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Robert Haupt, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 29, 1990, p. 4.

The state of war that has divided Ireland for centuries is sometimes referred to there as “the recent troubles”. The loss billions of Victorian taxpayers’ dollars was ascribed in the State Budget yesterday to “the recent difficulties”. The euphemisms raise the same question: to laugh or to cry?

There is much for the lachrymose in Mrs Kirner’s first Budget. They may cry in pity at what she did — raising taxes and charges — and in rage at what she failed to do — get State debt under control. In rage or in pity, though, Victorians may not have the satisfaction of throwing their Government out: in 1988 they gave Labor a four-year term and the Liberals are not disposed to interrupt it.

Remembering why we got four-year terms is enough to turn your tears to laughter. By freeing government from the tyranny of the ballot-box (snigger) you let them get on with the job (titter) of manage-hee-hee (excuse me) managing, in the long-term interests of hoo-hoo-hee the ha-ha-ha people, hee-hee-hee. As we dry our eyes together, dear reader, let us at least acknowledge that this was a view widely held, possibly even by ourselves.

This leads to another striking thing: Joan Kirner may still head the same old Labor Government in Melbourne, but she has changed the Labor Government in Canberra. Such are the properties of Mrs Kirner’s Magic Budget Bleach (turns Left into Right overnight, particularly effective against pink stains) that she has brought into life a truly extraordinary prospect: the rejuvenation of Hawke-Keating rule. Is there not magic here?

Well, the answer is: yes, there is not. Desperation turned Victorian Labor into bank-sellers and Federal Labor into bank-privatisers and desperation hardly ever allows governments to recover. Government is a slalom event, downhill all the way, and once you start hitting the flags you’re finished. Victorian Labor is now wearing half the flags of the course and the interesting question is not whether it can recapture its equilibrium but why it took so long for the electorate to discover that it had lost it in the first place.

Lest we lapse into tears again at the fate that has befallen Victoria, consider the ironies involved in the rescue. I don’t mean only that the Centre-Right Government of John Cain and his ministers should have its financial mess cleared up by the Socialist Left, nor even that the Government of personal parsimony should face the bill for collective profligacy. And leave aside the rail and tramway system (once Melbourne’s pride), still left hanging between transport service and employment agency.

No, look at those who have been called into service to repair through higher taxes the damage caused by the “recent difficulties”. Is it not entirely appropriate that this teetotal Government should press the bill for its fiscal debauchery upon drinkers, and the anti-smoking zealots seek from those who light up a fag further revenue to replace the money they sent up in flames?

There was once a reviled Premier of Victoria who failed four of the tests that Cain and his ministers loved to let you know they had passed: he was H. Bolte. Sir Henry regularly sat and failed the first test, teetotalism. It was always Scotch that causes his lapses, and like Sir Winston Churchill’s they began rather early in the day.

On the second test, tobacco, Bolte was an even greater failure: never did Turf cork-tipped have a more reliable (and it must be said, longer-lived) customer. Drink in hand, fag between fingers, Bolte also regularly displayed lapses in the third matter, gambling. Few Morwell mid-week meets went by, in his time, without the Premier expressing a view on the chances of number seven in the fifth. The Cain Government never established a casino: Henry Bolte was a casino.

I said there were four modern tests that Bolte failed. You may, dear reader, have incorrectly anticipated the last one: that Bolte failed to allow his State Bank to go broke. While it is certainly true that he did so fail, that isn’t the achievement which most speaks to us today. No, the fourth test failed by Henry Bolte is this: he never went jogging.

Here is a field in which John Cain and his Treasurer, Bob Jolly, excelled: if marathons were millions and if there were rebates in Reeboks, even Tricontinental may have been affordable. Indeed, so often and for so long did these leaders run that one sometimes wondered what the cumulative effect was on their brains — all that jiggling from all that jogging. To be sure, there is no conclusive proof that H. Bolte never tied on the sweatband, adjusted his Nikes and set sail down St. Kilda Road at a steady 12 kph, but all the evidence stands to the contrary. So when we take the Cain-Bolte evidence and draw up the balance-of-jogging, it looks like this: jogging Premiers who kept the State Bank Victoria, 0; non-joggers who kept the State Bank Victoria, 1.

A couple of points arise. First, there is the significant absence of any eyewitness account of Joan Kirner jogging. (Sightings of Mrs Kirner outfitted in Adidas should henceforth be sent to Moody’s Investor Services). And then there is the matter of NSW Premier Nick Greiner’s jogging, which could be a serious worry.

But like every non-Labor politician from now until the year 2000 and beyond, Nick won’t be running for re-election against his Opposition Leader of the hour. Heck, no, he’ll run against John Cain for as long as the electorate remembers (or can be reminded) how much Cain cost his taxpayers. And that’s the thing about “recent difficulties”, like recent troubles they have a habit of remaining recent for a long time.