will. That is saved for the ballot box, and again is subject to all kinds of misinterpretations before, during and after the event.
Such nuances in the political cycle barely touch the public psyche, creating generally no more than a headline impression and usually one that is negative. The explanation may well rest with P.J. O’Rourke, who holds the conviction money is preferable to politics, and that may be why people don’t care a damn. In “All the Trouble in the World”, O’Rourke wrote: “It (money) is the difference to be free to be anybody you want and being free to vote for anybody you want. And money is more effective than politics both in solving problems and providing individual independence.”
* Copyright 2002 Kevin Balshaw. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced without the written authority of the author.