Content Note: The following piece contains reference to mental illness and suicide
A fortnight ago, the Weekend Australian published a profile of Jeff Kennett so glowing you’d be forgiven for thinking he wrote it himself. The obsequious puff-piece gushed about the resigning chair of Beyondblue, citing the “indefatigable can-do spirit hard-wired in his soul” and painting him as a maverick saviour of the anguished and bereft.
The anguished and bereft might beg to differ. While there’s no doubt Beyondblue has done internationally groundbreaking work to destigmatise and alleviate mental illness in Australia, this is largely in spite, not because, of the organisation’s public face. As Kennett steps down after sixteen years with the charity, it’s only fair that we acknowledge his generous advocacy. But let’s also not forget the tireless work he’s done throughout his career to champion forces that contribute to and exacerbate mental illness on a mass scale.
We don’t have to have an especially long memory. In August, when Four Corners revealed that the Northern Territory juvenile detention system was brutalising Aboriginal children, the chair of Australia’s leading mental health non-for-profit denounced this as “offensive” and “unacceptable.” Not the abuse – the program.
In a strident op-ed for the Herald Sun, Kennett defended practices that human rights lawyers described as torture and accused the journalists who exposed them of bias. “I object to the program’s deliberate lack of balance,” said the Scotch College alumnus, who has never been chained to a chair with a bag over his head, “as much as I object to any inappropriate behaviour against any citizen, incarcerated or not.” As much. Not that this behaviour was necessarily inappropriate. After all, “most of us know not all juveniles are exemplary… some can be difficult, threatening, even violent.”
Of course, this country has a proud history of turning a blind eye to institutional abuse, and in 2016 it’s almost unAustralian for a public figure not to condone the traumatising of a minor if it’s done by someone with an emu on their lapel. But given that Kennett is about to become the ambassador of a charity that aims to reduce indigenous incarceration, you might have thought he’d be a little less enthusiastic about the torture of marginalised pre-teens.
Then again, what did we expect from the premier who brought private prisons to Victoria? Under Kennett’s privatisation policy, over 40% of the state’s prisoners were placed in the custody of businesses. During his seven years in office, the number of prisoners in Victoria rose by 25%, despite a declining crime rate. Deaths in custody skyrocketed. Although Kennett hasn’t been in power since 1999, these policy foundations remain in place and have been imitated in other states. The links between imprisonment and mental illness are thoroughly established.
Then there’s the chair of Beyondblue’s betrayal of Australia’s 115,000 gambling addicts. According to a Melbourne University study from 2015, Australia has the highest per-capita concentration of slot machines in the world. They’re distributed in inverse proportion to the socioeconomic status of areas – the poorer the suburb, the more pokies. The Productivity Commission’s 2010 final review into gambling found that “electronic gaming machines account for 62 per cent of gambling expenditure in Australia and for 75 per cent to 80 per cent of problem gamblers.” In 2010, more than one in six patients admitted to the Alfred Hospital following a suicide attempt were problem gamblers. Yet the cantankerous mascot of the organisation many survivors turn to for support is one of the best political friends the gambling lobby has ever had.
In 2011, the Gillard Government proposed legislation to allow problem gamblers to set personal limits. It was watered down and not enough, but would have saved some lives from a bloodthirsty industry that counts its profits in pawned heirlooms and missed school excursions. The chair of Beyondblue was first to the barricades to attack the bill. Afterall, he pocketed a decent cut of those profits: at the time Kennett was the CEO of Amtek, a corporation which “exists solely to service, maintain and support the poker machine industry.” And let’s never forget Kennett’s approval of the construction of Crown Casino, a glittering cancer on Melbourne’s psychosocial fabric.
Jeff Kennett’s anti-mental health activism has been even been more direct. As premier, he single-handedly disembowelled Victoria’s mental health infrastructure, closing vital institutions and forcing unwell people onto the street. A few of their bodies are found in Melbourne gutters each winter, flecked with gleaming frost. When asked if he accepted the link between the closure of mental health facilities and Victoria’s “exploding” homelessness rates, the chair of Beyondblue scoffed. According to him, the root cause of homelessness is that too many young people are “unoccupied.”
Bluewash is term that means “to tout a business or organization’s commitment to social responsibility, and to use this perception for public relations and economic gain.” It can also apply to individuals. The hagiography of Jeff Kennett is just one example of a dangerous historical revisionism that praises neoliberal politicians for speaking out against social problems their own policies helped to create. It’s the cognitive dissonance that sees no contradiction in celebrating Malcolm Turnbull for being a White Ribbon ambassador while he leads a government that has, on net, cut $200 million from anti-domestic violence services.
Even the greatest architects of human suffering have a right to redeem themselves through good work – that’s the difference between rehabilitation and Don Dale. But media friendly palliative gestures, however effective or sincere, do not erase a continuing support for the systemic causes of addiction, disadvantage and despair.
If your lifelong ideology is “let them eat cake,” you can’t have yours and eat it too.