Jeffrey Gibb Kennett AC (born 2 March 1948), Australian politician, was Premier of Victoria from 1992 to 1999. He was born in Melbourne and educated at a leading private school (Scotch College, Melbourne). He dropped out of the Australian National University after one year of an economics degree, and worked in retailing. In 1968 he was conscripted into the Australian Army, and served in Malaysia and Singapore. He returned to civilian life and went into advertising, forming his own company, KNF, in 1971. In 1972 he married Felicity Kellar, with whom he had four children.
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Kennett was elected Liberal MP for Burwood in 1976, and in 1981 he became Minister for Housing, Immigration and Ethnic Affairs in the government of Lindsay Thompson. When the Liberals were defeated in 1982 he was elected Leader of the Liberal Party, despite being the youngest member of the outgoing Cabinet. He was an aggressive Opposition Leader, and was much criticised for his "bull-in-a-china-shop" style and his populist anti-government rhetoric.
The Labor government of John Cain was easily re-elected in 1985, but by the end of its second term the government was in trouble and the Liberals were given a good chance of winning the 1988 election. When Cain was returned with a small but workable majority, Kennett was criticised within his own party, and in 1989 he was deposed and replaced by Alan Brown, a little-known rural MP. Kennett pledged never to attempt a return to the Liberal leadership, but when Brown proved unable to challenge the government effectively, he allowed his supporters to stage a party-room coup and restore him to the leadership in 1991.
Kennett won the October 1992 election in a landslide as a result of the public's complete disillusionment with the Labor government, which was held responsible for the state's disastrous economic and budgetary crisis. The Liberals had large majorities in both houses of the state Parliament and were able to pass whatever legislation they liked. In office, Kennett immediately instituted one of the most radical budget-cutting and privatisation programs undertaken by any government.
Some of the government functions which the Kennett government privatised in whole or in part were: prisons, gas and electricity production and distribution, trams, trains and buses, water supply and government laboratories. As well, many government schools were closed, and the remaining schools were required to operate as commercial enterprises in competition with private schools. Severe cuts were made in the health, education and welfare sectors. Country rail services were cut, and even police numbers were reduced, despite the Liberals' traditional support for more police. The government forced through amalgamations of local councils, and also reduced their powers. Industrial relations reforms greatly reduced the powers of the trade unions.
These policies succeeded in restoring Victoria's budget to surplus and in having Victoria's credit rating upgraded. Investment and population growth resumed and there is no doubt that Victoria's economic health was improved. Critics pointed out that the Kennett government was claiming credit for external factors such as improving national economic indicators, and that states that had not undergone such radical reforms also saw economic improvment. The social cost of the Kennett reforms was considered high by many commentators and academics, and provoked a campaign of demonstrations by trade unions and community groups.
The Kennett government also embarked on a series of high-profile projects, such as restoring Parliament House and building a new Melbourne Museum and a new Melbourne Exhibition Centre (commonly known as "Jeff's shed"). The most controversial of these was the Crown Casino, an enormous gambling and entertainment centre in the heart of Melbourne. While initial plans for a casino had been made under the Labor government, the tender process and construction occurred under Kennett. There were many allegations of corruption in the tendering process for the casino, but no impropriety was ever proved.
Kennett's prestige remained high through his first term, and in 1996 he was re-elected with his majority almost intact. During his second term, however, the public began to tire of what was seen as his arrogant and confrontationist style. The government's sharp cuts to government services were particularly resented in country Victoria, where the Liberals and their allies the National Party held almost all the seats. Kennett's legislation reducing the powers of the independent Auditor-General aroused much opposition. A leading Melbourne daily, The Age, which had supported Kennett in 1992 and 1996, turned against him.
While Labor remained weak and leaderless, it offered little challenge to Kennett's dominance of Victorian politics. But in mid 1999 Labor replaced its leader, John Brumby, with Steve Bracks, who came from Ballarat and was popular in rural areas. Nevertheless Kennett entered the 1999 election campaign fully expecting to win, and most commentators and opinion polls agreed. On the morning of the election a leading political journalist, Ewen Hannan, predicted that "Labor supporters will be crying into their beers tonight."
Fall from power
Instead, the Liberals lost 13 seats to Labor, most of them in regional centres such as Ballarat and Bendigo, and to three Independents in rural areas. The final result was: Labor with 42 seats, the Liberals and Nationals with 43, and three Independents. Both parties negotiated with the three independents (Russell Savage, Craig Ingram and Susan Davies), with Labor being successful after pledging to restore services to rural areas, particularly train lines.
Kennett's fall was almost totally unexpected, and was regretted by those who had admired his government's bold reforms, which had restored Victoria's fiscal credibility, stemmed the fall in its population and revived its economic growth. Critics argued that Kennett's radical programme had damaged the social infrastructure through the reduction in government services, particularly in regional areas, and that this, added to the widespread perception that Kennett was arrogant and a bully, had led to his downfall.
Kennett resigned from Parliament and pledged to have nothing further to do with politics. He separated from his wife, although they later reconciled. He found it difficult to withdraw from the limelight, however, and spent some time as a radio broadcaster with Melbourne radio station 3AK. Still only in his early 50s, Kennett seemed unable to find a new role. He kept in the public eye by campaigning for greater recognition of clinical depression. After the Liberals' second election defeat in 2002, there were renewed rumours that Kennett was planning a comeback to politics, but these do not appear to have had any substance.
Kennett currently chairs Beyondblue (the National Depression Initiative), a body that was largely formed by the efforts of the Victorian State Government.
In 2005 Kennett received Australia's highest civilian honour, when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC).
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