The fall of Kennett: from realpolitik to real politics

THE WORDS “authoritarian” and “Victorian” were a natural pairing long before Jeff Kennett came to embody them in his premiership. He ran the state the way a Victorian-era papa ran his family: rigidly, with no questioning tolerated, no challenge unpunished.

Papa knew best and, for Kennett, anyone who did not accept so was “un-Victorian”. What will Victoria be like with Papa gone?

There will certainly be less political invective to amuse us, but perhaps Steve Bracks’ excited malapropisms will help compensate. He talked at a press conference this week of “garnishing support”, as if he planned to adorn his backers with sprigs of parsley. Decent he may be; smooth he ain’t, at least not yet.

Televisually, Kennett won this week’s performances. He wore better suits than Bracks. He was articulate, assured, and at times graceful (in the athletic sense of the precision with which he aimed rhetorical kicks at various heads during his exit speech).

He continued the smooth sell of what he saw as his Government’s achievements right up to the death knock. This, too, was “Victorian” in the historic sense; that era valued oratory highly, and its middle and upper classes expended a lot of energy on preserving face in public.

Bracks-the-giant-killer is not a traditional papa. He makes quiet, dogged points rather than sweeping pronouncements. He talks about wanting to take people with him. He’s more like a 1990s dad: authoritative rather than authoritarian, trying to balance everyone’s needs, willing to admit he doesn’t know it all but promising that he’s open to learning.

These are not just differences of style. They stem from differences of substance. They point to the way dogmatic realpolitik in this state is about to be replaced by real politics, involving public debate and negotiation and compromise. It will be messier and more uncertain than what has gone before, but it should be more open to human values and – dare I say it? – idealism.

Kennett was not entirely lacking in either. He spared us some of the most socially damaging aspects of the neo-liberal agenda. While he was aggressive and uncompromising about economic policy, he did not inflict on us the punitive preoccupation with “traditional family values” of many of America’s conservative leaders.

He also broke with the traditional right in his passionate support of multiculturalism and immigration and his dislike and condemnation of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation policies. He understood the importance of social cohesion around these issues, and his stance made the lives of many ethnic Victorians a little easier.

But his attempts to run the state as a corporation rather than as a community amounted to an economic experiment that went too far, untrammelled by the oversight of an ethics committee.

The first rule of ethical scientific experimentation is that subjects used in it must not be injured by it. Kennett did not ensure this for many of the Victorians – particularly those in the bush – whose loyalty he demanded throughout the turmoil of his massive downsizings, privatisations and cuts to services.

The second rule of ethical experimentation is that subjects give informed consent to the processes they are about to undergo. Victorians were not warned of the extent of Kennett’s planned revolution before he was elected to Government and, during his premiership, polls indicated that many people opposed privatisation of public utilities and were concerned about the resourcing of schools and hospitals.

For those who loathed him, and they are many, Kennett’s collapse is akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is relief and exhilaration that this huge and apparently insurmountable symbol of division is no more. But, like the German Government, the incoming Labor administration faces a long, hard struggle to rebuild.

Most urgently in need of renovation is the current dispirited belief that we cannot afford to look after each other any more; that economic responsibility necessarily means turfing new mothers out of hospital too early, leaving old people waiting on casualty trolleys and jamming children into overcrowded schools. Economic “success” should not require that we live with two Victorias, one booming and the other a resentful underclass.

Kennett has changed the political landscape in a way that makes it essential for future Labor governments to address fiscal responsibilities. It is up to Bracks to change the political landscape in a way that makes it essential for future Liberal governments to address social responsibilities.

Forget “un-Victorian”. The notion that decency is too expensive is un-Australian.

First published in The Age.