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An ordinary bloke who grabbed the state's reins

By Paul Strangio - posted Tuesday, 31 July 2007

On Sunday, July 22, Steve Bracks returned to Ballarat, his birthplace and the city where his political career began, to launch a history of Ballarat's labour movement. The Premier seemed in good form, relaxed and confident.

In performing his launching duties, he reminisced about his first involvements in politics. He delighted the assembled Labor faithful with a story about his politicisation by the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. He and other Labor supporters assembled at the Ballarat Trades Hall, intent on marching to express their outrage. But they had a problem: where to march? In the end, they descended on the offices of the Ballarat Courier.

Observing Bracks that Sunday, there was no hint of last Friday's bombshell. Perhaps in hindsight, though, there was an omen in his arriving accompanied by his friend Bob Carr, the former NSW Labor premier, who had been in town for another ALP function. Now, Bracks joins Carr in that select group of government leaders who have relinquished power voluntarily rather than being rejected by the electorate, deposed through the treachery of party colleagues or succumbing to ill-health or death.


In his resignation statement, Bracks asserted that the State Government "could not be in better shape". Certainly it is difficult to dispute that he has walked away from office at the peak of his powers. He was in the first year of a four-year term after last November's second consecutive landslide victory. He has enjoyed unprecedented authority over the historically fractious Victorian ALP, and since Carr's retirement, Bracks has been widely regarded as the nation's most influential Labor premier.

In resigning now, Bracks has also walked away from history. He was on the cusp of political immortalisation by qualifying for a statue outside 1 Treasury Place as one of Victoria's longest-serving premiers. He was also on the verge of displacing John Cain jnr as the state's longest-serving Labor premier. If he had stayed on until the next election in 2010, he would have become Victoria's second longest-serving premier behind Henry Bolte. But none of this, he says, ever mattered to him.

Since he became leader of the Victorian ALP in February 1999, pitted against the rampaging Jeff Kennett, Bracks has traded on his ordinariness. It has been a significant part of his appeal: his apparent freedom from hubris, his geniality. And, with his resignation, perhaps that ordinariness has been confirmed. At his resignation news conference, Bracks said he "could not have given more". Nearly eight years at the head of government has depleted his resources.

Inevitably, comparisons are being made with Prime Minister John Howard, another who has endured at the apex of executive power, in his case even longer, seemingly immune to the political ravages, deaf to the inner voice that says one's time is up.

It is too early to be definitive about the legacies of the Bracks premiership. However, some stand out. Arguably the most far-reaching in the state's history, his government's 2003 constitutional reforms, which ironically deprived Labor of a continuing upper house majority following the 2006 election, are the reason that the state now has minor party representation in the Legislative Council, most notably three Greens. Together with his deputy, John Thwaites, who also resigned, the Premier positioned Victoria as an early responder to the challenges of climate change and managing water resources.

In last Friday's news conference, Bracks also singled out his success, achieved in partnership with his likely successor, John Brumby, in exorcising demons about Victorian Labor's financial management skills. The Government's fiscal conservatism has, of course, provoked criticisms that it has been a public policy plodder: a pale imitation of a Labor government.


Yet, in his chapter on Bracks in a study of Victorian premiers published last year, David Hayward argues that the cumulative pattern of social policy investment since 1999 is now such as to confute suggestions that Bracks was not leading a "true" social democratic government. According to Hayward, Bracks balanced financial prudence with a deceptively broad social reform program. Nor should we forget another feature of the Bracks era: the restoration of civility and reasonableness to public life after the bombast and aggression of the Kennett years.

A question will remain: has Bracks departed prematurely? Major reforms, for example in water, are far from bedded down. There is also the matter of how the government will fare in his absence. In his resignation address, Bracks emphasised how cohesive the cabinet has been. This cohesiveness owed much to Bracks' consultative, group leadership style. Will this be maintained by his successor, the anointed Brumby, or will the Government revert to a more typical leadership style: strongly directive and centralising? And, if so, how will that affect not only the effectiveness and harmony of the Government, but the dynamics of Victorian politics?

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First published in The Age on July 28, 2007.

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About the Author

Dr Paul Strangio is a senior lecturer in politics at Monash University and co-editor of The Victorian Premiers, 1856-2006.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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