The f*ckin’ legend of Jeff Kennett

The Jeff Kennett will-o’-the-wisp came and went before I had the opportunity to comment on it. Long-time Kennett antagonist Stephen Mayne surveyed the damage in today’s Crikey email:

Late this morning, after less than a day of frenzied speculation, Jeff Kennett formally withdrew from the Victorian Liberal Party leadership race. Which is the worst possible outcome for the state opposition and leaves them almost certain to go further backwards at the 25 November election. Rather than someone like Ted Baillieu emerging as the consensus great white hope after Robert Doyle’s resignation yesterday, the electorate now knows that most Liberal powerbrokers believe he was a worse alternative than recycling a controversial premier. For the Labor Party of course, he’s a much better alternative – to fend off Jeff, they might have needed to dig into their cash pit with a well-resourced scare campaign. With Baillieu, the Bracks spin machine will hardly need to get out of second gear, let along go into overdraft, to retain office. Imagine the scenario if Jeff had come out yesterday and immediately ruled out a comeback on the basis that Ted Baillieu would make an outstanding Premier. Instead, we had all this frenzied expectation – and now nothing more than deflation.

Crikey also underlined the overwhelming consensus that Kennett’s return would have done little if anything to avert another Coalition disaster at the coming election (to say nothing of the absurdity of the proposal that he lead the party in the meantime from outside parliament). Allow me to add my voice to the throng. The common Liberal complaint that the 1999 election result was a "protest vote that went too far" is revealing more for its arrogance than its insight. The theory should have been laid to rest four weeks later by the Frankston East supplementary election, held because the sitting Liberal member died on the eve of polling day. Voters on the day knew perfectly well that a "protest vote" would sign the death warrant of the Kennett government, but they nevertheless delivered the seat to Labor with a swing of more than 7 per cent.

Kennett’s approach to the election campaign suggested that he saw it as an opportunity to build his Melbourne-centric personality cult, and to rub his enemies’ noses in what he saw as a looming triumph. This manifested itself in a number of ways – in the "Jeff’s a fuckin’ legend" pitch at the demographic of Formula One and Triple M, the latter of which was given regular access to the Premier while the ABC was snubbed; in the energy directed at winning the normally safe Labor seats in Dandenong that had been made temporarily marginal by the 1992 and 1996 elections, while the Coalition’s own marginals were neglected; and worst of all, in Kennett’s petulant performance on Jon Faine’s ABC Radio program three days before the election. Kennett presumably imagined that this would only be heard by un-Victorian basket-weaving leftists, but the footage that appeared on that night’s television news bulletins did incalculable damage to his image, particularly in the country. All the while Labor was making hay with its devastating advertisements on country television depicting two taps, one dripping slowly and marked "country Victoria", the other gushing freely and marked "Melbourne". It is unlikely that country Victoria has forgotten what it perceived to be its neglect at the hands of a Kennett government fixated on bread and circuses in the capital. In failing to recognise this, Kennett’s boosters are showing the same short-sightedness that proved so costly in 1999.

There is no objective reason why the result of the 1999 election should have come as such a shock. The late opinion polls were mostly on the money, with Newspoll and Morgan correctly indicating a dead-heat and only ACNielsen erring in favour of the Coalition. The sense of surprise can be put down to the Melbourne media’s assumption that the election would be won and lost in the traditional battlefield of Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Instead, swings in the country of up to 10 per cent delivered wins to Labor that few had seen coming, including Gisborne, Ripon, Seymour, Narracan and Ballarat East. The following table indicates geographic variations in the swing to Labor at the 1999 and 2002 elections using the newly created regions for the upper house. The methodology for the calculations was a bit slapdash, but the results are useful for illustrative purposes.

. 2002 1999
Northern Metropolitan 8.7 1.9
Eastern Metropolitan 9.5 3.3
South-Eastern Metropolitan 11.5 3.6
Southern Metropolitan 8.1 1.4
Western Metropolitan 8.7 3.8
Northern Victoria 5.2 8.0
Western Victoria 7.2 4.3
Eastern Victoria 6.1 4.9

It can clearly be seen that the country gave the Coalition its worst results in 1999 and its best results (relatively speaking) in 2002. This has left a fair bit of low-hanging fruit for them in the country, specifically Evelyn, Hastings and Gembrook (all held by margins of less than 2 per cent) (UPDATE: and all arguably outer urban, as noted by commenter Geoff R) along with Morwell (4.9 per cent) and South Barwon (5.0 per cent). The recovery of these seats is essential to any kind of respectable performance, and would most likely be jeopardised in the event of a Kennett comeback. If the Coalition is to go further and actually put the Bracks government in jeopardy, there are a further eight country seats it must win that are held by margins of between 6.8 per cent and 9.5 per cent, and these would surely be beyond Kennett’s powers.

