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Jeff Kennett: A Twentieth Century Machiavellian Prince?

by Tim Elliott

Dux of Tear 12, Trinity Grammar School, 1996

Almost five hundred years ago, a man wrote a book from which leaders and powermongers the world over have for centuries learned the art of obtaining and maintaining pure, absolute power. The Prince’s author, Italian Niccolò Machiavelli’s immoral advocation of ruthlessness as encapsulated by his notorious fundamental philosophy “the end justifies the means”, has cast him alongside Hitler and Stalin in many people’s minds, as people of paramount evil. Jeff Kennett is one who, whether knowingly or not, owes much to the teachings of Machiavelli. Love him or despise him, he has ruled at times with unrelenting force and has won respect and admiration from many for doing so. “If you cannot be both, it is better to be feared than loved” wrote Machiavelli in 1514; Kennett’s triumph is that he has applied this theory successfully in a twentieth century democracy.

“Five weeks after Jeff Kennett took over in Victoria, 100,000 people marched on Parliament House. Looking down on them from his office, the new Premier would have steeled himself with the reminder that he was saving Victoria: these were dark times, and he was the man for the hour.” – Alan Kohler, ‘The Age’, 29 March 1996

The way in which Jeff Kennett has carried out his sweeping social, economic and political reforms has undisputedly earned him a reputation for ruthless governing. Through his perceived disregard for the effects on the community of his endeavours to get Victoria “on the move”, Kennett has unashamedly outraged an array of minority groups, media entities, welfare groups and intellectuals concerned with the state of democracy in Victoria. Kennett’s management team has focussed almost exclusively on the ‘bottom line’ through economic rationalism. This combined with Kennett’s own confrontationist style of government has meant any opposition barring the way of economic development – even the church – has been flattened, while anyone who questions the social ramifications is treated with outright contempt. Consequently he has become notorious for ignoring public concern, savaging those who dare defy him and refusing to discuss or fully inform the public about policies he believes he carries a mandate to deliver. For Kennett, creating a thriving economy in Victoria is in the interest of the entire community, regardless of its cost to the social fabric of the state: the end justifies the means. The Premier’s first term of power stands testament to his unequivocal belief in this.

“…one is judged by the result. So let a prince go about the task of conquering and maintaining his state; his methods will always be judged honourable and will be universally praised. The common people are always impressed by appearances and results.” – The Prince, p101

Machiavelli’s bold assertion was overwhelmingly corroborated by Kennett’s convincing re-election in March this year even though he stretched the tolerance of the people to the limit with his authoritative governing. Indeed, results were achieved. What some question is the manner in which they were achieved and the price paid to achieve the results. Machiavelli suggests the latter does not matter – while this may be extreme, the possibility that there lies some degree of truth in it should not be too hastily disregarded. Media criticism of economic rationalism, has at times been so blatant that it has become a dirty word. It should be remembered that in theory everyone prospers through higher standards of living; like it or not, if it is not a high consideration of any government, the entire community will suffer from irresponsible economic management. No-one could argue that Kennett did not have a massive repair job to do on the state economy; it was unavoidable that some would bear the brunt of the necessary restructuring. This sort of public thinking, as Machiavelli predicted, won Kennett a second term in power. That he was able to apply this Machiavellian theory in a democracy is an extraordinary accomplishment since he is answerable to the people. The people in turn judged as foretold by Machiavelli: that the end did justify the means.

What is wrong with this principle?

“It opposes one of the most fundamental Christian traditions in philosophy we’ve inherited, according to which the doing of justice, and thus fair-dealing, is thought to be the fundamental virtue of all political institutions.” – Q. Skinner, Professor of Political Science, University of Cambridge

Thus the battle lines are drawn in an age-old argument spanning five centuries which has aroused enormous outrage and controversy: should morals be upheld in politics when they jeopardise the greater good? Kennett certainly has not been afraid to act somewhat immorally when he saw a way of gaining an advantage for either Victoria or his government. Many assert he has ‘torn the social fabric of the community’ and jeopardised the long-term harmony of society and its belief in the political institution representing them. Often it has been the way Kennett instigated change rather than the changes themselves which have provoked unmitigated public outcry. He has deceived the public through treachery and secrecy. In not allowing public discussion to influence his decisions he has invited allegations that he is using his unprecedented power in a dictatorial capacity to carry out his own private agenda. It is Machiavelli’s stance in this area which has caused him to be despised and opposed resolutely by so many, particularly the church.

