PM attacks BBC payout after show’s failures


LONDON: The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, joined the chorus of criticism over the payout to the former BBC director-general George Entwistle, as two more senior editors stepped aside over the broadcaster’s decisions on programs investigating child sex abuse.
Mr Entwistle’s deal, in which he received double the money stipulated in his contract, is now likely to be reviewed by Britain’s National Audit Office after a torrent of complaints from MPs of all parties.
Mr Entwistle quit at the weekend, only 54 days into the job, after a furore over the BBC program Newsnight wrongly suggesting that a Conservative peer, later identified as the party’s former treasurer, Lord McAlpine, had been involved in paedophilia in Wales in the 1980s.
Mr Cameron last night said Mr Entwistle’s payout of a year’s salary was “hard to justify”.
The head of news at the BBC, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, both “stepped aside” while the broadcaster investigated why management dropped a Newsnight program investigating child sex abuse allegations against the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile. Multiple allegations against Savile have surfaced since then.
A BBC report into the McAlpine affair, released on Monday night, linked the two controversies.
The director of BBC Scotland, Ken MacQuarrie, concluded the editorial management of Newsnight had been weakened after the Savile scandal. The editor of Newsnight had been suspended over the decision not to run the Savile documentary, a deputy editor had left the organisation and other deputies were stood aside from making decisions over Savile-related matters.
It was decided late in the process that the program suggesting a Tory peer was a paedophile was “Savile-related” and judgment about it was referred up to a different line of management.
Mr MacQuarrie’s report found that basic journalistic checks and balances, such as correct photo identification of the alleged attacker and the offer of a right of reply to the person accused, were lacking.
The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, faces renewed calls for his sacking and was forced to defend his decision to give Mr Entwistle a lump sum of £450,000 ($686,000) on top of his pension.
Lord Patten said in a letter to the parliamentary select committee on media that if Mr Entwistle had not made an “honourable offer” to resign, he would have had to be sacked and would have been entitled to a full year’s notice.
But a Conservative MP on the committee, Philip Davies, said the payout was an affront to taxpayers and demanded Lord Patten be replaced. Asked if he thought getting rid of Lord Patten would increase the instability at the BBC, Mr Davies said: “Lord Patten is part of the problem. He is saying get a grip now because the whole issue is overwhelming him … He has been asleep at the wheel.”
Adding to the broadcaster’s public embarrassment, its new acting director-general, Tim Davie, appeared to lose his temper and walk out of an interview on Sky TV.
Mr Davie, who was appointed at the weekend, repeatedly declined to say whether Mr Entwistle was responsible for the BBC’s flaws and batted away questions about whether more heads would roll before saying he had “a lot to do” and walking off the set.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

We must set limits, for the sake of little girls

There’s no place for ethnic arrogance, but genital mutilation is different, writes Karen Kissane.

NINETEENTH-CENTURY Westerners, confident of their cultural superiority, had no qualms about trying to stamp out ugly foreign customs. Britain’s empire builders banned the Indian tradition of suttee, in which Hindu widows were burnt on their husbands’ funeral pyres; Europeans led the fight against foot-binding in China.

Colonialism had many evils, but it shone a few lights in dark places, stopping some peoples from eating their enemies and others from leaving their girl babies out to die. But ethnic arrogance has no place in multicultural worlds like today’s Australia. How, then, do we deal with minority group traditions that the majority abhor, such as genital mutilation of little girls? How far should tolerance for diversity and respect for the values of others stretch? It has been known for some time that people in some ethnic communities, particularly those from Africa and the Middle East, are circumcising their daughters. Some girls are done on kitchen tables here, some are sent back to the old country and others, police alleged several years ago, are done by Australian doctors. “Female circumcision” ranges from removal of the hood of the clitoris or the clitoris itself to infibulation, in which the clitoris, the labia majora and the labia minora are cut out and the remaining flesh sewn together, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual flow.