On the other hand, Kennett might have strengthened the Liberals’ position in 11 Melbourne seats with margins of between 2.1 per cent and 5.8 per cent, all of which are located east or south-east of the city. If Kennett had inspired a swing of 5 per cent to 6 per cent in these areas that was not reciprocated elsewhere, he could have added a respectability to the scoreboard out of proportion with the overall statewide swing. Such a result would have reflected the outcome of the 1996 election, when Labor failed to yield dividends from a 2.8 per cent swing due to another poor performance in the eastern suburbs. This concealed the Coalition’s weakened position and contributed to an exaggerated perception of Kennett’s electoral record.

An unrelated point on the Liberal leadership: earlier this week I received an email from an ABC reporter in Melbourne looking to pick my brain regarding Tuesday’s Newspoll, which showed Steve Bracks leading Robert Doyle 60 per cent to 15 per cent as preferred Premier. In particular, he wanted to know what became of other leaders who had polled this badly. One encouraging precedent for Doyle came to mind, namely Queensland Nationals Leader Rob Borbidge. Going into the 1995 election, Morgan had Labor Premier Wayne Goss leading Borbidge 70 per cent to 17 per cent (in February), 72 per cent to 15 per cent (April) and 74 per cent to 16 per cent (June). Then came the election on July 15, at which the Coalition outpolled Labor 53.3 per cent to 46.7 per cent on two-party preferred. Six months and one by-election later, Borbidge was Premier. The most widely credited factor in this surprise outcome? The Goss government’s insistence on proceeding with a hugely unpopular toll road. Perhaps Doyle should have hung in there after all.

In other news, the elections for the Tasmanian Legislative Council districts of Rowallan and Wellington will be held tomorrow, though neither is likely to be of much interest unless the Greens or Hobart alderman Marti Zucco can pull a rabbit out of the hat in Wellington. This site will provide some sort of live coverage, although it remains to be seen whether my trade-mark results tables and swing calculations will prove feasible.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

13 comments on “The f*ckin’ legend of Jeff Kennett”

  1. Very well written article PB, and I am generally in agreement with your arguement, but I do take issue with one point.

    “There is no objective reason why the result of the 1999 election should have come as such a shock”

    Actually I think there is. Prior to the election I predicted many times (all verbally I am afraid, but I could probably produce a few witnesses) that Labor would get closer than people expected, particularly because of better results in regional areas. In an assessment of the seats they might win I thought every one of those they did pick up were on the cards, other than Gisborne. I also had this idea that Eltham might be a goer.

    Nevertheless, Labor’s victory was a shock to me, simply because it seemed ridiculous that they would pull off every seat on offer. Really close seats effectively come down to a coin toss – the 16 vote margin in Geelong could not have been predicted with confidence either way, and there were others that were similarly random (particularly before the ballot order was drawn).

    If the half dozen closest seats are seen as independent results the chances that all of them will come up heads for one party is very, very small, making the result quite a shock.

  2. In addition to Stephen’s comments, the victory of independent Craig Ingram in the safe National Party seat of Gippsland East was the major shock, as was his decision to vote against Kennett on the floor of the house.

    The killer for Kennett was the loss of Carrum, a seat the Libs won from former Cain/Kirner minster Mal Sandon in 1996. The demographics were working ferociously against the ALP for some time, especially around the suburb of Patterson Lakes. Yet the ALP amazed everybody and won the seat narrowly. This was not a rural seat but an outer metropolitan “Green” seat, consisting of wetlands of international significance.

    The under valued green vote is often overlooked in Kennett’s demise. In Gippsland East, where flows from the “snowy” were pivotal, to Carrum, where the voters were mortgage belt environmentalists who were unimpressed with Kennett’s policies. Both seats were the tipping point that lead to the collapse of his government.

  3. Evelyn, Hastings and Gembrook are really outer suburban and will probably follow the trend. Population growth in them probably favours Labor (as it does in Bass which Labor threw away by running dead in 2002). Morwell is safer than it looks, local problems reduced Labor vote in 2002 and it will probably bounce back next time, same happended in 1988 and there was a swing to Labor in Morwell in 1992. A Labor official told me that the night before 1999 they thought victory was possible if the trend apparent in their last polls continued. But Labor didn’t win some Melbourne seats in which they had high hopes. To me what has to be explained in 1999 was Labor’s victories in Carrum and Tullamarine which had been Jeff country in 1996.

  4. It is perhaps overly nasty, but the ALP victory in Tullamarine may have had a little to do with voters in the electorate having become more familiar with the sitting Liberal MP. Certainly the more exposure he had in the electorate the less likely he was to be re-elected.

    Gippsland East was a surprise, but not a total shock – there was a report in The Age suggesting it was on the cards a few days beforehand.