“A prince cannot observe all the things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. He should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil when necessity commands” – The Prince, p101

Kennett’s overwhelming majority in both houses has allowed him virtually unchecked power to maintain his state – power he has exerted to its fullest capacity. Any source of resistance, be it from the media, church or opposition, has been decimated with arrogant, ruthless intolerance of criticism. Secrecy has surrounded many government dealings, most notably in the casino tendering process which continues to produce allegations of conflict of interest and corruption. Despite having been elected democratically the government is largely unaccountable because of the state opposition being disempowered and the media’s role being undermined by Kennett’s public slanging match with Channel 2 and ‘The Sunday Age’ in particular. However, being democratically elected by the people to govern, they have every right to do so in a way which they believe best serves the collective interests of Victorians. Subsequently Kennett feels no obligation to consult the people about government decisions, as best exemplified by his handling of the Albert Park Grand Prix.

“Apart from his chosen advisers, the prince should heed no-one; he should put the policy agreed upon into effect straight away, and he should adhere to it rigidly.” – The Prince, p126

Kennett must be admired for the way he has stuck to this rule despite threats of a strong electoral backlash, and to his credit it has paid off in regard to the Grand Prix. He has been able to weather the storm and win the support of a large majority, indicative of his style and strength of leadership. Kennett believes in this rule so strongly that he has defied another of Machiavelli’s teachings by amending the state’s constitution (what Machiavelli describes as “the most difficult thing to handle and most doubtful of success”) to prevent citizens challenging government legislation in the Supreme Court. This and over a hundred other constitutional amendments represent to many a gross infringement on personal rights and violates a principle at the heart of liberal democracy: the separation of powers.

Kennett has demonstrated his willingness to stop at nothing to achieve his objectives and has shown little reluctance towards making enemies in the process. Perhaps it is this last point which is his greatest strength, while it is equally so often the downfall of other leaders who fear not being loved. Furthermore the arrogance and contempt with which he treats opposition has made him a greatly respected political leader, dreaded by the opposition, and feared by those who would otherwise challenge him. Talkback host Neil Mitchell believes “His cabinet sits there and does what its told; they are all frightened of him”1. As a result of this, other party members maintain a low profile while Kennett is seen to be in complete control, dominating parliament, cabinet and media alike. This perception of him augments his power while achieving one of Machiavelli’s more important objectives of maintaining the loyalty of allies.

“It is much better to be feared than loved. Love is held together by a chain of obligation which, since men are a sorry lot, is broken on every occasion in which their own self interest is concerned. But fear is strengthened by dread of punishment which will never abandon you.” – The Prince, p96 (paraphrased)

Machiavelli had his priorities firmly set. His objective came first. Acting in a morally acceptable way was preferable, but would under no circumstances stand in the way of the achievement of his objective. It has been established that Kennett too would abide by this. However the above citation leads towards the fundamental difference between Kennett and Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s ultimate purpose was the entrenchment of government that would last – the problem facing his country during his lifetime which prompted him to write ‘The Prince’. Jeff Kennett has a vision, and exercises his power, ruthlessly maybe, to create that dream. Kennett’s purpose stops at achieving his ends, not the perpetuation of his government whose fate is decided by the people every four years; power is for him a means. Machiavelli had no vision which he sought to accomplish through power; for Machiavelli power was the end itself. This limitation of the similarities of Kennett and Machiavelli’s philosophies is brought about by the passing of five hundred years between their respective times which inevitably restricts the degree of correlation. Essentially, ruling a fifteenth century principality in Europe is in many respects very different to ruling a twentieth century western democracy. Even so, it is surprising to see the large number of underlying and fundamental principals which are common to both tasks.

