The Australian Thatcher

The Guardian, March 9 1996

Imagine for a moment that a newly-elected right-wing government announced that in order to attract lucrative business to London, they had decided to stage an international Grand Prix motor race in the capital and that without consultation they had chosen as its site the previously peaceful, almost rural surroundings of Hampstead Heath.

Imagine how those who habitually take refuge on the heath would rise in heart-felt outrage to protest and how they would fight with all the skill and energy at their command to repel the buzz-saws and the bulldozers. And imagine that this government simply ignored them and carried on regardless, slicing down the trees, carving up the soil to construct more than five kilometers of tarmac track with 16 massive grandstands along its flanks. So you will begin to catch the flavour of the bitter row that has surrounded the staging of yesterday’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne’s Albert Park.

The event was conceived by the ultra-conservative government of Jeff Kennett, who won the Victorian state election in October 1992 and who was portrayed soon afterwards in a cartoon in the Melbourne Age intently reading a book called ‘How I Got Tough’ by Mrs Thatcher, declaring “I can’t put it down” and all the time ignoring three other volumes, entitled ‘How It Didn’t Work’, ‘Thatcher Out’ and ‘UK Stuffed’ while outside his window the protesters gathered.

In staging his festival of speed and burning rubber in amongst the swings and roundabouts of Albert Park, he has declared war on the liberal middle classes who live around its edge and on the values they espouse, signalling to the world the arrival in Melbourne of an era in which the only values that count are those that pay their way. In simple terms, the world according to Jeff Kennett means The Deregulation Of Just About Everything.

So it is that Melbourne, which has been seen traditionally as a peaceful old dame of a city, a place of high culture and gently progressive politics, has now become a contemporary Klondike where laws are re-written, courts are silenced, information is concealed and opposition is flattened in the single-minded pursuit of profit. This has happened because Kennett not only imported the economic philosophy of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister but has proceeded to enact it with even less restraint than his mentor. Kennett has out-Thatchered Thatcher.

For years, gambling was outlawed in the state of Victoria. Kennett’s Labour predecessors started cautiously to open the door to the gaming industry but Kennett handed them the keys to the city. Victorians are now engaged in a $20 billion-a-year gambling binge. They can bet not only in clubs but also in shopping malls and pubs and post offices – there are 27, 500 poker machines, known as ‘pokies’, now installed across the state while on the south bank of the River Yarra, on prime land in the heart of Melbourne, a consortium of local businessmen are building an international gambling mecca, a casino of awesome size.

Sprawling across three city blocks, the complex has already increased in scale four times during its construction. Its current version will include 360 gaming tables for roulette, blackjack and stud poker,’2,500 pokies’ four nightclubs;14 cinemas; 16 cafes; a ballroom for 2,400 visitors; parking for 8,500 cars; a glass-enclosed big wheel; and the biggest hotel in Australia with 1,000 bedrooms. The casino has become the centrepiece and the symbol of Kennett’s Thatcherite dream. It is, in his words, ‘the new spirit of Victoria’. In the words of his opponents, it is ‘Las Vegas on the Yarra’.

The casino’s owners have already opened a full-sized temporary version which has seen predominantly working-class Victorians, many of them Asian, losing their money at the rate of $2.1 billion a year, accompanied by stories of domestic grief and destitution. In the background, $960 million of taxes have poured into the state’s coffers. While Kennett’s opponents have complained bitterly that this is a tax on the poor, his close friends who run the place have amassed huge fortunes for themselves.

The city which was once distinguished by its parks and clattering trams has also become the capital of Australia’s sex industry. Jeff Kennett’s government has legalised escort agencies so that there are now more than 230 companies selling women at $100 an hour, paying Kennett’s government $500 for every phone line. Kennet has lifted a moratorium on brothels, whose numbers had declined under the previous Labour administration, and now charges them a licence fee of $1,200 plus $500 for every bed. He has allowed sex shops to flourish, selling hard-core pornography in open defiance of federal law, and he has permitted the arrival of sex bars where naked table-dancers offer musical gynaecology for their drinkers.

