Mitcham by-election

December 10, 1997


Mitcham by-election

By John Nebauer

MELBOURNE — Victorian premier Jeff Kennett faces a tough test in the marginal seat of Mitcham on December 13. The by-election was forced by former Liberal minister Roger Pescott's resignation in protest at the government's proposed changes to the office of the auditor-general.

In an open letter to Kennett published after Pescott's resignation, Pescott attacked the premier for his proposed changes to WorkCover, his "leadership style" and the lack of consultation with Liberal backbench MPs over policy. Most MPs had not seen the draft legislation on changes to the auditor-general's role before it was presented in the party room.

The legislation, passed in the lower house on November 20, would mean that the office of the auditor-general would no longer conduct audits, instead contracting out the work to private firms. The federal government has mooted a parliamentary inquiry into the changes. Kennett dismissed such an inquiry as "a great waste of time, effort and money".

Polls released a week after Pescott's resignation indicate the Kennett government may be in trouble. Kennett and ALP leader John Brumby were neck and neck as preferred premier, both on 46%. An AGB-McNair poll shows that Labor would win the by-election with a 60% two-party-preferred vote.

The government's campaign suffered a further setback in mid-November when it was revealed that Felicity Kennett, the premier's wife, used a government credit card to purchase personal items. Kennett defended his wife having a government credit card, saying she needed it for "emergencies".

With 17 candidates, Mitcham is Victoria's biggest by-election for a decade. Tony Robinson is the Labor candidate and Andrew Munroe is standing for the Liberals. Robyn Evans is contesting the seat for the Greens.

The mainstream media is portraying the by-election as a battle between Kennett and Brumby. Labor is banking heavily on opposition to Kennett's WorkCover cuts to boost their support and organised a demonstration around this issue in Mitcham on November 26. Then on December 3, at a WorkCover rally outside Parliament House, crosses were displayed bearing the names, not of dead or injured workers, but of the electorates the ALP aims to win at the next state election.

What is not being mentioned in Labor's campaigning on this issue is that it was the last Labor government which began the attack on the state workers' compensation scheme.

Former Democrat Senator Cheryl Kernot began her public Labor Party career in Mitcham on December 3. With Brumby and Robinson in tow, Kernot met shoppers and local party members. Kernot said Kennett was intolerant of criticism and urged voters in Mitcham to send him "a message" on December 13. Kernot added that she liked "some of his views".

Secretary of the Democratic Socialists in Melbourne, Sue Bolton, told Green Left Weekly, "a defeat for the Liberal party in this by-election will show the widespread opposition to Kennett's agenda, particularly cuts to WorkCover". She also warned, however, that Labor can't be relied upon to stop the attacks. "When the ALP is in opposition it starts talking about workers' rights, but when they're in government they always put the interests of big business first."

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