Out with the new, in with the old again seems to be the current trend in Australian politics. That’s what gave us John “Lazarus with a triple bypass” Howard, and that’s what appears likely to propel Jeff Kennett back to the leadership of the Victorian Liberals even though he doesn’t even have a seat. But surely you’d need a really thick pair of rose-coloured glasses to convince a majority of Victorian voters that they like Kennett again.
I think we can confidently assume Jeff will come back. This has been in the cards for a while – Crikey ran a great piece on Monday on how he’s been repositioning himself for a while, and since Stephen Mayne used to work for the Libs, he’s less unreliable about this subject than most others. All Kennett is doing now is making a show of considering whether to run again over the weekend, so that he doesn’t look arrogant – the perception that got him dumped last time.
Steve Bracks is so popular in Victoria that desperate measures are required. And exhuming Jeff is certainly pretty desperate. But what Kennett will gives the Victorian Libs is what they urgently need – brand recognition. Victorians will at least know what the party stands for, even if they reject it at the next poll. Who wanted to vote for Robert Doyle? Who is he, really? Even the Wikipedia article on him is mostly about Kennett! When you’re in the wilderness, even an unpopular familiar person beats out a complete nobody.
Nowadays old politicians don’t retire, they lie in wait on the backbench until the new guard falters, waiting for another go at the destiny they’ve always believed was theirs. Kennett at least had the decency to leave Parliament after being thrashed by Steve Bracks – which is more than can be said for the “unflushable” Kim Beazley.
John Howard has a lot to answer for here. He’s convinced Beazley that no position is so bad that you can’t recover to become PM for a decade. So it’s theoretically impossible to convince Kim Beazley that his time is up. He will, in all likelihood, never believe that. You need a pretty healthy self-regard to run for public office in the first place anyway, so politicians don’t need much ego-prodding to be convinced that they are election winners depite their results, which are just a question of timing. Even though he is now the only person in Australia who realistically thinks he’s got a chance at the next election.
If it turns out that the electorate are willing to forgive leaders it dumped for being too arrogant – a political version of absence making the heart go fonder – then perhaps other parties should adopt the same approach? If so, come back, Paul Keating, all is forgiven. I always thought he was a fairly good Prime Minister, but compared to his successors, he’s a genius. Clear policy objectives, an effective communicator and an ability to take it to his opponents. Like Jeff, he’d certainly score more points, even if he probably couldn’t win the match, coming off the bench so late.
I’m also sure that Bob Hawke still believes that he “remains the best person to lead the party to the next election”, and that Gough Whitlam would, as always, to support any argument that he resume the Labor leadership.
But let’s not take the whole trend of reappointing memorable leaders too far. Because too far might mean the ALP reappointing Mark Latham.