The return of Foot-in-mouth

May 1, 1991

By Martin Mulligan

MELBOURNE — State Liberal leader Alan Brown turned up for a day's work on April 23 only to find that his parliamentary colleagues had been conspiring to dump him.

By 10.30 a.m. the game was up. Both Brown and his deputy, Alan Stockdale, were ousted in a spill moved by the unlikely duo of Tom Reynolds from Gisborne and Craig Bilstien from Mildura.

The quiet coup left the way open for the return of Jeff "foot-in-mouth" Kennett as leader, with Phil Gude his new deputy.

The result was as stunning as the process in view of Kennett's record of having led the Liberals to three inglorious election defeats and shot off his mouth to disastrous effect at numerous media interviews. Like his close mate Andrew Peacock, Kennett is hoping soufflés can rise twice, though it must be said his chances of success are better than Peacock's given the hostility of most Victorians towards the incumbent Labor government, whose alliance with big business has bankrupted the state.

A Saulwick Age poll the day after the coup showed 61% of voters would support the Liberal-National coalition, while only 20% wanted more of Labor.

Kennett was dumped in 1988, soon after the last elections, when it was widely agreed he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Since then he has done little more than expand his range of small business initiatives and host a regular radio show on 3AW. But he has some sort of public profile, which is more than can be said for the unfortunate Brown (often known as beige: not strong enough for brown).

Kennett's numbers men were very proud of their quiet efficiency with the knife. But an early task had been to put a muzzle on Small Business Association leader Peter Boyle, who had blurted out in March that he thought it was time to bring back Kennett.

While Boyle's comments were neutralised by soothing comments from other pillars of the business community, the numbers men kept at their task.

The change is largely a matter of style rather than substance, though hard-right Victorian Liberal president Michael Kroger could scarcely conceal his glee, declaring Kennett is "pretty forceful, pretty strong and perhaps at this time that is what Victoria needs".

Despite Kennett's past rashness, the Liberal power brokers obviously believe he will attract more attention than Brown. They particularly like the fact that he is often seen as a friend of small business, having several small businesses of his own.

Interviewed by ABC radio after the coup, Kennett said he had recently bought a knitting machine and intended to employ several people to use it. He urged other Victorians to follow suit.

Asked if he would have time for politics as well as his businesses (which include an advertising agency), Kennett said he wanted to create smaller government so everyone could get into small business, and if he could cut his time in the premier's office to one hour a day, he would consider that a success.

Behind the change of leadership is the issue of whether the opposition will block supply and force early elections after the next budget. Some believe Kennett would be more likely to take such a step. Perhaps his physical resemblance to Malcolm Fraser is considered a plus.

Most commentators feel that a drover's dog, Brown's cows or even a reheated soufflé would be sufficient to knock over Labor in the next elections. Perhaps Kennett might make it happen sooner rather than later. n

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