I quarrelled with myself when I heard a decade ago that Mr Jeff Kennett was starting up an initiative for depression. How could someone who’d closed hospitals and schools in such an unthinking swath in the 1990s – an act that undoubtably sent many into a maudlin state – now come forward as a crusader for depression? That was one side of the disagreement, while the other went something like: I guess anything that’s going to bring some awareness to the plight of those suffering is a good thing.

There was more to be said in the swirl of machinations going on in my mind, mind you. ‘He’s such a bully!’ and, ‘We’re talking about people’s lives here, not economic rationalism.’ And lastly and probably most frustratingly, ‘This is not a casino proposition, Mr Kennett.’

Still, the success of beyondblue could have bowled one over. Right from the start the initiative was up and running with high exposure and substantial support, something which not only flummoxed me in the sense that I realised I had no idea about how such campaigns really ran, but that such a man could be seen as ‘wanting to help out’. It was as if, in my mind at least, he was motivated by trying to mop up the mess he’d left after taking his scalpel to public programing in the name of turning around the financial doldrums in the state.

And, financially, he did do it; he got Victoria out of debt and up there with a triple A rating for the first time in ages. So given that and the successful campaign, perhaps there was something in this organisation beyondblue, even if it was only aimed at the middle classes and ran with a conservative line? Along with others, I ate a piece of my hat (metaphorically speaking), chewing decidedly on that brim, while still not quite believing in him or the organisation.

Needless to say the recent revelations about beyondblue are of little surprise. And the tide of ‘I told you so’s’ swilling in the upper echelons of my brain has taken more than a moment to abate. You see I’ve worked in the mental health field treating children and adults for aliments such as depression for years, sometimes for acute or reactive problems and sometimes for chronic and clinical ones. To become a good practitioner takes not only a considerable amount of training, but a solid amount of research to be able to draw on. It also takes high quality, stable organisations to work out of. And, these things, you will not be surprised to hear, require a substantial amount of money to back them up.

Of course, the monetary bonanza attached to beyondblue is only one part of the discussion about the organisation in the media lately. But to hear that there have been large amounts of waste in regard to the $118 million of state and federal funding beyondblue has amassed in the last decade is salt to the wound. From Jill Stark and Melissa Fyfe in the Sunday Age:

After 11 years of Kennett’s leadership, former staff say beyondblue had become a cashed-up, autocratic and conservative organisation that lacked transparency and could not retain its talented staff …

According to ex-staff members, money has been squandered, often on the organisation itself. Aside from the board flying business class – an unusual practice in not-for-profits – launches and parties were always top-class.

It would seem by reading this article that while the awareness raised by beyondblue in regard to depression was tantamount to near perfect, the waste was considerable and productivity from the organisation has been very low. Now I don’t know much about the dictums of economical rationalism, but I would have thought that that sort of thing wouldn’t fit very well within them. I do think that this is a case of an organisation growing too quickly with someone at the helm that knows little (intellectually speaking) about the field he’s hoping to raise awareness about.

And it would seem that beyondblue is going to more likely get the gong – perhaps given Kennett’s involvement with footy, the wooden spoon is a more fitting descriptor – for being exactly the kind of wokplace it would profess causes much of the sort of pressure that can lead to depression in the first place. A little microcosm of the very poison it’s trying to rally against.

And then there is Ms Dawn O’Neil, whom I heard speak on the radio on behalf of beyondblue some months back and who made me think (because of her thoughtful responses in that interview) that, yes, perhaps beyondblue wasn’t so out of touch after all. Ms O’Neil however, I think now on reflection, was talking from her vast experience – not least of which she gained at Lifeline – and which it would seem she didn’t get an opportunity to put into practice despite her efforts in the nine months she spent at the organisation.

As much as the state of play at beyondblue must be alarming (and that might be an understatement to people such as the Movember crew who donate a whooping $10 million a year into its coffers) I’m not so sure that a shake up from negative publicity isn’t a bad thing. In the annals of rationalism, aren’t shake-ups the necessity of success and future growth? The big question here is, Is that going to happen? Are we going to observe Kennett’s own style of remake (something similar to his overhaul of the Ambulance Service in the 1990s) which surely would entail his own demise as chairperson of the organisation? Or do we still love those who can wield a big stick (which obviously the board at beyondblue do) and allow them to ride disrespectfully over everyone and everything?

There’ll be pundits who reside on both sides of this argument and while I’ve got lots more I could say about such blind whorshipping of bombastic leadership, for now I just hope those who’ve experienced the culture at beyondblue firsthand are having luck in accessing treatment for any stress that it’s caused.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at sjfinn.com.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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