Since the post-World War II
economic consensus shattered in the 70s, Australia has had two standout
leaders prepared to tackle the challenge of reform – a prime minister,
Bob Hawke, and a premier, Jeff Kennett.

Sure, Hawke and
Keating had Peter Walsh. Kennett had Alan Stockdale. But the buck stops
with the boss. They give their names to the governments, to their
period of rule. They give their names to history.

Jeff Kennett
was arrogant – but he gave Victoria a new sense of purpose and a new
sense of life. He lost government – but only on the caprice of a
populist independent after a protest vote that went too far. That is
the Kennett legacy as it stands. Was Kennett himself going to put it
all at risk? Of course not! So no wonder he won’t return to the Liberal leadership.

If
Kennett was to return as Liberal leader, what would his pitch have
been? That Steve Bracks and Labor have squandered the benefits of his
reforms? That would have had to have been the gist. But how would he have
kept his old reform agenda going? By returning to the policies of 1999
that exacerbated the protest that pushed him out of power –
privatisation of some health services, for example? That wasn’t a
winner in government. It’s an impossible ask for an opposition. And
it’s exactly what Labor would have charged him with.

The
Victorian Liberals are irredeemable. They will lose the November poll.
Badly. And Kennett knew that. He had his fun. He showed his pulling
power. He made some grand gestures of ego and bast*rdry. Very Jeff. But
he’s decided not to return as leader because he knew that if he did, he
faced two options.

Either he would have had to run on his
record and lost. Not only would that have meant that he would have had
to deal once again with opposition. It would have meant that voters had
repudiated his legacy – firmly, this time.

Or else he would
have had to repudiate his own legacy. He would have had to front up and
tell voters he was wrong. Come off it. Can anyone imagine Jeff Kennett
ripping the pages that praise him from the history books.

And
they’re just the Jeff factors. What about the Victorian Liberal Party
dynamics? The party is in chaos. It would be in an even bigger mess if
Kennett led it to an election loss. Andrew Bolt is spot on in the Herald-Sun today:

Jeff
Kennett is getting calls from Liberals pleading for him to come back
and lead their devastated party. So which bits of their joint didn’t he
smash up enough the last time?

That the state Liberals are in
this God-awful mess – with leader Rob Doyle yesterday quitting in
despair – shows precisely why Kennett is not their salvation.

Jeff didn’t want that to be the Kennett legacy – yet it’s what he would have been risking. Or asking for. Begging for.

While Jeff can be a boofhead, he’s not that much of a boofhead.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%