Lessons in bipartisanship from the Long Haul: an interview with John Brumby

By and

Wednesday August 19, 2020

John Brumby (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Scott Hamilton & Stuart Kells sat down with former Victorian premier John Brumby for his take on the bipartisan approach to long-term, politically sensitive issues.

John Brumby has had a charmed political life. At the age of 29, he entered federal parliament as member for Bendigo in the first Hawke government. In 1993, after seven years as the federal member for Bendigo and a brief period outside politics, he switched to Victoria’s state parliament in a by-election. After just six months in Victoria’s upper house, he moved to the legislative assembly and found himself as opposition leader.

With the remarkable Labor victory of 1999, John Brumby became treasurer in the Bracks government. He then served as premier of Victoria from 2007 until 2010. He is now chancellor of La Trobe University and is a strong advocate of finding the middle ground in politics in order to advance the big policy issues of our time.

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The first, and perhaps most important lesson: reform or perish.

A second lesson I learnt in the federal parliament was that conservatism does not only exist on the other side of the chamber.

This was the third lesson… The Hawke Government showed time and again that the best path to reform is via consultation, cooperation and consensus.

~ From: John Brumby, The Long Haul: Lessons from Public Life, Melbourne University Press

John Brumby on bipartisanship

Where there are long-term, politically sensitive issues, there often seems to be a simple answer, but it’s always wrong. Two classic examples are climate change and reconciliation/constitutional recognition as per the Uluru Statement. We cannot get the parties together on these big issues.

Another is tax reform – getting the balance right in our Federation between the Commonwealth and the States, and between personal income tax and other forms of taxation.

I’ve always been a big believer that the best way to tackle those issues was getting the middle of politics together, which is the centre of the Labor Party and the Centre-left of the Liberal Party.

That’s probably a lovely view of the world. And if you’re talking to somebody who’s from the conservative side of the National Party or the left of the green movement, they would disagree, but nevertheless I think that is how we confront the big issues of our nation and the preferred way forward.

When you actually look at how much bipartisanship exists and has existed in the Australian system, I actually don’t think there’s been much of it. Australia, like the United States, has gone into this period with what some would describe as a sort of ‘hyper partisanship’. Politics is being driven in part by social media and by the need to generate a 24/7 audience. That’s a big part of the problem.

In the old days, if you had a message you would put it out and you’d hope that balanced, objective and responsible journalists would cover it in an impartial way. Those days are pretty well gone. Now, if you’ve got a message on the left or the message on the right, you just work out who to feed it out to. That has exacerbated the problem and it is worse in the USA. The UK is hopelessly split as well.

On foreign policy and China

In the Australian context, there has been at times a degree of bipartisanship in foreign policy and defence policy. But that, too, has at times splintered when driven by naked political self-interest. The best examples of that would be the debacle of the China debate. I think it’s true that both sides of politics were happy to take the nation’s wealthy Chinese residents and then as soon as security issues started to emerge, both sides have just lobbed grenades into the parliament, which I don’t think is helpful for the national interest.

On freedoms

Many people are not comfortable but certainly accepting of reduced rights and civil liberties in terms of Law and Order and National Security considerations. On the other hand, we’ve seen this huge expansion of choice of social libertarian rights. In Victoria, we did the abortion law reform, which you couldn’t have done back in the 70s or 80s and even the 90s. The Andrews government has passed legislation on voluntary assisted dying. At the federal level, after a long, convoluted and complicated process to get there, they ended up having a free vote on same-sex marriage and amendments to the Marriage Act. I’m a big supporter of having more free votes on issues such as indigenous reconciliation, but we don’t want to become like the United States – a system where there are five times as many lobbyists as there are members of Congress, because there are too many free votes.

Most of the decisions that really defined Australia have come despite strident political opposition. When Whitlam recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1972 – probably the biggest shift in foreign policy in decades – he was mocked and scorned by the Liberal Party. They used to tell jokes about it. Then nine months later, Nixon’s over there.

Big, controversial reforms

We didn’t have bipartisanship on the big reforms. Medicare was fought in the trenches and so was superannuation. People try to rewrite a bit of history now, but it’s rubbish.

