‘You need to build trust when you don’t need it – for the time when you do’: an interview with Steve Bracks

By Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells

Tuesday August 4, 2020

Steve Bracks (AAP Image/James Ross)

Steve Bracks was on track to be immortalised in his role as Victoria’s premier only to choose to resign early in 2007 for (actual) family reasons. In this interview with Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells, he shares his insights on finding common ground from the oppositional vantage.

Last year, we climbed the majestic steps of Old Treasury Building on Spring Street, at the top of Collins Street – known as the Paris End or the Money End of Melbourne – to interview former Premier the Hon Steve Bracks.

All of Victoria’s ex-Premiers are given an office in Old Treasury to conduct their affairs after leaving government. Only a few get a statue out the front of 1 Treasury Place (where the offices of the current Premier, Deputy Premier, DPC and DTF sit). Jeff Kennett made the statue rules when he thought he was on track to govern Victoria for many years, but suffered a surprising loss in 1999.

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Steve Bracks snatched government, and then the ‘Bracks-slide’ happened in 2002 and he won again in 2006. He was on track to be immortalised only to choose to resign early in 2007 due to family reasons. (This is not a euphemism; there really were family reasons: his son had a serious car accident.)

On his personal and political life

I grew up in a provincial area in Ballarat and that’s where I cut my teeth politically. I went to the University of Ballarat, the former Ballarat Institute of Advanced Education. Did a commerce degree and then did a graduate diploma in education – and taught while I was doing my study. It was then that I got involved in politics.

Labor victories were very few and far between. Labor had had the enormous split in 1956 and that affected Ballarat enormously, where a lot of the origination of the spilt happened. We previously had a housing minister in the then ‘Cain Senior’ government. We had a federal seat. We lost everything for about 27 years.

The good thing was, I cut my teeth in there and the great thing about a provincial area, a bit like your area in Latrobe Valley, where you grew up, was that you’ve got the lot. You’ve got TV, daily newspapers, daily radio – so you’ve got all the media, all the media communication methods that you would have at a state-wide level – in microcosm at a regional level.

And probably for John Brumby in Bendigo and me in Ballarat, it catapulted you in quite an advanced way in how you presented and performed and how you operated, which was important therefore for the larger canvass of the state which we got involved in later on.

I always felt in Ballarat that it was pretty unfair, not only did we not have any state or federal seats, not only did we have no-one in local government, we had no one on water boards, no one on hospital boards, we had no representation anywhere. It was the fairness thing that I wanted to address.

On bipartisanship

Well, that history in regional politics was not too unhelpful for pursuing bipartisan policies because I learned how to persuade and argue the case. I had to deal with a large number of entrenched conservative Liberal supporters. So, often, you worked with them on organisations or otherwise worked together.

I did that on Community Action for Youth – I was the chair of that – there was a broad bipartisan group on that. I did that when I chaired the regional consultative council – looking at deinstitutionalisation in the Ballarat region. I had a deputy, Alice Knight, who was chair of the Liberal Party in Ballarat.

When I became state opposition leader, I decided to pursue a different policy to my predecessor, John Brumby. I felt that we were simply in the mirror image, trying to be the mirror image of Jeff Kennett. That is, in the last paragraph of every story that Kennett did, responding and reacting to what he did – always being in opposition to what he did – and largely he was therefore running the show – and we were just a bit player in the end. There was a lot of pressure on Labor to do that. The union movement and others said, ‘Just get into Kennett’. That was the sort of mantra at the time. I changed that.

My view was that we should be where Kennett wasn’t. At that time – which seems unremarkable now but was remarkable at the time – it was in basic services. It was in health, education, public safety and the regions. The things that became our mantra in government and our policy prescriptions were the areas that I pursued in opposition and the areas where Kennett wasn’t.

And to come to the bipartisanship: I also undertook that if I felt there was commonality I would acknowledge and recognise it. I would say ‘we support that’. I did that, for example, on major events; the major events strategy for the state. I said, ‘It’s a good strategy – it’s one we support – we will adopt it – and we won’t change it.’

I did that and Brumby did a bit of preparation for this, too. Some of the franchises in the transport system and some of the privatisations in electricity – we said we wouldn’t wind those back. We accepted that they were in place. That wasn’t easy to do because we had to bring the party along, but nevertheless we did it.

