A Premier’s State
By Steve Bracks with Ellen Whinnett
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.
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.