John Howard said Susan Ryan’s sex discrimination legislation of 1987-88 would destroy business in Australia and destroy people’s rights. They were hanging from the rafters in Bendigo at a public meeting I addressed – as though the Sex Discrimination Act was going to destroy society, make women infertile, lead men to do all sorts of bizarre things. It was a febrile debate and that legislation wasn’t supported in a bipartisan way either.

On climate change policy

I did the first state-based Climate Change Act [in 2010] and it enjoyed bipartisan support, and then Abbott came to power. Look at the disaster of climate change policy at a national level. Even today, there’s still no agreed consensus or way forward.

On dairy and barley deregulation

We managed to get bipartisanship on diary deregulation when Keith Hamilton was Minister for Agriculture. We didn’t make a political football out of that because we thought that wasn’t the right thing to do, but the way we got through was by promising a balanced approach and a vote by all the farmers – which was political genius. The vote was supported by an overwhelming majority of farmers.

On another big change in agricultural policy, we didn’t get any bipartisanship at all. The barley industry was smothered in regulation and the better and younger farmers wanted the industry de-regulated. The barley industry had changed dramatically, driven by the brewing industry and boutique beers. Japanese brewers in particular wanted unique characteristics in their beers. So we introduced legislation to deregulate. Well, the public galleries were full and the debate was pretty animated. It was like dragging the National Party out of the 1950s!

On friendship

I saw Bob Hawke and Andrew Peacock actually get on pretty well together. They loved the horses. They used to swap racing tips from time to time and even during question time. That was of course until Peacock went over the top one day and accused Bob in Parliament of being a ‘little crook’. Hawke never forgave him. In the 1990 election, when Keating ran the line that ‘a soufflé doesn’t rise twice’, that was really the end of Andrew.

Not crossing the line

Negative ads in election campaigns work – but I think now everyone goes beyond the limits. We ran ads in the campaign which Ted Baillieu didn’t like. Ads about his conflicts of interest and about his role in selling schools which had been closed during the Kennett era [a reference to the Baillieu real estate ads]. Truth is, we didn’t have much of a negative to run. I never liked the negative line.

During the campaign, we found out he had a photograph of a 12 year old girl [by the controversial artist, Bill Henson] and some wanted to run an attack ad on that. I wouldn’t do it, that’s just not something I say or use or do.

Extract from Catch and Kill by Joel Deane:

There was, however, one tactic Brumby refused to try. At one point – before Stephen Newnham was replaced by Nick Reece – ALP head office asked Brumby to approve a political ad that attacked Baillieu for owning works by renowned artist Bill Henson. The thinking behind the attack ad was crude: Baillieu would be damned by association because Henson had been the target of a tabloid media campaign after an exhibition of his work featured images of partially clothed adolescents. Brumby hated the idea and killed the attack ads. ‘There were people around who thought we should go harder on Baillieu and link him to his comments on Henson, and so on, which I just thought was wrong for dozens of reasons,’ says Brumby. ‘It’s just the wrong thing to do.’

Partisanship can be a godsend

After being elected in 1999 [on a regional development platform] the first bill we put up in Parliament was for the Regional Infrastructure Development Fund. It was like a godsend that the Coalition decided to vote against it. Anyway, the Liberal member for Doncaster, Victor Perton, went running around saying, ‘No, that is a disaster, don’t vote against this’.

On tax reform

People think of the Hawke tax reforms when they think of bipartisanship – but when Hawke and Keating did capital gains tax, that was the only time in my political career that I got serious death threats at home. And that was when I was Federal member for Bendigo.

Howard’s GST wasn’t bipartisan. We in the Labor Party fought that to the bitter end. The big reforms in the tax system haven’t enjoyed bipartisan support. Then you saw at the last election issues like negative gearing. Negative gearing does need reform and it does need changing. Maybe Labor’s policy wasn’t perfect but it became a weapon in a political debate and so did franking credits. So all this means we’ve got this crazy thing where the system is more and more reliant on income tax. And then the Coalition is elected pushing the top marginal rate for millions of people down to 32 cents in the dollar!

On the committee system

When I went into the federal parliament in the 1980s, as a very young 29-year-old, there was a lot more bipartisan support that was built up across the parliamentary committee system. The committees were effective. Members travelled together and a lot of people built friendships across party lines. I think there’s less of that now – maybe it’s because of social media. Maybe it’s more Freedom of Information requests. I don’t know what it is, but I think the degree of camaraderie across party lines through committee work isn’t quite what it was in the past and I think that’s contributed also to a reduction in a bipartisan approach in the body politic.