It effectively castrates women, leaving them with sexual pain instead of pleasure and ensuring their chastity as maidens and their fidelity as wives. It is a 5000-year-old tradition that parents still inflict on their daughters in order to make them marriageable and acceptable to their own communities. While no hard figures are available, federal health and legal authorities have heard anecdotal evidence of it here and say it is reasonable to assume that migrants such as African refugees are bringing the custom with them.

Australia has been slow to deal officially with the problem. Chief Inspector Vicki Fraser, the head of Victoria’s community policing squad, warned six years ago that the issue was being ignored because of a reluctance to create tensions in a multicultural society. Federal officials contacted for this story sighed that they knew the issue had been a time bomb, but that there had been concern about how best to deal with it without creating a racist backlash. How can you publicise an issue like this without arousing anger and disgust in other Australians? How do you convince women who have been circumcised that their daughters should not be deformed this way without making the mothers feel like freaks? Mutilation, after all, is in the eye of the beholder’s culture. Our criminal law does not recognise any right to consent to bodily harm, or any right by parents to consent to bodily harm to their children.

But we do have the right to consent to medical procedures that are painful and non-therapeutic, such as cosmetic surgery. The desire to have a nose broken and reshaped, a face cut open and tightened, or tissue removed from a large breast also springs from a longing to be accepted by the community. It may be sad but it is not, in our culture, considered bizarre.

But genital mutilation is different. It deprives women of a normal physical function, leaves them with serious long-term health problems and is done when they are children and cannot give informed consent.

Australian political leaders have long condemned it and threatened legal consequences for anyone involved, but its legal status is still unclear. The Australian Law Reform Commission has argued against special legislation criminalising it, saying that offenders could be charged under existing criminal law, and that, in any case, education would be a better tool for change than prosecution. The Australian Family Law Council, which advises the Attorney-General, recommends much stronger action.

The council’s discussion paper on the issue, due out next month, recommends federal legislation outlawing genital mutilation. It also proposes making it a criminal offence to send a child out of the country to have it done elsewhere. If the proposal is adopted Australia, like Europe, will jail offending parents. The council has rejected the argument that genital mutilation is a religious custom.

The chairman, John Faulks, says religious leaders deny that it is a Muslim practice or required by the Koran. Mr Faulks says it is important that laws be passed to clarify doubts about whether such cases can be prosecuted and in order for Australia to comply with its obligations under international conventions on the rights of the child. This, then, would be the limit of multicultural tolerance.

There have always been limits. We do not allow Muslims to cut off the hand of a thief or stone an adulteress. People from polygamous cultures must respect our bigamy laws and men from more patriarchal societies must learn that in this country, children of a broken marriage do not automatically belong to the father. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to refuse a sick child a necessary blood transfusion. The right of a child to protection outweighs the right of the parent to follow tradition.

Genital mutilation should be criminalised if migrants are to get a clear message about how serious a practice it is. Opponents of criminalisation argue that it sends the problem underground, causing more hardship for the girls. But that argument, like the argument against mandatory reporting of other forms of child abuse, makes no sense; the problem is already beyond the law. Even in the countries from which these migrants come, human rights activists oppose the practice.

But change must also come from within. Education programs should be set up to ask parents to examine their beliefs and to ask mothers to remember their own shock and pain and grief. The American writer Alice Walker, whose last novel was about a woman who had been mutilated, has been asked why women have helped weave such social and religious significance around what is, in essence, a horror. She said that people carrying an unendurable hurt create an alternative reality to make the pain more bearable, and that this is what must change if we are to stop attacks on the innocent face of the vulva.

First published in The Age.

This is your life

Karen Kissane

THE girl was rushed to hospital with complications following an abortion. She begged staff to shield her from a relative working in the hospital who might tell her conservative Indian family.Staff put the girl in a different ward to where the relative, a nurse, was stationed, but failed to tell the girl she had the right to a “manual” admission, with her details kept in an old-fashioned paper file. Instead, her case was recorded on the hospital’s computer database. Here it was found by her relative, who was allegedly in the habit of trawling the system for familiar names.

