Sunday, August 25, 2013


By Paul Austin July 16, 2005
Helen Kroger
Helen Kroger
Photo: Jason South
Her ex is Michael Kroger. Peter Costello was their groomsman. But the Liberal state president and federal vice-president insists she's no puppet.
The two daggy boys made a big impression on Helen Madden, as she then was, on the campus grounds and in the meeting rooms of Monash University in the late 1970s. Even then it was obvious that Peter Costello and Michael Kroger were going places.
"Peter stood out as a future prime minister," Helen Kroger, as she now is, recalls. "He had a tremendous charisma, a great way with people, very thoughtful. He had an aura of energy around him, very passionate, very attractive to all the girls - and a bit of a dag.
"He and Michael Kroger would turn up in their mothers' hand-knitted jumpers, all long hair, unkempt - but they just had a real aura of knowing where they were heading. It stood out."
The personal and political relationships forged all those years ago are still shaping Australian politics. When Helen and Michael got married in the early '80s, Peter was a groomsman. When Michael Kroger became Victorian president of the Liberal Party in the late '80s, he engineered a round of bitter preselection challenges to sitting members, which led to Costello becoming member for the plum seat of Higgins.
Today, Michael Kroger remains Costello's best mate and the unofficial director of the "Costello for PM" campaign. And Helen Kroger, now state Liberal president, has just been elevated to the federal vice-presidency, all the better to intensify her efforts to ensure Costello achieves his destiny. The Kroger marriage ended in the late '90s, but the political relationship remains as strong and influential as ever.
Helen Kroger, now 46, was always going to be a Liberal. Both her parents voted for the party, and her elder brother, Colin, had no trouble as membership officer for the Springvale Young Liberals in signing up his little sister while she was still a student at MLC.
After graduating in economics from Monash, she worked in recruitment and human resources for IBM and KPMG. When Helen and Michael decided to start a family, she left the corporate world to pursue a childhood dream of running a small business. "At that time the structural position of corporations regarding women in the workforce was different to what it is today - and I say that with no criticism. They just weren't set up for women to be in full-time management positions whilst having families.
"You could have done it if you put your baby into full-time child-care from seven in the morning, but I didn't wish to do that, so I left at that time and set up a small catering business (Blacamoor Delicatessen in Malvern East)."
Son Jack was born in 1989, then Simon two years later. Although a member of the Malvern East branch of the Liberal Party, Helen Kroger was not a day-to-day activist "because I didn't have enough time in the day to do it - I was running a business that was open six days a week, and that combined with bringing up babies consumed me."
Not that Liberal politics was absent from the home: Michael become state president in 1987. "When someone holds a position such as that, politics spills over into the home. There was a lot of critical discussion and debate and conversation taking place. So whilst I was very much a behind-the-scenes support, I was very aware of all the dynamics of the party and had to deal with them, in a support sense, on a daily basis."
The marriage break-up was a defining moment, not just personally but politically. "Up to then I had chosen to be involved in that supporting role, but that was no longer relevant. If I was to continue my political interests, it obviously had to be as an individual. So I took that opportunity and became more directly involved myself. The people I was friendly with and who remain good friends were all part of the political process, so you either say goodbye to all that or you make a very conscious decision to stay engaged. And that's what I did, because it was a very big part of my life."
She won election to the state administrative committee. It was 1997, and premier Jeff Kennett was all powerful within the party. "You would turn up to meetings, you would go through the agenda, but everything would seem to have been predetermined before you sat down," she says. "There wasn't a lot of active discussion, and there was no questioning of 'are we doing things the right way?' So whilst I was on that executive, I still felt like an outsider."
Then came the shock of Kennett's loss to Steve Bracks in the 1999 election. Kroger distances herself from the wreckage. "In terms of the campaign and the strategic approach taken and those sorts of things, I had no more knowledge than if I was still just a member of the Malvern East branch or a member of the public," she says. "But there was certainly a sense that we had gone in with a seriously wrong campaign. There was a huge groundswell against the Liberal Party, that we hadn't listened, that we believed we were the rightful bearers of government."
When Kennett quit Parliament, Kroger stood for preselection for his seat of Burwood but suffered a rare political defeat. She has not sought preselection since.
In the dark years that followed 1999, Kroger became increasingly agitated about the way the party was being run. "We had been given a huge kick up the backside, but we seemed to be just mulling along in a directionless way, with no clear understanding of how we were going to win government again. Everybody seemed to be trying to blame everybody else for the demise. That happened for years." The party had suffered the worst election defeat in its history, but "we were really just administering the status quo".
