True to form, Jeff Kennett is back in the headlines, the centre of a minor scandal entirely of his own making. This time the former Victorian premier had to deny accusations of racism after he claimed that security staff at AFL games were “new arrivals” who lacked an understanding of the sport.
Kennett apologised and backed down from his comments. Still, such comments are utterly unsurprising. Despite being well past his glory days, Kennett keeps himself relevant by saying silly, controversial and at times deeply offensive things. None of these remarks have stopped him from being firmly entrenched in the establishment. As premier, Kennett presided over an ambitious series of bruising neoliberal reforms that cost thousands of public sector jobs. After hubris led to a shock election defeat in 1999, he has remained in the limelight, serving as president of Hawthorn Football Club, founding chairman of Beyond Blue and a regular media commentator.
Footy brings out the worst
Like many men of the Melbourne establishment, it’s the AFL that provides Kennett with so much of his enduring relevance and a platform for many of his most outrageous statements. Kennett first served as Hawthorn president from 2005 to 2011, before returning for another stint in 2013. During his time off in between, Kennett was a frequent critic of coach Alastair Clarkson. Clarkson has won four premierships, including a “three-peat” between 2013 and 2016.
Unsurprisingly, Kennett also had plenty to say during the Adam Goodes saga in 2015. Goodes, then-Sydney Swans captain and an Australian of the Year, who unflinching frequently called out casual racism and inequality ignored by white Australia, was booed out of the league.
Kennett was one of the prominent chorus of conservative white male voices trying to gaslight Goodes about whether the booing was driven by racism. The booing, Kennett said, was “out of envy, not hate”. Goodes had brought it all on himself, because “as good a player as he is, he is provocative”.
In his regular Herald Sun column, Kennnett bemoaned the way political correctness was robbing Australia of it’s larrikins. Goodes, in Kennett’s book, was no larrikin.
Disturbing views on gender
Kennett’s history of dumb, retrograde comments on women and gender issues is nearly too long to mention. There was the Tasmanian Property Council lunch in 2016, when he said a local mayor didn’t show up because she “must have something cooking on the stove”. Then there was the time he said he was glad Hawthorn didn’t have an AFLW side.
In the Me Too era, Kennett frequently finds himself on the side of the powerful man. When former Melbourne lord mayor Robert Doyle resigned last year following allegations of sexual harassment, Kennett said Doyle was the victim of a “media witch-hunt”. After Seven executive Tim Worner was engulfed in a scandal following an affair with former employee Amber Harrison, which resulted in messy legal battles, Kennett lashed out at Harrison on Twitter.
‘Like having a paedophile as a masseur’
Kennett’s views and statements on LGBT issues were a frequent source of tension during his 17-year tenure at the helm of Beyond Blue, a non-profit initiative tackling depression and anxiety. In 2008, Kennett defended a local football club’s decision to dismiss a bisexual trainer over his sexuality, arguing that putting him in proximity to young men would cause unnecessary risk. Kennett also appeared to draw a link between homosexuality and paedophilia.
“It’s the same if you have a paedophile there as a masseur, right?” Kennett said.
In response, LGBT activists briefly tried to bring an anti-discrimination suit against Kennett.
In 2011, Kennett wrote an opinion piece arguing that heterosexual marriage was better for children. That led to considerable criticism of Beyond Blue from LGBT activists, with many pointing to what they saw as the organisation’s history of failure to deal with depression among the queer community.
A slow evolution?
Kennett’s views seem to have evolved a little since those gaffes. Kennett expressed support for same sex marriage in 2012, one of the first high profile Australian conservatives to do so. In 2017 he featured in a campaign trying to convince Liberals to vote Yes in the postal survey.
Five years after being on the wrong side of history in the Adam Goodes saga, Kennett made the surprising step of calling for the date of Australia Day to be changed, again one of the only high-profile conservatives to make the argument.
Kennett clearly has the capacity to change his views on things. But his past suggests another wildly uninformed, offensive outburst surely isn’t far away.