The result, says New Zealand Privacy Commissioner Bruce Slane, was “a complete breakdown in family relations”. He tells the story to illustrate the sensitivity of health information and the sometimes devastating consequences of its improper release – as well as the ease with which health databases can be violated.

It is a New Zealand story, but it has implications for Australia. The computer revolution is about to hit your doctor’s surgery – and link it with your pathologist’s lab, your local hospital’s emergency room and even those discreet clinics where you might seek treatment following a less-than-discreet sexual encounter.

A Federal Government taskforce is investigating what form this country’s national “E-health” records system should take, and the Victorian and NSW governments have already launched pilot programs for cyberspace sharing of information between doctors and hospitals at a state level.

The information age has opened up Orwellian possibilities for the detailed tracking of individuals’ use of health-care services and the linking of all their medical encounters on one electronic health record (EHR). It could contain all the clinical information now recorded on paper: the symptoms that led you to seek a consultation, the doctor’s diagnosis and the treatment offered.

There are potentially great benefits. Patients should face fewer unnecessary repeat tests or medical accidents. Doctors would be able to get a complete patient history at the press of a button. Researchers could scan the experiences of millions of people to identify nationwide trends in illness and the effectiveness and safety of treatments. And governments hope to cut costs and better assess the performance of doctors and hospitals.

But computerisation raises big questions about how to mediate the sometimes competing goals of all these “stakeholders” in the health system.

Who decides what should and shouldn’t go on to an electronic record? How should privacy be protected, and to what degree must patients relinquish it to satisfy goals identified as being “the common good”? Should organisations collecting information patients reveal as part of their confidential health care encounters be able to use or sell it for profit?

Bureaucrats keen to contain costs and researchers hungry for mass data are among those who have pushed for a centralised database to which every Australian would be connected lifelong. Such a database would be overseen by the Health Insurance Commission, which administers Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The centralised model was supported by a 1998 report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs inquiry into health information management. It recommended that individuals carry health “smart cards” and that the medical details on the cards be backed up in a national data warehouse.

“Centralised” has since become the “C-word” of the debate because of concerns that it might arouse public alarm. Parties privy to discussions on the issue privately say there are still some in Canberra who want the centralised model. Publicly, however, stage proponents are talking now only of a system for linking multiple databases.

This means that your separate carers – GP, specialist, chemist, hospital – would each keep their own computerised file on you, but it would be possible for each to access material from the others electronically.

If you arrived in casualty unconscious, hospital staff could call up your GP’s notes to check on your history of blood-clotting problems or allergies to medication; if you needed a new prescription from your GP, he could call up your hospital records
to confirm that today’s prescription would not react adversely with medicine you were given last time you were admitted.

Theoretically, doctors would need your authorisation, and perhaps your smartcard, to do so, although they would probably have the right to override lack of permission in an emergency. And more sensitive information might be “masked” so that a higher level of access was required to read it. “There’s no need for the GP at the 24-hour clinic to know about the three abortions you had when you were 15,” says Dr Sandra Hacker.

Hacker is the AMA representative on the National Health Information Management Advisory Council, the organisation charged with assessing the options. Its Electronic Health Records Taskforce is due to report to health ministers on the issue in July.

Hacker says the AMA is opposed to a central warehouse because of privacy concerns, and she believes the public would be outraged by it. But while she thinks it an unlikely option, she cannot rule it out. “If that’s what the Government legislates, that’s what will happen.”

Patient advocates are not even reassured by the more moderate alternative of links between databases. “The effect (on privacy) may be much the same either way,” warns Meredith Carter, executive director of the Health Issues Centre.

Supporters of a comprehensive system, such as Dr Chris Kelman, a researcher with the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Research, point out that computer systems containing sensitive information are already in use in banking and the military.