  5. I’ll stick with 1999 being a surprise. The Liberals were confident enough to bother campaigning around Dandenong and Labor was concerned enough to send senior frontbenchers doorknocking the area in the last week of the campaign. If you compare the 1988 and 1999 results, all Labor’s gains were outside of Melbourne. The one Victorian election in living memory that wasn’t decided in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. In retrospect you can see everything that was wrong with the Liberal campiagn. But in the more than 35 elections I’ve been involved in, the 1999 Victorian election was the only one where I thought there was something wrong with the computer.

  6. Aslo the liberal turned independant member for Frankston East died on election day around 10:30 to 11 am. The VEC still conducted voting for that seat till around 4pm. On the night ALP scruitineers reproted that the seat had voted for a change of member in both the upper house result and the lower house result

  7. 1999 was a surprise because it was only in the election day Newspoll (you say Morgan as well) that Labor was ahead, (51 to 49?) and in any event the on-paper ALP vote needed was 52-48. It was, as you say, the country seats that mucked up that equation.

    I’m sure your analysis of the reasons for the country going as it did are correct (might have also been offended by ‘Jeff – that c*nt ‘f**ken rules mate!’). But I don’t think really buy the subsequent byelection results as evidence of what voters were thinking on election day.

    The whole dynamic changed after election day when the results are in, as it always does.

  8. Peter’s right about the mood changing after polling day.

    The Liberals lost Geelong by 20 votes but didn’t challenge the result because they knew they’d lose any by-election.

    Once the National Party looked at the result, they seriously began internal discussions about breaking from the Coalition.

    Which is why the Independents ended up backing Labor, even though Labor had less seats than Liberal plus National.

    In all the recent examples (NSW91, QLD96, QLD95, SA02), Independents put the larger party in government. Gives them the option of abstainging. But in VIC99, they backed the side with less seats, partly over whether the Coalition agreement would continue, but also because the election dramatically changed public perceptions. Suddenly Jeff Kennett was no longer the winner he was perceived the day before, and no one who saw it could forget the body language of Steve Bracks on election night. I don’t think he’s ever been that animated since.

    In round terms, the swing to Labor in 1999 was 7.5% in rural seats, 5% in regional cities and 2.5% in Melbourne. It is very unusual to see an election where rural seats swing three times the swing in Metropolitan areas. Bigger swings are nearly always in the metropolitan area. That’s why the result was such a surprise.

    One reason everyone wrote Labor off was because they changed leader six months from the election. I note everyone’s doing it again for the new Liberal Leader.

    And before someone points it out to me, I know the Greens backed the smaller party in Tasmania in 1989, but I think the circumstances were different.

  9. Granted Ted is coming in at about the same time, but there are several reasons why he wont win.

    1. Brumby had made solid policy groundwork, he just didn’t have the image, Libs have no(or little) policy.
    2. The ALP was fairly solid behind Brumby, You have to know if the Libs know the meaning of teamwork
    3. From what I can tell Bracks is not hated, just his policies are bad, Kennett was hated and his policies were too.
    4. Without the Nats, the Libs can’t win, and it doesn’t look good for a coalition.

    I think that both the Libs and Nats will gain seats (a win?) but Bracks wont lose. I cant see Savage backing the Libs in a hung situation anyway.

  10. Howard’s endorsement of Kennett was curious – the motives for this may have been factional alliances rather than any question of competence. Baillieu has been quite impressive so far after the ineptitude of Doyle. He has

    1. Played the “I am not a politician, I’m here to server the people” card
    2. Tackled Bracks on his “heartland” issues – health, education, climate change etc. He has even stated the “wind farms are OK if they are in the right place” (after campaigning hard against them for some time).
    3. Got an increase in the May Nielsen poll (first time that’s happened for quite a while)
    4. Pointed out the Brack’s government has not really achieved a whole lot considering they have had both houses & a big pot of money.

    I don’t think he will win, but he will make it a more interesting contest, and perhaps stir some of the fairly complacent Labor folk into action.

    I am contributing to a Wikipedia article on the election if anyone is interested in more information on how the campaign is progressing. Just Google “2006 Victorian State Election”

  11. I picked Kennet’s defeat six months out, nearly every Important Group in the Community was mad with him, and Brack and Brumby had done a good job winning these groups over, so the 99 result was no surprise, except I didn’t pick Gippsland East, and I thought the ALP would have done a little better in Melbourne, but the 3 – 4 Seats I missed in 99, the ALP picked up in 2002 (Bayswater, Bentleigh and Prahran)

    In 99 Carrum was lost on the back of the closer of a local Hospital, funny thing was I thought Frankston East would be the decider, yet the Libs put in no effort what so ever

Comments are closed.