Yesterday’s historical item on the
relationship between Jeff Kennett and his Treasurer Alan Stockdale has
sparked some correspondence, including an alternative view to the line
that Kennett “would have pork-barrelled far more had Stockdale not
preached caution.”

In early 1999, as the size of the savings that
were going to be delivered from public transport privatisation became
apparent (history has shown that a lot of this was bidder blue sky),
some people who were close to the process decided that it would be a real winner
to restore country rail services to a couple of places from where the
Government had removed them in 1993. While restoring services to
Mildura was way too expensive, they could be restored to Bairnsdale and
Ararat for quite a modest amount of money (small enough to be lost in
the rounding of the contracts that were being negotiated).

The
cabinet sub-committee (Robin Cooper, Stockdale and Dennis Napthine) saw
this as a great way to argue that the money saved from contracting out
was being used both to pay off debt and to fund improved services. This
was consistent with Stockdale’s general behaviour in the sub-committee
where he always argued strongly that the benefits of the privatisation
needed to be sold well to the public and took a keen interest in the
communications campaign that was built around the process.

Unfortunately,
Stockdale was overseas and not at the Cabinet meeting when the proposal
(to make restoring services to Bairnsdale and Ararat a condition of the
contract) came up. Neither Cooper nor Napthine were able to carry the
day against Kennett (backed by some senior bureaucrats). Jeff thought
it would look weak to restore services that the Government had taken
away. At the election, later in 1999, the Liberal Party narrowly lost
seats in
Bairnsdale and Ararat which are in Gippsland East and Ripon (to
Independent Craig Ingram and the ALP respectively). One can only
speculate on what the results may
have been if the Government had been able to point out to voters that
the dividend from good economic management was now being delivered.

Today, it
could still be a case of Premier Jeff had he loosened the purse strings
and seen the writing on the wall in regional Victoria. The big spending
Bracks government won’t be making the same mistake – last November it
announced a $500 million regional statement designed to shore up bush support ahead of this year’s state election.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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