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Stepping down after 17 years at the helm of the national depression and anxiety organisation he founded, former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett reviews his achievements at beyondblue and stares down his critics. By Jill Stark.

Jeff Kennett on his beyondblue legacy

Jeff Kennett
Credit: CRAIG SILLITOE

Jeff Kennett is an unlikely teacher. But today he’s schooling me on the meaning of life.

Sitting at the boardroom table in his inner-city Melbourne office – a high-ceilinged space filled with Aboriginal art, malt whiskies and four replica Hawthorn AFL premiership cups – he leans across on one arm to extol the value of gratitude.

“To me, the gift of life is the best thing I’ve got going for me. So I lose an election – where does that rate, nought to 10? Only one. No one was hurt, natural order of things. So I didn’t lose much sleep over it. I was a bit surprised. Parents died – again, they died in the natural order of things. Disappointed they went, but they had a good life, not much illness towards the end, so that’s only a one, one-and-a-half.”

Weighting life’s speed bumps is a ritual the 69-year-old former Victorian premier and founder of beyondblue carries out every night before bed.

“I’ve been doing it for years, just going through my day figuring out where I’ve made mistakes, what I could have done, and when I judge the things that are causing me stress against the gift of life, it’s only a one, two or three.”

He can’t remember a single day that’s ranked eight, nine or 10. Even when he’s been under fire.

“Well, you apologise, you make a change, you do whatever you have to, and then you sleep well,” he says.

For those still scarred by the deep cuts Kennett’s Liberal government imposed on Victoria’s public service in the 1990s – slashing hospital funding, closing 350 schools and axing 8000 teaching jobs – Kennett’s well-rested psyche might come as a punch to the guts.

But this is a man of contradictions. His policies may have pushed some to despair, but for others, his presence drove them from the brink of it.

Unashamedly a polarising figure, few would deny Kennett has put mental illness on the map with the national depression agency he founded 17 years ago after a conversation with his daughter who had lost two friends to suicide. He says beyondblue is “in my DNA” and while he has never suffered depression himself, the weight of reaching out to others in their darkest hours has taken its toll.

As he prepares to hand the organisation’s reins to former prime minister Julia Gillard on June 30, he reflects on the “hundreds and hundreds” of personal calls he’s taken from everyday Australians seeking help for loved ones in crisis.

There was the wife whose corporate executive husband had lost the will to get out of bed in the morning. The call in the middle of the night from a mother with a son on the edge. The Qantas flight attendant who stopped him as he was boarding a plane and thanked him for helping her brother.

“She said, ‘He’d got in his car and he was driving out into the bush to exorcise his life. You asked for his phone number, we gave it to you, you rang up my brother, you spoke to him for an hour-and-a-half, he pulled over at the side of the road, and that turned him around. He’s still with us, he’s having a great life, he’s got help.’ And she said, ‘Without a doubt if you hadn’t intervened we would have lost him.’ ”

Kennett’s craggy, battle-lined face wears the emotion of leaving an organisation he describes as the most important work of his adult life. When he steps down, he says it will be like watching a child he has nurtured and raised go out on their own. “I’m about to lose contact with it but be obviously forever an observer of what it does and how it goes.”

The growing up of beyondblue draws parallels with his own evolution during his stewardship of the organisation. An economic rationalist at his core, Kennett has become increasingly socially liberal with age.

While he rankles at the word “matured”, he admits he has learnt a lot, particularly around discrimination – the one issue he says he would eradicate “if I had a magic wand”.

Kennett’s emergence as one of conservative Australia’s most vocal supporters of marriage equality has been an extraordinary turnaround for a man who outraged the gay community in 2011 with a Herald Sun column claiming, “heterosexual marriages are the best environment for the mental health of children”. It fuelled critics’ claims that Kennett’s ideological views were behind the organisation’s lack of programs to address the LGBTI community’s high rates of depression and suicide.