Though the outcome of his version of Thatcherism may be somewhat different, the origins of Kennett’s strategy are strikingly similar to those in Britain in 1979. He took power after a long period of Labour rule which had culminated in disaster – in Victoria’s case, in near bankrupcy – providing him with an unassailable majority and a springboard of public frustration from which to launch his assault.

Pursuing the gospel according to Margaret, Kennett cut the budgets for schools and hospitals and embarked on a fire-sale of state assets. He sold land, buildings, companies, services, a port, laboratories, libraries, the entire electricity network and a range of minor government departments. He was criticised for failing to secure adequate prices (he sold an old hospital site for $14.8 million to a millionaire who resold it within five months for $35 million) and for handing over essential services to unreliable private interests but, like his mentor in London, Kennett tolerates no obstruction.

In his three and a half years in office, he has fought civil servants (he sacked 50,000 of them), the Age newspaper (he called it ‘an agent of destruction’ and urged Victorians to tear up their copies), doctors (he blocked their pay claim and provoked a partial strike), ambulance drivers (he called them ‘coffin chasers’ and threatened to privatise them if they pursued their pay claim), the opposition Labour party (he called them ‘vermin and rogues’) and the deputy leader of his own party (he called him ‘a bloody dog’ to his face).

When he first announced his plan to build a Grand Prix race track by the lake in Albert Park, his opponents had numerous weapons with which to fight him. So Kennett removed them all. They could have challenged him on planning grounds or tried to prove he was in breach of laws to protect the environment: Kennett pushed through legislation to exempt the Grand Prix from all planning and environmental regulation. They could have sued him for damage caused to their homes by subsidence or noise pollution: Kennett pushed through legislation to block all compensation claims arising from the Grand Prix.

His opponents knew that Kennett had used tax-payers’ money to buy the rights to stage the Grand Prix from Bernie Ecclestone, the London millionaire who controls world-wide Formula One racing, and they knew he had pledged more public money to pay for the construction work in Albert Park, but all of the figures were kept secret. The Freedom of Information Act gave them a chance to uncover the truth: Kennett pushed through legislation to block all applications for official paperwork connected with his Grand Prix deal.

With the courts blocked off from them, thousands of objectors formed themselves into an organisation, Save Albert Park, and took to the streets with placards. At the height of their campaign last year, more than 16,000 protestors – most of them middle-aged or elderly – swarmed through the streets of Melbourne. They started turning out to protest as workmen set about dismembering 1,000 trees from the parkland. More than 600 were arrested, but the courts said they had broken no law by protesting on public land; Kennett then pushed through legislation to seal off sections of Albert Park for 17 weeks, so that it became an offence for members of the public to walk there. He said the demonstrators were all international socialists.

Their anger was heightened by the fact that the man who stood to earn most from the Grand Prix project, a Melbourne businessman named Ron Walker, is a close personal friend of Kennett’s and also the treasurer of the right-wing Liberal party, of which Kennett is a leading member. Ron Walker’s company was guaranteed and funded by Victorian tax-payers and yet, to this day, no-one knows how much public money has been invested in him.

The same Ron Walker is also at the centre of the controversy over the casino. Together with the outspoken media millionaire Kerry Packer and another close friend of Kennett’s named Lloyd Williams, he runs the company which was awarded a monopoly by Kennett’s government to operate casinos in the region. At the last count, Walker personally had earned $17.7 million from the casino deal, while Packer had earned $80 million and Williams $29.7 million. Their punters have had a less fulfilling experience.

Some customers at the lavish temporary casino have been so hooked on the gaming tables that they have left their children locked alone in cars in the car park for hours at a time while others are reported to have been so reluctant to leave the tables even for a minute that they urinated on the carpet where they stood. The Salvation Army and other welfare agencies reported a soaring demand for debt counselling from customers who had gambled away their household budgets or sometimes all their savings. There were reports of record business for pawnbrokers and of suicides by failed gamblers. One customer expressed his feelings by driving his car through the glass double doors at the front of the casino.

As more and more money was siphoned into the casino, other businesses began to suffer. Five of the seven major retail industries in Victoria reported a year without growth; spending on clothing had fallen by $5 million and on leisure services by $47 million. The Retail Traders Association decided to survey 14,000 businesses to check the effect on them. Meanwhile, the casino announced that it would never close, not even on Christmas Day.