Some observations from us

In the national interest

John Brumby was educated at Melbourne Grammar School and then completed a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Melbourne. With that background, he inevitably knew as many people on the right as on the left of politics. When he became a member of parliament, first at the federal level and then in Victoria, he assembled a diverse range of political relationships, including a respectful one with state Liberal Party president and future premier Ted Baillieu, and a productive one with Ian Macfarlane.

Macfarlane cultivated a down-to-earth, matter-of-fact style: a not-very-political politician. When he was federal industry minister in the Howard government, John Brumby was treasurer and industry minister in the Bracks government. Macfarlane and Brumby built a friendly and constructive partnership in which they put politics aside and collaborated on a series of important industry policy initiatives and investments – such as the Joint Strike Fighter, the Bushmaster military vehicle, and the manufacture of flaps and ailerons at Fisherman’s Bend for the Boeing 787. For the latter project, Brumby also collaborated amicably with Andrew Peacock, the Australian head of Boeing and the former charismatic leader of the federal Liberal Party

In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Don Watson paints a portrait of Macfarlane that is accurate if unsympathetic. Macfarlane, Watson wrote, ‘had a voice like a chaff-cutter or a wounded crow’. During Brumby’s role as Treasurer and, later, as Premier of Victoria, that voice was regularly on the phone.

Macfarlane’s friendly and balanced approach to politics sometimes got him into trouble. During Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, Macfarlane clashed more than once with Abbott’s ultra-partisan chief of staff, Peta Credlin. In one incident, for example, Credlin was said to have become infuriated when she learned Macfarlane had appointed former Labor minister (and former ACTU secretary) Greg Combet to renegotiate work practices at SPC Ardmona in Shepparton.

In the regional interest

Four of Victoria’s last five premiers have strong roots in regional Victoria. John Brumby was the Federal Member for Bendigo and knew the importance of looking after the regions. He was instrumental in the development of the policies and relationships across provincial Victoria that led to the defeat of Premier Jeff Kennett (who called the regions the ‘toenails’ of the state). Bracks, Brumby, Napthine and Andrews all have the regions in their hearts and nobody will be taking the regions for granted anytime soon.

Politics in the regions has a particular flavour. John Brumby knew that, and he knew how the regions were fertile ground for political bipartisanship. Brumby’s former ministerial colleague in the first Bracks Government, Keith Hamilton, later reflected on this:

JB and I had worked hard against Kennett for many years. We saw him rip the heart and soul out of the regions, the farmers and the communities. JB and I didn’t always agree, mind you. I was never a fan of deregulation and JB was. I was always concerned the big multinational dairy companies [unregulated] would bring an end to family dairy shed farms – more in the interests of Parmalat and Bonlac than working families on local dairy farms. I convinced Cabinet that we needed a plebiscite of all dairy farmers on the question of deregulation of the industry and then follow the will of the farmers. The plebiscite came back with overwhelming support, in the order of 90%, for dairy deregulation and it subsequently received bipartisan support in the House.

I recall JB giving me a cheque to present to the VFF as part of the deregulation agreement. It helped build trust between our government, the VFF and farmers across Victoria. My other steps, to build trust, were to put a VFF person in my office as an advisor and to have weekly meetings with the then President of the VFF – a young Nat named Peter Walsh [who later became Leader of the Nationals and Deputy Leader of the Opposition].

Faux and real bipartisanship

There are counterfeit varieties of bipartisanship. In 2016, opposition leader Bill Shorten and Labor Senator Mark Bishop called for a royal commission into Australia’s whole system of financial services and financial advice. Scott Morrison was Federal Treasurer at the time. He voted as many as twenty-six times against such an inquiry. When eventually it became inevitable – even the banks themselves were calling for it – Morrison and his colleagues attempted a remarkable and contorted reversal, adopting a retrospective posture that they’d supported the idea all along.

That was faux bipartisanship, but big issues – such as climate change, reconciliation and economic reform – require real bipartisanship. And that, in turn, requires a long-term investment in building amity and trust across the aisle.

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