In an article he co-authored in the Medical Journal of Australia , it was suggested that an EHR could even be stored as a secure web page. He says, “The technology is capable of maintaining privacy. Look what’s happening with encryption.”

But if computer hackers can turn a NASA satellite in space, how safe is even the most highly encrypted health records system?

“Scary, isn’t it?” says Dr Sam Heard. Dr Heard, director of the general practice education and research unit at the Northern Territory clinical school of medicine, Flinders University, is not opposed to e-health. He has been working for 13 years on a project called the Good Electronic Health Record. He favors what he calls the “radical” model, where patients themselves would carry their record or choose a trusted third party to store it for them.

Databases worry him. “The more people have access (to a system) and the larger the database, the more valuable it is and the more at risk it is,” he says. “How many people would be using it at any one time? Imagine the security nightmare.”

Dr Heard warns that hackers can download from the Internet “Trojan horse” software that allows them to infiltrate a system and force it to spit out information. It is possible to make a system completely secure, he says, but that would also make it close to unusable.

A less sinister but equally worrying problem is internal computer glitches. Last year, several thousand Americans’ patient records were accidentally displayed on the Internet for two months. A gremlin in the database of the University of Michigan Medical Centre left records detailing treatments for specific medical conditions, employment status and social security numbers available to anyone tapping into the centre’s website.

While the debate about the security of the technology is important, patient-advocate Carter sees it as a secondary one. The real point is that “any system you build is going to rely on human beings to operate it, so you will always get human corruption and human error”.

Carter says the NSW Independent Commission against Corruption reported in 1992 that it had found “a widespread commercial trade in personal information, including Medicare data, between officers of government agencies and other institutions which should know better such as banks, insurance companies and debt collectors”.

Dr Heard worries about the potential for celebrities or even ordinary individuals who have aroused animosity to be targeted and blackmailed or humiliated by the exposure of their health history. “How much would knowledge that (a former prime minister) had cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol be worth?” he says.

Violation of computer systems by government employees is still being reported. In February, a Queensland inquiry into the misuse of that state’s police database was told that more than 30 officers at one station had given individuals’ details to the station’s cleaner, who moonlighted as a debt collector.

In January, the Melbourne Magistrates Court was told that a customer service officer for the Health Insurance Commission, Mieng Tang, had used his position to access the Medicare histories and personal details of up to 90 people a day. Most were Asian women and women who had been on IVF treatment. His defence was that he had been “bored”.

Here was illustrated both the blessing and the curse of computerisation: Tang was able to flick through many more files than would have been possible if he was handling more cumbersome paper folders, but it was the audit trail of the computer system that detected his illicit access.

Carter points out that these audit trail safeguards were set up because the law requires it of databases held in the public system. But she says the private health sector, which will self-regulate privacy matters under legislation currently before Parliament, will not face the same stringency.

Lastly, there is the potential for deliberate privacy “breaches” for reasons that those controlling the data think justifiable. There was an outcry in 1987 when teenage girls were listed to testify about their under-age abortions in a court case against a disreputable Melbourne gynaecologist. “People said, `Forget the charges; what are you doing to these girls?”‘ Carter says.

In America, pharmaceutical companies have bought health insurance companies so that they can access patient records and direct market to both patients and doctors. Hacker says Australian doctors are now being approached by companies looking to buy their practices.

In Canada, the Privacy Commissioner, Bruce Phillips, reported that information technology also puts a great deal of power into the hands of public servants. He told of an Ontario woman who, supported by her doctor, sought breast reduction surgery to alleviate chronic pain in her back and shoulders. “The health bureaucrats responded by demanding photographs before agreeing to foot the bill,” Mr Phillips said.

On a bigger scale, the greater political acceptance of the role of market forces has led to widespread “data mining”, the sale of mass health information for commercial use. In Iceland, every citizen was tested so that their genetic makeup could be recorded on a DNA databank now managed by a commercial biotechnology company.

