Kennett won't be pegged down

The former premier has never left the headlines since he left office.

The former premier has never left the headlines since he left office.

AT 64, Jeff Kennett still froths and bubbles with energy and ideas. Here's one straight from his major-projects drawing board: a fast underground railway serving the greater metropolitan area. ''I thought when we built the freeway tunnels, that had fixed the traffic problem, but they are too small already,'' he says. ''We should be doing work now for a new underground system like Moscow or Paris. For example, Cranbourne to Melbourne in 20 minutes nonstop. It would cost billions but in 50 years' time that might seem cheap.''

Kennett was one of Victoria's most outspoken premiers and that shock election loss in 1999 has barely quietened him at all. As chief of depression initiative beyondblue, as a Hawthorn footy club president, as a feisty radio and newspaper commentator, Kennett has been almost as visible as he was during his seven spine-tingling years in office.

His name has appeared in the Australian press more than 120 times in the past month, more than 500 times in the past six months, and the headlines are everywhere: ''Jeff slams prayer room push'', ''Jeff's right about apartments'', ''Kennett reversal on gay parenting''.

Yes, he did a back-flip on that hot potato, evoking memories of his rare ability as premier to generate uproar.

After all, this is the leader who inspired the Scared Weird Little Guys to produce the song that blamed him for everything including the Titanic, Bloody Jeff.

All these years later, people still like to blame Bloody Jeff. A radio caller recently claimed Kennett was responsible for a regulation that gags government-school teachers from public comment.

''I'm not sure that's right,'' says Kennett, ''but it's good to be the whipping dog - if that makes people feel better, I'm very happy. The other side to that is that we got the state back in great shape, which was a benefit for the following governments.''

Jeff Kennett still has that impish streak that saw him, as an 18-year-old university student in Canberra, sit in a wheelchair swathed in bandages in Northbourne Avenue in 1966, hoping visiting US president Lyndon Johnson would notice him in the crowd. ''He didn't,'' recalls Kennett, ''the motorcade went by the back route.''

Retirement is not on his radar. ''Retirement equates with death,'' he says. ''You have to stay mentally and physically active.'' Kennett was aged 44 when he swept to power in 1992, winning in a landslide from Joan Kirner, and the changes he wrought were giddying: suburban councils merged, government utilities privatised, Docklands started, grand prix pinched from Adelaide.

But there were also many jobs axed, which led to a huge protest march through the city the same year. Kennett says politics today is a ''sea of greyness'' compared with his social revolution.

''People still come up to me saying that was the best time of their lives. They look back to the excitement and clear leadership we provided. They might not have agreed with everything but the contrast since then is quite dramatic.''

In a Victorian capital that is now clogged with traffic and cursed by stratospheric house prices, it is tempting to ponder how Jeff the Troubleshooter would deal with the problems of today.

''Not problems, they are challenges,'' he says. ''You just apply the principles of good management. Make sure the services you deliver are provided professionally - and the other things should be jettisoned.

''The Baillieu and Swan budgets - resulting in a small surplus - are absolutely correct because I think the psyche of living within our means applies to government more than it applies to families.''

Kennett chose not to stay in the Old Treasury Building where offices and staff are provided for former premiers. He works from a Richmond office packed with the bric-a-brac of a kaleidoscopic life - paintings and sculptures (including a giant clothes peg), Hawthorn premiership posters, a collapsible bicycle - and a table he had long craved from the former Channel Nine building, originally a piano factory built by Kennett's great-grandfather Hugo Wertheim. The table was there when Nine moved in and Kennett acquired it (after agreeing to appear on The Footy Show) when Nine moved out last year.

However, Jeff Kennett is not one for looking too much in the rear-view mirror. ''That's one of the reasons I left Old Treasury - I didn't want to be around Parliament. When your time is up, you have to move on.''

He sits on the boards of six companies but says his work with beyondblue, which he founded in 2000 to tackle depression, is the most important he has ever done.

Conversely, the conflict that saw beyondblue CEO Dawn O'Neill quit last year, accusing him of bullying, was the ''worst eight weeks of my life''.

But 2012-vintage Kennett is a relaxed man. Having stepped down as Hawks chief, he is looking at several new projects, with one proviso: ''Friday night, Saturday and Sunday are for my family and friends. We only do things we want to do and it's wonderful. That's the first time in 40 years I've given that time.''

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