Win some, lose some: the aftermath of the Kennett Express

IT HIT Bernie Finn in a few brutal seconds. He was watching television on the night of the state election last September. It showed three columns representing the status of seats: In Doubt, Cliffhangers and Gone.

“All of a sudden, my name appeared on the Cliffhangers,” remembers Finn, then a backbench Liberal MP for Tullamarine. “Within 45 seconds it had moved from Cliffhangers to Gone. I’ve been in a car accident, and it was almost that quick. I was absolutely stunned.”

For the rest of the Victoria, the fall of the Kennett government was merely the biggest political story of the year. For those riding the apparently invincible Kennett express, the derailment was a personal as well as a political cataclysm: most unexpectedly, they were out of a job.

This might have triggered some mirthless glee among those who had preceded them into the unemployment market as a result of the government’s massive public service cuts, or among those working longer hours for less reward as a result of its deregulation of industrial relations. But, schadenfreude aside, how did those ejected from the system manage to put their lives back together? Where do political beasties seek refuge after a mauling, and are their links to a fallen government a help or a hindrance?

Most of the big guns – the former premier and his ministers – are accounted for. Jeff Kennett has his part-time but high-profile commitment to the Institute of Depression and last week was reported to have spent $1.4million on a Richmond office block as the intended headquarters of a new company.

Former health minister Rob Knowles is now with the Macquarie Bank (as is ex-treasurer Alan Stockdale). Former education minister Phil Gude, who announced his retirement 12 months before the election, has been ill for several months after three bouts of surgery. But he is now back at work in “strategic communications” and property development, as well as being chairman of Connex Trains.

But several of the former MPs and staff members contacted for this story spent several months “having a holiday” after the election, perhaps the equivalent of an actor’s “resting between engagements”. Some are only now beginning to move back into paid work and, if their career plans were to have a common thread, it would be that amorphous word “consultant”.

Finn was a feisty rebel MP known for two things: beating Labor’s David White in the 1996 state poll and standing up to Kennett in the Liberals’ party room. The latter got him kicked in the head on a good day, he says dryly now, “and if he was in a bad mood, it was a bit lower down”.

Finn, who worked in radio before entering politics, is one of those who have been resting and catching up with friends and relatives for much of the year since the election. He says he was shocked and grieved – not to mention angry – for some time after the loss. He had been concerned that problems were looming for two years because of Kennett’s increasing autocracy as premier. “I’m still convinced to this day that if Jeff had kept his promise to retire at 50, we would still be in government.”

Finn believes he won his seat initially by campaigning on local issues, but last September, he says, “we weren’t allowed to do that. We tried, but at the end of the day the party’s campaign was so Jeff-centred that it just engulfed everything”.

Losing his seat “basically closed the chapter on seven years of my life”, says Finn. “It was very, very painful and very distressing. On a personal level it took quite a toll.”

Packing up the office was awful. “It’s almost like when you lose a close one; you really don’t want to go and organise the funeral, but you have to.”

Finn, 39, now has more time with his wife and two-year-old daughter and has set up Finn Communications, a political and media consultancy. “I’m enjoying it. It’s very different to what I was used to, but perhaps it was time for a change.”

Finn says it is paradoxical that voters who wanted to oust Kennett in the process ousted most of the MPs who had tried to moderate his policies. Stephen Elder, who held the seat of Ripon (formerly Ballarat North), had been one of these dissenters, staunchly advocating decentralisation policies and infrastructure projects to reverse population decline in the country.

Elder is a great-nephew of former Liberal premier Henry Bolte and, while he never became a minister under Kennett, had been viewed as a long-term potential leader. The state parliamentary secretary for education for seven years, Elder is now an adviser to federal Education Minister David Kemp.

“I was offered many chances to go into private enterprise or government or semi-government, but I chose this job because I would still be involved in education,” Elder says. “Education shapes the type of community you are going to have; it shapes values, it’s the ticket for many working-class kids to a better life.”

Elder says he was lobbied hard to stand for Kennett’s former seat of Burwood but refused because he wanted to stay in Ballarat, a desire that ruled out many other job offers. (In the late 1980s Elder twice defeated the current Premier, Steve Bracks, for the seat of Ballarat North.)

Of his future, Elder says federal politics would be too hard to combine with family life, and a return to state politics is unlikely. “Time will tell, and I don’t have politics completely out of my system, but the further away we get from last year’s election, the less inclined I will be to ever return to it.

“You realise the demands that politics places on you, that the most important things in your life are your wife and your kids, and that you can be financially better off and still have a fulfilling life.”

He is philosophical about the way he was overlooked for the ministry. “If I’d been a sycophant, then outcomes for me would have been better than they were. At the end of the day, my personal ambitions weren’t as great as my ambition to do good for my community. But I stayed true to myself, and I am very proud of that.”

One of Elder’s friends on the middle benches was Michael John, who was the member for Bendigo East and had been community services minister in the government’s first term. He lost despite the fact, he says, that Bendigo “had never had it so good”, with unemployment down and injections of money into the local TAFE and a new, Olympic-standard athletics track. He was shocked that half an hour after returns began coming in, he was out. “I kept scratching my head and thinking, `Of all the elections to lose!”‘

John had no escape route planned, but had kept his lawyer’s practising certificate up to date since entering politics in 1985. He refused an offer to join the bar through a Melbourne friend’s practice – “I’m 57 now, and felt that I was perhaps a bit too old to start on that” – and now works part-time with a legal firm in Bendigo.