Medical data originally given by patients to Britain’s National Health Service in good faith is now under the control of organisations free to sell it to the highest bidder, according to Professor Stuart Horner, the 1998 chairman of the British Medical Association ethics committee.

And Australia’s Health Insurance Commission is already examining how best to sell “de-identified” material from the Medicare and PBS databases. “They are going to do whatever they can within the bounds of their political ability to exploit and mine that resource to get revenue,” says Stephen Millgate, executive director of the Australian Doctors’ Fund.

He says the HIC’s sales aims, expressed in its 1998-99 annual report, “are written in hard-core commercial language; it’s aggressive, it’s about customers and marketing and being competitive”.

Millgate is the greatest doomsayer in Australia’s EHR debate. He is convinced any model adopted by government will be a disaster because its goals will be administrative and budgetary rather than patient-focused. “And there will be no savings; the cost of putting up a system which is accurate is enormous. It will chew its own head off in costs in the first two or three years.

“There are some moral issues here too. Half the world doesn’t have basic health care, while we’re going to spend millions in Western democracies to know everything about everybody’s health. What groups will be unfunded so you and I can have a continuous record of every ache and pain?”

Millgate doubts promises that patients will remain free to choose whether to “opt in” to the system. “What you will find happening is that if you don’t `opt in’, you won’t get certain rebates. It’s quite easy for governments to say something’s not compulsory and then change the financial incentives to make it crazy for someone to resist it.”
A spokeswoman for the federal Health Minister, Dr Michael Wooldridge, says the Government knows that Australians are very protective of their health privacy and that any system would have to be voluntary, with information kept only in summary and patients having the right to edit their records. “If they didn’t want to admit that they were on a psychiatric drug, for instance, they could just take that off.”
While protecting privacy, this raises its own problems. A patient might suffer an adverse event because doctors acted on the assumption that the EHR was complete when, in fact, essential information had been left off it. Who is then legally responsible: the patient who requested the information withheld from the record, the doctor who agreed to withhold it, or the doctor who made a mistake because he was uninformed?
But accurate, accessible records could be invaluable for the chronically ill. Dr Wooldridge’s spokeswoman points out that almost a third of hospital admissions are of elderly people, and most of them have been made seriously ill by interactions between their many medicines.

It is these people that Hacker predicts will use and benefit from linked EHRs. But groups such as her own customers, psychiatric patients, are likely to avoid them, she says. Electronic records of therapy consultations accessible to anyone other than the treating doctor “could make psychiatry almost unworkable. I see politicians, judges, other doctors: they’re not going to want to reveal things to me if they think others will see it”.

Slane, New Zealand’s privacy advocate, is concerned that systems in that country have too often been set up to spread an unjustifiably wide net over patients whose views have not been taken on board. “It seems to be assumed that having people’s health information is a jolly good thing and a use will be found for it sometime in the future … with public opinion a risk to be managed later,” he says.

This ignores the central issue. “The essence of privacy is respecting what other people think is important to them as private, rather than us saying what the values are and that they should apply to everyone always.”

Health Records: The upside

While away on work, Mr Smith, a truck driver, sees a GP. He complains of severe headaches and asks for strong pain relief. What the doctor sees is an unkempt man from out of town requesting a drug of addiction. With Mr Smith’s permission, the GP calls up his medications history to check that Mr Smith has not been misusing prescribed painkillers. He hasn’t.

But a prompt pops up on the screen telling the doctor that the national adverse events register has recently detected an interaction between two drugs Mr Smith is taking for other conditions. Surveillance of the national health records system had found that people taking both often suffered hypertension and severe headaches. The GP prescribes alternative medication for Mr Smith.

– An imaginary scenario from “An integrated electronic health record and information system for Australia?” Medical Journal of Australia.

Health Records: The downside

At the height of Western Australia’s abortion law row in 1997, a woman who had suffered several traumatic childbirths and miscarriages, followed by a severe stroke, found herself pregnant again. Her husband’s vasectomy had failed. She feared another difficult pregnancy might kill her and booked a termination.

