X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Books Australia

The bland leading the bland

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

16 February 2013

9:00 AM

A Premier’s State
By Steve Bracks with Ellen Whinnett
MUP,
$34.99,
pp 296
ISBN 9780522860795

One always approaches the memoir of a retired politician with a certain trepidation: such books can often devolve into a parade of excuses, self-aggrandisement, paybacks and complaints. There is an aspect of all these in this book by Steve Bracks, Victorian premier from 1999 to 2007, but thankfully not so much as to make it unreadable. Maybe the assistance of Whinnett, deputy editor of the Sunday Herald Sun, kept the book free of the confected antagonism that seems to motivate many in the ALP, and likewise the accounts of the labyrinthine manoeuvres of the party’s factions are kept to a minimum. Essentially, Bracks is simply not a hater but more of a technocrat and administrator.

If anything, the problem with the book — some might say the problem with the Bracks period of leadership — is that it is not about very much at all. Bracks describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a moderate social progressive, and that seems to be pretty accurate. Indeed, it is no surprise to learn that his first academic qualification was in accounting. His government was very much about balancing the books first and doing some other stuff after that.

He also had the good fortune to arrive at the right time. While he lambasts the Kennett government for cutting budgets and services (he neglects to mention that this was because of the disastrous fiscal position that it inherited), the truth is that Bracks came to office with the state’s finances in good shape. The flow of revenue from Canberra, via the GST, was also a boon. Politically, he was faced with a series of Liberal opposition leaders who were, putting it frankly, simply not up to the job.

[Alt-Text]


Bracks had always seen himself as destined for big things, although he is careful to avoid any Hawke-like suggestion of charismatic destiny. He planned his career trajectory fairly early, and after a stint as a teacher set off on the usual ALP path of adviser positions and party committees. He says remarkably little about the pivotal campaign which put him into the big chair in 1999, although he notes that he was not surprised at the result. All part of the plan, presumably.

Control was one of the hallmarks of the Bracks premiership. The other was spin: a constant flow of ‘announceables’ — though Bracks did not try, Rudd-style, to crowd everyone else out of the spotlight — and a marked tendency to deny any possibility of bad news. The book strikes a similar tone. Reading it with no other knowledge of Victorian politics during the period, one could easily conclude that nothing bad happened at all.

The emphasis on avoiding controversy is illustrated by Bracks’ decision to not re-appoint the respected governor, James Gobbo. Gobbo had occasionally been a guest at a function club where Liberal donors sometimes met. Bracks says that he did not re-appoint Gobbo as governor because if the issue became public it would have caused controversy. So Bracks simply told Gobbo that he would not be re-appointed, without giving him a reason, and later even ‘rubbished’ (Bracks’s word) media questions on the issue. The approach was: if there is never any controversy, the media will have no choice but to focus on the government’s good news stories.

Applying the same approach to the book means that there are surprising gaps. There is no mention of the public transport ticketing system which inexplicably took years to implement and chewed up huge amounts of money, for example. The Wonthaggi desalination plant, now widely seen as a white elephant, gets half a line. Bracks attacks the Kennett government for a lack of accountability, but his own government had a pattern, especially in its later years, of obfuscation, evasion and stonewalling over issues such as planning decisions and police corruption.

In the final chapters of the book, Bracks makes an attempt at Big Picture vision but to tell the truth he is not particularly good at it. Especially on party matters, there is a sense of ticking boxes: the party should connect more with communities, focus on growth, govern for the whole electorate rather than special interests. Yes, this is all good, but hardly new, and would sound entirely logical coming from a Liberal.

Bracks doesn’t like the Greens much, seeing them as interlopers and opportunists. He makes the interesting suggestion that they should be referred to as the Green party, to counter their strategy of depicting themselves as above party politics. It’s not a bad idea, but hardly earth-shaking.

Which says it all, really. All things considered, Bracks was not a bad premier, and by some criteria even a good one. But there is a lingering sense that the Bracks era should have been better, left more of a legacy, expressed a vision, been more willing to upset some people if that is what it took to take a leap rather than a few small steps. It’s the same with this book: not a bad piece of work, but not particularly exciting either.

Derek Parker is a freelance writer based in Melbourne and a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close