Will he or won’t he? As
Victorians consider the prospect that Jeff Kennett could once again
throw his hat in the ring, psephologists are enthralled at the
opportunity it offers for a long-standing record to be broken. If
Kennett were to become Liberal leader and lose the election (which
would be a virtual certainty), he would become the first Australian
political leader to lose four elections.

Kennett is already only
the second Liberal leader to lose three: Vernon Treatt, leader of the
New South Wales Liberal Party from 1946 to 1954, first established the
record. After then, the Liberal Party established a reputation for
ruthlessness with its leaders: in Tasmania, where Labor seemed to
perpetually in office, Liberal leaders were allowed two terms, but
elsewhere leaders were routinely dispatched after one loss unless they
seemed to be in a strong position for next time.

In the 1980s,
Jeff Kennett seemed to break the mould. The fact that he survived his
1985 election loss was not terribly surprising, since he did at least
make up ground, but being retained after a second loss in 1988 showed
him to have uncommon powers of survival. He was eventually deposed by
Alan Brown in 1989, but made a comeback in 1991. He then went on to win
two landslide victories before finally equalling Treatt’s record with
his loss in 1999. The fate of his successors, however, showed that the
party was as ruthless as ever; only for Kennett did they make an
exception.

The ALP, by contrast, has traditionally indulged its
leaders more. Three-time losers have not been particularly unusual,
with two in Victoria alone (Clive Stoneham and Clyde Holding). At
federal level, three successive Labor leaders lost three elections
each: Bert Evatt, Arthur Calwell and Gough Whitlam (although Whitlam,
like Kennett, did also win two). Kim Beazley is still a chance to
repeat the achievement, although there are signs that Labor is starting
to match the Liberals for ruthlessness (just ask Simon Crean).

But
no-one I have discovered has yet been able to survive long enough to
enjoy (if that is the word) a fourth defeat. Jeff Kennett seems to be
seriously contemplating whether he wants to claim that crown for
himself.

It’s possible, of course, that what the Kennett story
really proves is the sad lack of any alternative talent in the
Victorian Liberal Party. But sending the message that electoral failure
will be repeatedly rewarded is probably not the best way to encourage
new talent to emerge.

Peter Fray

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