The following day, an elderly man phoned and asked for her by her full title, including her middle name. He told her he knew she was due for a termination and sterilisation at the hospital concerned, and that she would rot in hell. More abusive calls followed and a poem “written” by an aborted child to its mother was hand-delivered to her home. An investigation failed to discover how her details were accessed and leaked, although it noted that a staff member had phoned an anti-abortion group from the hospital during the relevant time-frame.

First published in The Sunday Age.

Wild oats and rolls in the hay as Diva does her dynastic duty



SPARE a maidenly blush for Makybe Diva. She must now trade in the orgasmic delight of finishing first in the Melbourne Cup at Flemington for the not-so-orgasmic delights of the breeding shed.
The queen of the track is to endure the fate of female aristocrats throughout history: arranged unions and dynastic pressures to continue her line.
As with any trophy bride of gentility, the bucks involved are big. According to Mike Becker, president of Thoroughbred Breeders Victoria, a good yearling foal of Makybe Diva by the world’s top breeding stallion, America’s Storm Cat, could sell for $US5 million to $US8 million ($A6.7 million to $A10.7 million).
“She is one of the great mares of all time. That would be a drawcard instantly,” Mr Becker said.
Such profits would make the cost of having her “served” by Storm Cat a triviality ($US500,000, plus the round-trip cost of $US40,000 for transporting her to the United States). What some people will do for a little bit of nookie.
Australia’s top sire, Redoute’s Choice, is by contrast a bargain at $200,000 plus GST for encounters that result in a pregnancy. This might prove a little too close for comfort for our Diva, as Redoute’s grand-sire was also hers, loading the genetic roulette wheel against any joint progeny.
But even an Aussie-sired foal might fetch a price tag of $2 million or more, says John Messara, owner of the Arrowfield Stud in NSW.
After the career-girl glamour of the track, the Diva will find the road to motherhood dignity-denting. Racing experts suggested yesterday that her owner, Tony Santic, might well rest her for a year as Australia is now halfway through its breeding season of September to December. But by this time next year, she will find herself at the very least sexually initiated – and in a way that makes all those minimal-foreplay jokes ring true.
Test-tube reproduction is forbidden to racehorses. “If you used artificial insemination, you could impregnate 10 mares from one ejaculate, and we are passionate about not getting a reduction in the genetic pool,” Mr Becker said. And in the world of equine sex, the gentleman makes the rules.
Makybe Diva will not only have to pay for her consorts but she will have to travel to meet them. Like Elvis at Graceland, a stud stallion can stay close to home and have the females flock to him. He can service up to 200 mares a season, and travelling time would cut into his precious productivity. (Yes, 200 is more than the number of days in the season. Stallions can perform up to three times a day, no Viagra required.)
A mating goes like this. A virginal horse (or maiden mare, as they are known) might first have her hymen ruptured by a vet to ensure ease of passage for the rite of passage. Then she will be placed near a “teaser” stallion. As she comes on heat, he will come on to her. She will sidle up to him and raise her tail; handlers will see her vulva moving.
A vet will be called in and will give the mare a rectal ultrasound to confirm that she has follicles ready to release eggs from her ovaries. On day three or four of her cycle, she will be mated.
She will be in a shed with a handler at her head holding a “twitch”, a long piece of wood or pipe that has string or rope at the end of it. This is twined around the fleshy part of the mare’s nose to discourage her from “misbehaving”.
“It probably borders on rape, but it’s not,” Mr Becker said. “You know she’s receptive. She’s heavily in season.”
But she might be nervous if she is inexperienced. “Stallions are very virile creatures who roar and tuck their necks in and bluster – just like a normal bloke.”
The stallion will sniff her and rub himself against her before rearing up on his back legs to mount her. A young stallion might need a helping hand if he is to find his way. The whole process takes about five minutes and the serious action only about two. “There’s not a lot of pillow talk,” Mr Becker admitted.
Sometimes stallions knock back a mare they don’t fancy, Mr Messara says. “Some stallions prefer grey mares. You can liken it to blondes.” A stallion who is unhappy will refuse to mount or fail to get an erection. The lady, on the other hand, “doesn’t get a choice – sorry about that. They express their dissatisfaction by kicking, but we hobble their hind legs in big leather shoes.”
Makybe Diva might keep a little more of her feminine self-respect. Her strapper, Christine Mitchell, yesterday said she would pity the first stallion the triple-Melbourne Cup champion met as a brood mare. “She’s got a wicked kick in her back end.”
All of which leaves open the central question about equine reproduction for anyone who has passed paddocks in springtime. How sizeable, exactly, is the stallion’s virile member?
Mr Messara was dumbstruck. “I’ve never paid that kind of attention to it.”
Perhaps if he were to ask a female strapper, who might have more of a sense of wonder about it all? “I’d get my face slapped!”
But in the interests of accuracy, he telephoned his stud manager who was in a breeding shed at the time. The answer came in the old parlance: two feet.
Another reason to take one’s hat off to the Diva.