By 2002 some members were raising with Kroger the notion that she run for president. At first she laughed and told them: "I'm not going to be president - I'm working full-time, I've got two kids. Why would I want to do that? It's not a job you're loved for."
But the urgings continued, and three months before the March 2003 presidential elections, Kroger sought counsel on whether to run from three confidants: Peter Costello, Michael Kroger and state parliamentary leader Robert Doyle. Their attitude was best summed by Michael Kroger's first words to his former wife: "That'd be sensational." It was a bitter contest. Kroger says she will never forget a meeting she had with one of the three candidates, Wolfgang Garwoli. "We met, as co-candidates, one day in High Street, Armadale. He organised to have a coffee, and he told me words to the effect that he was concerned about whether a divorced woman with a couple of kids could do the job." Garwoli finished third.
The real battle was between Helen Kroger, who by now was being publicly identified with the "Michael Kroger/Peter Costello faction", and incumbent vice-president Peter Clarke, from the "Jeff Kennett faction". "Peter Clarke regarded himself to be the next person off the rank to be president, and he was strongly supported by the status quo," Helen Kroger says. "That is essentially why it did turn out to be a bitter contest, because I was seen to be the one coming from outside the circle."
She won convincingly, and immediately set about revamping the party. Critics and supporters alike agree that the Kroger presidency has been something of a revolution. "The first thing we did was turn around the professionalism of the secretariat and brought back its political cutting edge," she says. Julian Sheezel, a former employee of Michael Kroger's merchant bank, was brought in as state director. A policy unit manager was appointed. Preselections were brought forward. It was all designed to ensure the party was "outcome focused" - the desired outcome being victory at the 2006 state election.
The pace and style of change has put noses out of joint, as shown spectacularly this week when former president Joy Howley, in an interview with The Age, rounded on the Costello/Kroger forces. Helen Kroger knows the criticisms well - that she is autocratic, that dissent is not tolerated - but she is unrepentant. "It is incumbent upon any leader to make tough decisions which are in the best interests of the party, and I don't resile from that at all."
And she confronts head-on the "offensive", anonymous claims that she is merely a puppet of Michael Kroger and Costello. "It is laughable," she says. "Apart from anything else, it wasn't until I had seriously considered that I would run for president that I thought I'd better ring Peter Costello and see what he thought about it.
"I guess that observation (that she's their puppet) may be based on the fact that we all have a history together of more than 20 years where we have known each other well. But you use that as a strength - it is not a weakness.
"It's actually really silly to suggest they are directing the daily activities of the organisation, because they are both incredibly busy within their own right, so in a practical sense neither of them has the capacity to do so.
"And secondly, this notion demeans the tremendous work and support many party members have made to assist in the rejuvenation of the division."
Far from allowing the criticisms to cramp her style, Kroger is spreading her wings. Last month she added the position of federal vice-president to her responsibilities. Asked why she turned her attention to the federal party, Kroger is typically direct: "It seemed to me the federal executive could be a lot more effective and influential in the way they operate. The role of vice-president is one that I've considered has been a bit of a wasted opportunity . . . I feel, given the way the Victorian division has really turned around its fortunes at a state level, that that could be shared with the other divisions."
She concedes it was difficult to challenge the incumbent federal vice-president, fellow Victorian Wendy Spry, because "I like Wendy and we've known each other for a long time". But, "at the end of the day, I felt that it was the right thing to do".
Kroger will continue as state president until at least April, when her term expires. And she may yet stand for another term; Robert Doyle and upper house Liberal leader Philip Davis, among others, are urging her to do so.
But she has a message for critics who suggest that if she gives up the state presidency before the November 2006 Victorian election, it will be because she wants to bail out of a lost cause.
"I'm not a bailer. And anyone who suggests I am is either being a bit malicious or doesn't know me that well. If I chose not to continue (as state president) it would really be for personal reasons - because my kids would love me to be at home. But if that happened, I would remain extremely active as the immediate past president. I would be throwing my penny's worth in to do whatever I could to assist Robert and the team here (at party headquarters) for the state election.
"I don't think it would be possible to have gone this far in putting together the state strategy, and then withdraw. I don't think I would have the capacity to withdraw and not be involved."


Born: March 1959 in Melbourne.
Education: Economics, major in administration, Monash University.
Personal: Formerly married to Michael Kroger, they have two sons, Jack, 15, and Simon, 13.
Employment: Worked at IBM and KPMG, has run her own catering business, and been a fund-raising director at Wesley College.
Political Career:
Elected to Victorian Liberal Party administrative committee in 1997.
- Elected Liberal state president 2003.
- Elected Liberal federal vice-president 2005.
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