He says the first six months of “holidays” before he started work again were testing. “I think it’s fair to say that I got under my wife’s feet, being around all day.”

Mind you, he got under her skin at times when he was the minister slashing $80million from community services. His wife works with the disabled in an adult training centre, which would have made for some full and frank exchanges of pillow talk. Did it cause marital discord? John laughs. “What do you think? As for when we cut the 17.5per cent leave loading – I almost got divorced over that one!”

When he’s not practising law, John is catching up on the years of gardening and reading for pleasure – including biographies of Winston Churchill and Michael Caine – that he missed.

Two country MPs who have not stayed close to home “after the fall” are Florian Andrighetto, the former member for Narracan, and Barry Traynor, who held Ballarat East. Both have returned to police careers in Melbourne. Victorian law allows them to re-enter the force after a term in parliament.

Traynor is a senior sergeant in the strategic planning unit and Andrighetto is a sergeant in the ethical standards department. Neither wished to comment further.

In the weeks after the initially uncertain election result, Kennett’s media director, Steve Murphy, encouraged the ministers’ 45 staff members – “valiant foot soldiers and lieutenants” – to line up other work in case the independents gave government to Labor. They all eventually found jobs, Murphy says, “although whether they are all doing things they really want to do, I wouldn’t know”.

He says that four months after the election: “I said to Mr Kennett one week: `There’s only two people unemployed now.’ He said, `Who?’ I said: `You and me.”‘

Murphy looks bemused: “Go figure.”

It’s not all that hard to figure. Murphy had a close relationship with Kennett, and the prospects of both were presumably tainted by the massive political defeat. The change of government also meant that Murphy and other staff members no longer had any connections with an incumbent administration to enhance their marketability as lobbyists and publicists in the private sector.

Says one staff member, who did not wish to be named: “Our career structure is probably different to Labor, where they tend to get re-absorbed back into the political structure. They return to local government or the trade unions; there’s also a career path where they go from advisers to MPs. For the ex-Kennett people, there was no one clear path of disengagement.”

Many of the “Kennett refugees”, as Kennett’s former chief of staff, Anna Cronin, calls them, are now in Canberra, where Cronin is a lobbyist with consultants Parker and Partners. Her fellow “exiles” include Serena Williams, who worked with Rob Knowles and is now with federal Health Minister Michael Wooldridge; Tony Cudmore, now assistant director of the Australian Institute of Petroleum; Juliana Stackpole, senior adviser to
Environment Minister Robert Hill; Genevieve Atkinson, press secretary to Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop; and former economic adviser Michael Brennan, now with Senator Kemp.

Cronin professes herself disappointed but unfazed by the election upset. She had already resigned, knowing she had to move to Canberra because of illness in her family. In any case, says Cronin, she is used to political setbacks; she was an adviser to Andrew Peacock and John Hewson, who also lost an “unloseable” election. “You get steeled to it.”

But most of her staff “were totally shell-shocked; they thought Jeff was infallible”.

Asked if election night was a shock, Murphy says laconically: “Yeah. It was a bit like the Toyota ad, really – `Oh, bugger!”‘

But he insists he had already decided to leave his job, and the election robbed him only of the ability to decide his own timing.

Was the former government’s famed good relationship with business of any use to Murphy or his staff? “To a degree,” he says cautiously. “But you can’t just pick up the phone and say: `I’ve got half a dozen blokes here; employ them!’ If you had someone with the right set of skills for a particular job, it does help.”

Another former Liberal press secretary, Ian Smith, left that job in 1995 to run the Melbourne operation of the public affairs and finance consultancy, Gavin Anderson and Co. He employs four former Kennett staff members – James Tonkin, Mark Triffitt, Tanya Price and the only one to have been with the government at the bitter end, Stockdale’s former chief of staff, Nick Maher.

Murphy himself had three months off after the election before taking on some consultancy work with an interstate company.

He is still “exploring other options”, a phrase also employed by the Liberals’ state director, Peter Poggioli. It was recently announced that Poggioli would not renew his contract, a decision he says was made months before the election.

Formerly a professional historian specialising in mediaeval and renaissance politics, Poggioli, 50, says a return to academe is unlikely and he hopes to find a niche in the private sector.

One of Murphy’s options has been a new venture with a company called Shoutitout, of which he is a director and Kennett is chairman. Murphy refuses to confirm or deny reports that the company will focus on publicity, public relations and e-commerce.

“There’s really no detail that I want to divulge about it at this stage. The only thing I am prepared to tell you is that it’s an idea we had been chewing on and developing for some months.”

Murphy denies rumors that he is writing an insider’s book about the Kennett era but admits he is compiling into some sort of order, for his own use, the detailed daily diary entries he made in that time.

Is it therapy? He looks appalled. “I wouldn’t use the word therapy! But am I doing it with the motivation of having it printed or published? I’m not. I don’t believe in kissing and telling.”

Now there’s a pity.

First published in The Age.