First published in The Age.

How the ghost of Kennett loomed over Doyle’s first day Election 2002

Robert Doyle is being selective when evoking Jeff Kennett’s legacy, reports Karen Kissane.

Managing the ghosts of premiers past can be a tricky business, particularly when that premier is Jeff Kennett. Yesterday Robert Doyle did his best to pick the cherries out of the Kennett chocolate box.

For his first news conference of the campaign, Mr Doyle appeared duly pancaked and scripted. He talked quickly, not yet master of the measured tones of the political trouper, and threw voters sweet reminders of how the Kennett government had turned around the state’s finances.

“I think it’s easy to forget where we were in 1991-92,” he said. “We were a laughing-stock . . . We were on our knees economically. Within two terms of government we were a prosperous state again . . . I’m very proud of that.”

But Mr Doyle was careful to avoid anything that voters might find hard to swallow, such as hints that the Kennett government’s style might be resurrected.

“We have learnt how we got out of touch with the communities, and we have learnt that we need to keep in touch with their priorities,” he said. “I’m a completely different bloke from Jeff Kennett and I lead a completely different party.”

There have been other kinds of differences too. When Mr Doyle made his lunge for the Liberal leadership in August, Mr Kennett was scathing. “He is not, in my opinion, a leader,” Mr Kennett told 3AK listeners.

“He is not leadership material now and he is certainly not leadership material in the future. Those who back him . . . must accept responsibility for what I consider to be a gross act of disloyalty so close to an election.”

That was then. This is now: “Since taking over he’s done a wonderful job,” Mr Kennett said yesterday in his Richmond office (home base for Jeff Kennett Pty Ltd). “He comes across as a leader, particularly on television, much stronger than Denis (Napthine) did . . . I have a very clear feeling that if Robert Doyle says he’ll do something, he’ll do it.”

Mr Doyle said he and Mr Kennett had mended fences – “My relationship with the former premier is great” – and that he had a morning meeting with Mr Kennett last week that was amicable and constructive. The former premier was welcome to help with the campaign any way he liked, Mr Doyle said. But he seemed to reserve overt enthusiasm for borrowed statesmanship for the prospect of a visit from John Howard.

Mr Kennett said yesterday he had met Mr Doyle three or four times in the past few weeks. He was booked for “a sea of functions” with Liberal candidates but has no appearances lined up with the leader. “He hasn’t asked me to do anything for him,” Mr Kennett said. “We’re going to discuss that.”

Any hard feelings over the way the new leader was distancing himself from the Kennett legacy? “I think that is understandable. Every person who is charged with a leadership position has got to establish their own opinions, their own environment. Robert Doyle is not a Kennett, Steve Bracks is not a Kennett.”

He beamed. “Fortunately, there is only one Kennett.”

First published in The Age.