Both Machiavelli and Kennett agree that ideals are burdensome and consequently Kennett has pushed the bounds of liberal democracy to its very limits and has not been afraid of widespread public condemnation for doing so. On the other hand, society’s expectation of people to act honestly and decently is starkly contradicted by history which shows that it’s those who act excessively forcefully and deviously who are successful; Jeff Kennett is contemporary evidence that some things never change. His political adversary John Brumby claimed that “In the snakes and ladders game of politics, I cannot think of any other modern-day leader who has ever broken so many promises”. Kennett’s style aside, he is deserving of commendation for his drive and determination to ‘make things happen’ in the face of adversity. However for many this does not excuse dishonesty and deception, no matter how good the intentions. Machiavelli begs to differ:

“A prudent ruler cannot, and must not honour his word when it places him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he made his promise no longer exist…Because men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you, you need not keep your word to them. And no prince ever lacked good excuses to colour his bad faith”. – The Prince, pp99-100

The personality of Jeff Kennett corresponds with that of Niccolò Machiavelli to a surprisingly large extent, principally through their shared single-mindedness, arrogance and love of shocking people. They have both been prepared to do ‘whatever it takes’ to achieve a desired goal – in writing The Prince to the Medici he was advocating a ruthless dictatorship of his own country for his own personal gain in being reinstated to office. They are also both notorious for their devious game-playing and over-inflated egos – recently Kennett was quoted saying “I’m John Brumby’s greatest supporter. I hope nothing happens to him”. Perhaps most importantly, they each possess the powerful combination of persistent forcefulness; it is this which has carried Kennett through two election defeats as opposition leader and which have sharpened his ruthlessness, empowering him as one of the most formidable politicians in the nation.

Jeff Kennett is truly a master of many aspects of Machiavellian statecraft. Yet these qualities must be placed in a broader perspective before consigning him to being Machiavellian per se. Essentially, times have changed; society has become substantially more civil. Machiavelli was advocating stopping at absolutely nothing to achieve an end, including assassination, betrayal and torture. However while society has become more civilised, “The day-to-day exercise of politics now is equally as unprincipled, as vicious and as destructive as it was in Machiavelli’s day, possibly more so.”2 Even so there are obvious limits to which Kennett will go; he will usually stop before confrontation steps up from ‘verbal bullying’ to physical harassment. In terms of leadership styles and governing philosophies though, there are many strong similarities. These similarities have been the cause of much condemnation for his unscrupulous pragmatism and hardline economic rationalism. Yet it is also these Machiavellian characteristics which the community voted in favour of just months ago and which have ensured his place of prominence in history as a leader who acted, a leader who earned respect the hard way, and a leader who more than anyone else in Victorian parliament exercises real power with devastating consequences.

Just as surely as time will continue to shape the society in which we live, power will continue to stand as a grail for mankind, who will continue to employ timeless ways and means of obtaining and maintaining it.


  • Machiavelli, N, “The Prince”
  • Machiavelli, N, “Discourses on the First Decade of Livy”
  • “Memo from Machiavelli”, video.
  • Murphy, D and Kyriakopolous, V “Bulletproof. The untouchable Jeff Kennett”, The Bulletin, 4 June 1996.
  • Plumb, J, “The Penguin book of the Renaissance”
  • Thousands of newspaper articles about Jeff Kennett

Special Thanks To:

  • Malcolm Farnsworth – Head of Politics – Loreto Mandeville Hall
  • John Reid – International Studies – Trinity Grammar School
  • Ken Barrett – History – Trinity Grammar School
  • Neil Mitchell in ‘Bulletproof. The untouchable Jeff Kennett’ by D. Murphy and V. Kyriakopolous, The Bulletin, 4 June 1996.
  • “Memo from Machiavelli” screened on Channel 2 this year.
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Malcolm Farnsworth
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