There were certain things we did where we said there is some common ground. In fact, my message was largely – at the time – I think that Kennett did a good job at promoting economic growth in the state, but it was the distribution of that growth and where it was put – that is where we had a difference. The regions, services.

On reforming government

One of my biggest reforms was to make the state’s upper house more democratic and to have fixed four-year terms for both houses. A marked change from our previous policy to abolish the upper house if we came to power.

I reached across the aisle to Peter Ryan and Pat McNamara [Nationals], during the caretaker period while we were waiting on Frankston East by-election. I was looking for a bit of insurance in case things didn’t turn out well for us. They engaged. This was all unbeknown to Kennett and the others.

I was manoeuvring that if we lost the by-election and got a tie, then I would offer the Nationals the Speaker position. That was Ken Jasper.

We almost got there, too. We met them in the Sofitel here – I had Peter Batchelor with me. I had good relations with the Nats, off the back of experience of standing in the by-election in Ballarat, when we got about 75% of the Nat preferences. Anyway, Peter Ryan ended up getting cold feet on the Speaker offer and it turns out we won Frankston East and didn’t need them anyway. But it was a good example and good insurance.

On constitutional reform

As I said, a long-term reform that we wanted to pursue was to reform the upper house. Many Labor governments had tried it before, unsuccessfully. I had pushback from my own party. Greg Sword coming in a saying, ‘Why would you give up that power?’ But I was keen to make sure I could get some cooperation across the aisle from the Libs and the Nats.

I set up a committee with former Premier, Dick Hamer, who agreed, which was great, to head it up. And Ian McPhee, a very good man, a federal Liberal minister. They set about consulting around the state, coming up with models – largely which were accepted right across the National and Liberal parties – the models for the bigger regions.

The Liberals and National Party didn’t vote for it in the end, but they weren’t as antagonistic to it as they would have been, if I just simply brought in a global policy. I think it was of great benefit because it is an important change, which is going to be there for a long time. One which we can proudly say as government, we unusually we gave away power at the point at which we had the most power possible, just after 2002.

On law and order

Hard to imagine now, but law and order was largely bipartisan. We didn’t have ructions like in NSW. That was when we had the gangland wars. Many calls for a royal commission. QCs acting for Mokbel. Instead I bolstered the powers of the Office of Police Integrity. I invited Robert Doyle back to my office and we had a couple of whiskeys. And he agreed. I don’t think you could do that with an opposition leader today.

On marine parks

Another key reform, for which we did require support from either the Liberal Party or the National Party, was marine parks and sanctuaries. We had a recommendation from the Land Conservation Council for these to proceed. I was very keen for it to be undertaken. They we going to be the largest number of marine parks and sanctuaries in Australia, ever. So it was going to be a great reform.

We knew the National Party would support them. But, we had a stream of ‘small L’ liberals. So I reached across, alongside others including Cheryl Garbutt, to the Liberals in particular. At that time there was a strain of progressive Liberals. Liberals who set up under Bill Borthwick, the Environment Conservation Council, which was recommending the marine reserves along the coast. So it was a legacy of theirs and I undertook to work with the Liberals on this recommendation.

Victor Perton, also chair of ENRC committee, was extremely helpful, as the shadow conservation minister, in trying to round up his own party to look at constituencies and where these occurred and to come to a consensus position on extensive marine and sanctuaries. We got all the stakeholders in. Rex Hunt and Craig Ingram were key. I had to personally deal with Rex. Down on Beach Road. I committed to getting out of netting and multiple hooks on lines. And funded his organisation.

We had the stakeholders in there, too: the conservation groups, the other community groups who are there as part of that whole dialogue and that’s what we brought to the parliament and the legislation, and that’s what the Liberals eventually supported. Now, there is an enduring legacy of marine parks and sanctuaries in Victoria.

On the future

The current state of bipartisanship doesn’t bode well for the future. But in the end, you have to be willing to develop policy and to govern in a bipartisan way, and to develop the relationships and trust. And to seek to have wins for both sides. I had to compromise on marine marks – I physically walked away one day; I said, ‘This is terrible – we don’t have a deal’ – when Victor was trying to carve some key areas out. But I went back to the table. Bottom line is that you need to build trust when you don’t need it – for the time when you do.

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