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.