The column prompted a boycott of beyondblue’s major donor, Movember, and left Kennett’s chief executive Dawn O’Neil in the position of distancing the organisation from its own chairman. A week after the incident, O’Neil submitted her resignation. She had been in the job nine months. It emerged she had made a bullying complaint against Kennett – investigated but not substantiated – at a time when the organisation was in disarray, struggling with high staff attrition and plummeting morale.

Kennett denies his views on gay parenting were linked to O’Neil’s departure, and rejects the premise this was a low point in beyondblue’s history. But he acknowledges his thinking has changed on LGBTI rights. A year after his chief executive quit, beyondblue launched a national campaign highlighting the mental health impacts of homophobia.

“I came to the view that the suicide rate in the gay community is higher than the normal average – not because they’re gay but because of the discrimination that they are often subjected to,” Kennett says. “So I came to a very simple philosophy: what right have I got to stop another law-abiding citizen having the same pleasures, opportunities that I’ve had in life?”

Kennett does not regret his former position, however, nor the controversy it caused. He says each media storm has acted as a lightning rod. He proudly cites beyondblue’s 87 per cent recognition rate with the Australian public.

It is this ability to attract both praise and opprobrium that he believes makes Julia Gillard uniquely qualified to keep the organisation in the spotlight.

Eighteen years after he left political office, the media still listen when Kennett speaks. Particularly when he is out of step with his Liberal Party colleagues.

As a staunch supporter of safe injecting facilities, he bangs his fist on the table when asked why his peers continue to reject drug reform. “I think it’s a political judgement. I think it’s shocking. I think it’s a lack of courage, a lack of decency. We spend billions of dollars on road safety, billions of dollars on anti-smoking campaigns, and yet we do bugger-all to try and prevent people losing their lives through addiction. The sad thing about it is that so many of those people who are addicted are low income, often homeless, often with mental illness.”

As his attention turns to his next venture as chairman of The Torch – an organisation supporting Indigenous artists in prisons – I wonder out loud if perhaps Jeff Kennett might have become that most reviled of beasts among conservative ranks: a social justice warrior?

I’m quickly disabused of this notion. “I’ve always believed the only way you can deliver social justice is if you have the wealth to do it. You’ve got to generate the wealth otherwise this period of entitlement has become so strong in a complacent community that we are now dishing out money to people in many cases who don’t deserve it in order to buy a vote … The real dignity of life, the things that really matter, cannot be addressed because the funds aren’t there.”

Kennett recognises that at a time when youth suicide is at its highest rate in 10 years, mental health organisations must do more than just raise awareness. But he is “intensely annoyed” by peers in the sector who, he says, continuously call for more funding without acknowledging the progress made.

His biggest worry for our collective mental health is a lack of purpose, born out of disruption to traditional industries, and rising youth unemployment.

For him, happiness comes in simple pleasures. He illustrates this with a little story. Kennett and his wife, Felicity, owned the house next to their own. Their son lived there with his wife until a few years ago. When the younger couple decided to move, Kennett thought to put the property on the market. Felicity wanted to knock it down and turn the block into an orchard.

“Happy wife, happy life,” Kennett says, beaming. “That’s what we did. We’ve got 21 fruit trees on it. I’ve got a beehive, I’ve got a gazebo on it … The trees are very young but I got one almond this year and I ate a couple of nectarines. We just got our first seven litres of honey. And we got 500 passionfruit off our vines. So that’s happiness to me. To be out there in that garden is extremely pleasurable.”

I respectfully suggest that contentment might come easier to those who can afford to flatten a four-bedroom house and turn the land it was on into a garden, but he insists that happiness is not about assets or wealth.

“You’ve got to wake up fresh every day. As I say to people, it’s like the 1812 Overture. Bang. Cannons firing. You get up, you’re still alive. I’m obviously an optimist, not everyone is. Not everyone has the circumstances to be an optimist, but everyone can develop the discipline to deal with their own wellbeing.”

 

Lifeline 13 11 14; beyondblue 1300 224 636

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 22, 2017 as "Out of the blue". Subscribe here.

Jill Stark
is a Melbourne-based journalist and writer and the author of the memoir High Sobriety.

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