After leading his party to the second largest landslide victory in Victoria’s history, becoming president of the Hawthorn Hawks and founding the country’s leading mental health initiative, Jeff Kennett knows a thing or two about leadership

WHILE MOST principals would struggle choosing to reduce marketing expenditure or terminate an employee, spare a thought for the man who had to close 350 schools to get the state back out of debt.

And if a teary ex-employee begging for a second chance sounds too much to handle, that’s nothing compared to a hundred thousand people marching up to your front door demanding you reverse your decision.

Such is the life of a leader, and according to former Victoria premier Jeff Kennett, leadership means making the tough calls.

“When it’s obvious, decisions aren’t hard. What’s often hard is sticking to the decisions and making the right choices. They might cause short-term unrest, they might be unpopular, but it’s all a function of leadership,” he says.

“Leadership isn’t necessarily about making decisions for popularity; leadership is making the right decisions for the long-term benefit of the community you lead.”

But has he ever regretted any of the decisions he’s made?

“No, never,” he replies adamantly.

While many people have heard of Mr Kennett the politician, not many know that he was conscripted into the army at the age of 20.

He believes this period of his life shaped his character.

“To me, that army experience gave me a wonderful exposure to two aspects of life that have been with me ever since. Had I not done the training,

I’m sure these traits wouldn’t be part of my DNA now,” he says.

“One is that it gives you a structure in which to work, which is terribly important in everything you do.

“But the other thing is that you come into contact with people from all walks of  life.

“I came from a typical lower to middle class family, I went to a state school and a private school and I mixed with similar sorts of people. When I joined the army, I found myself mixing with young men my own age who weren’t as well educated, who were better educated, and who had terrible life experiences.

“It teaches you the importance of working with teams of people in order to deliver a positive outcome. And because life is so materialistic today, there is this sort of individualistic type approach.”

Mr Kennett returned to civilian life in 1970 and took up his former job in the advertising department of Myers. However, after growing impatient, he decided to start his own advertising business, KNF, the year after.

After six years of being bullied by the government, Mr Kennett decided to take action.

“At the time, the massively high interest rates under the Whitlam government were driving businesses into the ground … and being in small business, I thought I’d go in and save the world,” he says with a chuckle.

In 1976, Mr Kennett was elected as a Liberal member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly for Burwood and true to his word, fought for small businesses.

“Many problems face small businesses today,” he said in his inaugural speech.

“They are brought about by higher costs combined with lower turnover and this has often resulted, amongst other things, in severe liquidity problems. Small businessmen do not have the same borrowing power and influence with financiers as do large organisations.

“When liquidity is tight we all have to tighten our belts, including small businesses.

“However, the very nature of the size of these businesses – small – means that they do not have the flexibility to cut back their overheads in the way big organisations do.”

In 1992 Mr Kennett was elected as Premier of Victoria with the coalition winning 61 of the 88 seats in the assembly – the second largest victory in Victoria’s history.

But his party had a tough job ahead of it.

“The debt was $32 billion and the deficit was $2.2 billion when I came into office,” Mr Kennett says.

“We’d planned for a long time for what we would have to do if we were given the opportunity to take government … we were elected to serve the betterment of the community of Victoria.

“And that meant making some readjustments – however tough they were. We needed to do them as quickly as possible so the recovery effort would arrive sooner rather than later.”

The  party immediately instituted a budget cutting and privatisation action plan, which saw 50,000 public servants retrenched and government funding for the public school system reduced, causing 350 schools to close and 7,000 teaching jobs to be lost.

State-owned services including electricity and gas, the ambulance service, as well as several prisons and other services were all passed on to private hands under the plan.

This caused 100,000 people to march on Parliament House in protest.

“I can best describe our response to the demonstration from the comments of my then-treasurer, Alan Stockdale, who was with me at Parliament House when the demonstration was taking place,” he recalls.

“There were people shouting for every part of my anatomy and I looked carefully through the venetian blinds and said, ‘Gosh, there’s a lot of people out there Alan’ and he replied, ‘Don’t worry boss, there’s 4.6 million people who stayed at home who support what we’re doing.’”

And despite the public outcry, the results were undeniable in the following state Budget. While maintaining a higher than average unemployment rate throughout his term, investment and population growth had resumed.

Mr Kennett was involved in many companies, organisations and boards after leaving politics in 1999, including Australian Seniors Finance, and he became president of the Hawthorn Hawks in 2005.

However, besides his family, Mr Kennett claims his proudest achievement has been beyondblue.

“I founded beyondblue in 2000 and have been supported by a very dedicated board and a very good workforce ever since,” he says. “It has grown into a substantial organisation throughout the country for social change and I’m pleased, although there is a lot of work yet to be done.

“beyondblue’s work has changed the way in which people think and talk about depression and certainly the priorities which government give to depression and mental health.”

In 2007 and 2011 beyondblue participated in the Beaton Consulting annual profession survey, which showed that Australian professionals report higher than average levels of depression compared to the general community.

According to the report, each year more than three million people in Australia will experience depression or an anxiety disorder.

Given that every employee with untreated depression is estimated to cost his or her organisation an average of $9,660 per year, the financial cost to industry cannot be underestimated.

“Real estate is very competitive; people are relying on commission and a retainer to get by,” he says. “Particularly when the economy is flat or heading in reverse, that adds different levels of pressure – both economic and social –  that can lead to greater incidences of depression and at times, sadly, suicide.”

Men aged 20 to 29 working in the property sector were the most likely to suggest unhelpful ways to help a person experiencing depression (for example, ‘Take them out for a drink to help them forget about their worries’).

“Younger professionals, especially in the legal profession, have a higher rate of depression symptoms than older people. And a lot of people identify themselves as using non-prescription drugs and alcohol to manage the sadness,” Mr Kennett explains.

“I think the first thing is that leaders of teams should educate themselves as best they can about issues relating to depression. And the easiest way to do that is to look at beyondblue’s website to familiarise themselves with the contributing factors of clinical and emotional depression.

“Things like pressure at work, the breakup of a marriage, consistent ill health. Learn those and encourage your staff to become acquainted with them.

“You can see how the person at the next desk is working, you can notice if there are any changes with them.”

Mr Kennett said beyondblue also offers workplace training programs, which educate employees on the signs and stages of depression and anxiety.

“For any firm, the most important asset is the quality of their employees … the training is designed to raise awareness, to tackle stigma and also to mitigate anxiety in the workplace,” he says.

At 65, Mr Kennett is not slowing down.

“I don’t believe in the concept of retirement,” he says. “I believe retirement equates to death.

“So the important thing is to keep working, not in the same job five or six days a week, but make sure you’re always busy mentally and physically.”
And true to his word, in March Mr Kennett took on the new role of national political commentator for the Seven Network.

“That’s another task I’ve taken on board to add to my many other occupations. That’ll be different and I’m looking forward to delivering my opinions there, as I have become renowned for doing,” he says.

Having always been in the media spotlight, Mr Kennett believes the secret to avoiding anxiety and depression is to live each day as it comes.

“I don’t let it worry me,” he says. “I never take an issue from one day into the next. I wake up fresh and I salute the beginning of every day.

“If you can manage the things that cause your anxiety and stress, as I’ve done, there’s no reason why you can’t live a long and prosperous life. It’s all about developing the internal disciplines and systems.

“I hope for all of us, my greatest wish for the community is good health, and with good health comes a long and active life.”

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