The Anglican and Catholic Churches led a rising chorus of alarm. An inter-church group organised a rally of 2,000 outside the casino last December. Rev Tim Costello complained that Jeff Kennett “aligns the authority of his office with companies that reap at least some of their profits from addiction and social misery”. Kennett’s office replied that the Premier was ‘incredibly bored’ by the debate.

The city’s two archbishops linked the casino with the staging of the Grand Prix. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, spoke out at a Christmas midnight mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, accusing the organisers of the race and the owners of the casino of destroying Victoria’s cultural and social fabric. He and the Anglican Archbishop, Dr Keith Rayner, both declined to bless the new track. Kennett’s justification was the bottom line: “People can argue against it as much as they like. We have a responsibility as a government to try to lift this state out of the doldrums.” He said the church leaders were ‘yesterday’s people’.

Mrs Thatcher visited Melbourne last year and gazed on Kennett’s work and pronounced it to be good. Kennett, however, perhaps thinking of her humiliating demise, perhaps conscious of how he had outdone her, ducked the compliment. “I don’t think we’ve Thatcherised Victoria,” he said. “I think we’ve Jeffed it.” Still, the comparison is inevitable not only because of the direction of their politics but also because of the underlying sense of a public figure allowing decisions to be shaped by deep-seated emotional drives. Both of them, for example, are pushed to disaster by their own aggression.

Before he became state Premier of Victoria in 1992, Kennett’s greatest claim to fame was a phone call which he made in March 1987 to Andrew Peacock, a close friend who was then one of the most senior members of the federal Liberal party. The call was recorded, and Kennett was caught giving a frank account of a meeting which he had just had with the Liberal leader (and now Prime Minister elect) John Howard, in which he reported how he had called Howard a cunt and told him he would never support him. “The poor little fellow didn’t know whether he was Arthur or Martha,” he added. When the call became public, Peacock, who was then one of Howard’s shadow cabinet, was forced to resign.

In other moments of emotional excess, according to Melbourne press reports, he has turned up at a parliamentary Christmas party dressed as a waitress, soaked a Labour MP with a soda syphon and once informed the state parliament that it would be good exercise for physically handicapped pupils to struggle up a slope to their classroom.

Instead of manipulating the press, he has conducted a running war with it, denouncing editors and revelling in their errors. When the Age announced a cut-price deal to attract new readers last month, Kennett ordered every department in his government to cancel their subscriptions and to sign on as new readers. He claimed triumphantly to have cost the Age up to $53,000 and added that he really only took the newspaper ‘to wrap things up – broken light bulbs, dead dogs.’

The different strands of Jeffism have now become twisted together. The Club X pornography stores are offering 20% discount to customers with Grand Prix tickets. The biggest brothel in the city, the Top of the Town, now sells its women for casino chips as well as cash. Like Thatcher, Kennett may have torn up tradition and provoked the hatred of many but he has won the hearts and wallets of those who profit from his values. Thousands of ‘petrol heads’ descended on Albert Park last week, and hotels and restaurants were doing record business – ‘Smell the rubber!’ was the slogan of those closest to the park. With the opposition still profoundly damaged by the memory of their last period in power, Kennett is likely to win the state elections at the end of this month.

The scene each night in the Santa Fe Gold bar is an almost perfect symbol – the table top dancer lying prone on her back with her knickers around one ankle while a man with a suit and a bottle of beer slides dollar bills into her garter belt to buy another wriggle. It is all about money and power. For those who loved Melbourne as the city once was, Kennett has been a nightmare. Barry Humphries who grew up in the city with Dame Edna Everage, returned at the end of last year with an ode in his pocket. It began:

“We who knew old Melbourne town
Regard ourselves as lucky.
The Paris end of Collins Street
Is now more like Kentucky.
Now the Exhibition Gardens
Are threatened with the axe
And the heart of Melbourne stinks of
Whoppers, Nuggets and Big Macs.”

One of the Albert Park protesters put his views even more simply. In the midst of a Melbourne demonstration last year, full of banners proclaiming earnest slogans about clean air and green grass, his placard addressed his enemy directly in large black letters: “Kennett, you gormless pillock.” He owes it all to Margaret.