October 20, 2007
The Canberra Times

This passionless contest could use a dose of Gentleman Jeff

It was the sort of panache we came to expect from Jeff Kennett.

It was way back when his rising star threw out cupid darts, which occasionally stuck.

He was enormously tall, with square shoulders and a booming laugh. He was prone to long oratory; exuded plentiful arrogance; and he loved to strut.

Next to his then political opposite, the physically diminutive John Cain, Jeff Kennett was an entertaining giant.

Love him or hate him, you couldn’t help but watch him.

Then there was ”that moment”. The pen of a young reporter in the front row imploded midway through another Kennett soliloquy about his greatness. Kennett paused, then pulled out a white handkerchief with a flurry.

He licked it, wiped the embarrassed young woman’s ink stained cheek, and then returned to his theme of greatness.

The reporter died a thousand deaths. And the big man went on to become Premier of Victoria.

Not surprisingly, his tenure was marked by a tendency towards the grandiose. Grand plans, grand vision, grandstanding. And despite the political pitfalls and various policy duds, it was undoubtedly a time when Victoria once again began to feel grand about itself. Passion does that.

But right now there’s little or no sign of it in Australian politics. Instead, the 2007 election campaign looks destined to become an extraordinary celebration of the ordinary.

No wonder Jeff Kennett couldn’t help lobbing a political grenade this week.

”There’s no passion, for God’s sake,” he bellowed at a Melbourne Press Club event.

Kennett told the audience he doubted very much that either John Howard or Kevin Rudd would ”get anyone’s juices running between now and the election”.

Instead, he said, ”we’re going to have all this day-to-day rubbish”. The applause was loud. And clear.

To date the official election campaign, and the long faux one before it, have been little more than an exercise in elite level averageness. Both political camps seemed ruled by myopic mediocrity. The slogans are all wrong. We’re not in need of ”old”, ”new” or ”right” leadership. What Australia needs is great leadership. And grand vision. To date we’ve heard next to nothing about vision. Instead, we’ve witnessed both sides of politics indulge in an indecent race to the middle.

Howard’s eleventh hour embrace of Aboriginal reconciliation, while perhaps unconvincing, was nevertheless not all that surprising.

It was key terrain. He needed to stamp his footprint on that indigenous heartland in order to claim the prized middle ground. By effectively claiming ”I’ve grown up and I’ve changed”, the Prime Minister was able to grab hold of a political pulley and yank himself further towards the centre.

Similarly Kevin Rudd’s ”me too- isms” have become an unsurprising and hackneyed policy response to almost everything uttered by the Coalition.

You want a pulp mill? We do too.

You want to save timber jobs, we do too.

You want big tax reform, we do too. You want a citizenship test for immigrants, we do too.

You want the meek to inherit the earth, funny, but we do too.

Much has been said in the lead-up to this election about the striking similarities between John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

The bespectacled physical similarities were evident from the start. However, the similarity in their demeanour – both dull and dour – wasn’t immediately obvious, but quickly became so.

Their shared religious conservatism has been well paraded and put to use to petition for the God vote (with Rudd’s rejection of the Exclusive Brethren cult being the only exception).

And their obsession with ”the working family”, ”family values” and the state of the economy, well, you’d be splitting hairs to find any philosophical difference.

So interchangeable have these two men become in their presentation to the electorate that, if it weren’t for the ”mother of all negative campaigns”, perhaps voters could happily opt for an ”either/or” tick on the ballot paper.

The bogeyman of unionism, and the fact that Peter Costello thinks Julia Gillard is ”scary”, may gain traction. Indeed, most probably will. But in the meantime as they slug it out, Kevin07 with his remote control at the ready and the PM on YouTube with schoolboy taunts, ”Grow up, Mr Rudd. Come on, you can do better than that”, is it any wonder voters are feeling detached?

There’s been a spate of recent media commentary about a ”yearning” among Australians. It’s yet to be clearly enunciated, but such ”yearning” would appear to encompass the desire for a new spiritual, ideological or personal direction.

Perhaps it’s a yearning for greater meaning, or better balance in our lives. Whatever it is, apparently we’re all on the brink of it. Even the Prime Minister alluded to it in his now famous reconciliation speech; ”There is a deep yearning in our national psyche,” he said with misty eyes.

But is this ”yearning”, this inexplicable sense of longing, ever going to be sated by the kind of prosaic, middle ground politics parading before us right now? What is so wrong with a bit of public passion?

And where’s the edge? Each policy utterance we’re hearing from our political leaders is so carefully rounded, so as to make it easy to swallow. What ever happened to risk – for the sake of being right? And what about a sense of purpose? It’s become almost impossible to know why either John Howard or Kevin Rudd wants to lead this country – other than because they think they can.

Jeff Kennett may have occasionally veered into political foppery.

But there was never any doubting his political passion and his sense of grand vision, nor his power to excite enthusiasm in those around him. And I really should return that hankie.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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