CATCH AND KILL: The Politics of Power
By Joel Deane
University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
Paperback: 368 pages
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
In the 1990s, something remarkable happened in Victorian politics. While Catch and Kill is about its results in Victoria, especially the Bracks and Brumby governments, it is a prism through which one may view the wider whole. This was the period when the old Labor men bowed out and the professional politicians took the stage.
Take Ronald “Bunna” Walsh and John Thwaites. Bunna Walsh was a wharfie. He joined the Waterside Workers Federation and the Australian Labor Party. He was born in Port Melbourne, close to the docks. His father was a labourer. What education Bunna had acquired was in government schools.
In 1970, he was elected to the Legislative Council for West Melbourne. The rococo Upper House, trimmed in red, had never been friendly to the workers’ cause. After half a day in the Legislative Council, Bunna’s election was referred to the Supreme Court of Victoria. At issue was Bunna’s conviction in the Children’s Court as a 16 year old, where he was found guilty of robbery. The Supreme Court found that under the Constitution Act Amendment Act 1958 Bunna could not take his seat.
Five years later, the Constitution Act was amended. Bunna could stand for re-election. In May 1979, he took his place in the comfortable green seats of the Legislative Assembly as Member for Albert Park.
Maiden Speeches are usually a paean of praise for the family, your campaign workers, the marvelous attributes of your electorate and a flowery exposition of the new member’s political philosophy. Bunna Walsh had learnt his oratorical skills on the wharf. After a diatribe against conservative governments, he concluded: “I will fight to ensure that tenants, the elderly, the unemployed, the exploited and the working people receive a better deal and that the economy of this state and country is used for the benefit of all people, not only the select few.”
Old Labor gives way to New
But times were changing. Along Port Philip Bay, the children of the wharfies and migrants wanted no part of Port Melbourne. They were selling out to other young couples. St Kilda still had its bohemian edge, but the boarding houses of Albert Park emptied as the yuppies moved in. And these aspirational young people did not want to be represented by a 57-year-old ex-wharfie called “Bunna”.
The new breed of politician who would take Labor to power was exemplified in a blonde, handsome, surfer-cum-barrister called John Thwaites. Thwaites worked the branches, and he had to numbers to have Bunna Walsh dumped. Despite enormous pressure to pull out, Thwaites held firm. He won pre-selection for Albert Park.
Bunna Walsh was Old Labor. He clawed his way to the top of the ALP pile, armed with nothing but his native wit. The ALP was his mode of social advancement, as it always had been for Anglo-Celts. John Thwaites was a Melbourne Grammar old boy. He had held numerous staffer jobs and held degrees in science and law. He was Labor too – New Labor, the Labor Party that Gough Whitlam had created.
It is a fact not widely known that the first generation of what are now widely called staffers did not arrive on the political scene until just before the 1975 double-dissolution election, in which the ALP was decimated. Until then backbenchers had had one electorate secretary, usually an elderly gimlet-eyed lady who did not take kindly to intrusions on her valuable time – by constituents for example. Whitlam and the ALP get themselves advisers because they did not trust the public service that, for 23 unbroken years, had served the Coalition.
If we look at the four men who formed the inner circle of the Bracks and Brumby governments, namely John Thwaites (ALP, Albert Park), Steve Bracks (ALP, Williamstown; Premier 1999–2007), John Brumby (ALP, Broadmeadows; Premier 2007–10) and Rob Hulls (ALP, Niddrie), they are all educated people; none of them comes from industrial union backgrounds. They made their careers as what the Russians called “intellectuals”, namely, professionals, teachers and public servants.
Some Labor leaders who had gone before, such as John Cain jnr (ALP, Bundoora; Premier 1982–90), were lawyers, but hardly adept in the cultural arts. The short-lived reign of Victoria’s first female Premier, Joan Kirner (ALP, Williamstown; Premier 1990–92), a teacher, was mostly notable for inflicting on Victoria those horrors, the poker machines, that her Liberal successor, Premier Jeff Kennett (Liberal, Burwood; Premier 1992–99), milked for all they were worth.
If we look at the great Labor men before Whitlam – John Curtin (ALP, Fremantle), Ben Chifley (ALP, Macquarie) and Arthur Calwell (ALP, Melbourne) – they were all self-educated. The archetypal New Labor man who kicked off generational and cultural change in the ALP was Gough Whitlam QC (ALP, Werriwa) – Canberra Grammar, University of Sydney, barrister. After Whitlam, there were to be no more 36 Faceless Men dictating policy.
Victoria was not alone in the transformation from Old Labor to New Labor, which some have called the Third Way, aping British Prime Minister Tony Blair. However, this does not seem to be an idea that New Labor has taken to. The professional politician who leads Victorian Labor now, Daniel Andrews (ALP, Mulgrave; Premier 2014 – current), is a Left machine politician straight out of central casting. He has calculated that he need not take the electorate with him, as long as he can buy off the public-sector unions.
The flow of taxation revenue generated by the continued purchases of real estate developments and high-rise tower blocks with tiny apartments built for overseas students allows Andrews to calculate that for the next five years the budget will be in surplus. But it will end in tears; it always does.
If we look further afield, we can see a similar transition in Queensland. In Goss: A Political Biography (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1995), Jamie Walker describes how Wayne Goss overturned the cozy applecart of Labor mates’ deals that accepted electoral failure with equanimity in the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era.
A similar group to Victoria’s “four mates” (Thwaites, Bracks, Brumby and Hulls) drove the modernisation of the Queensland ALP. The “troika” consisted of Wayne Goss, the hard-driving leader; Wayne Swan, later Federal Treasurer, the political strategist; and Kevin Rudd, the can-do bureaucrat who provided the policy substance.
Before Rudd, the notion of “policy” was largely absent from Queensland politics. These three men brought together the three elements of electoral success: leadership, campaign coordination and policy. All three men –Goss, Swan and Rudd – rose from humble beginnings, but they were educated.
Steve Bracks is a Williamstown boy. Old-timers still occasionally refer to Williamstown as “the Village”. It’s hard to find a house under a million dollars in Williamstown these days, but their fathers and grandfathers worked on the docks, so they have an ingrained Labor loyalty. Williamstown is a safe ALP seat. This a Victorian peculiarity that prevents the Liberals from gaining and holding power – seats like Williamstown, Essendon and Ivanhoe remain obdurately Labor.
If we look at how and why the ALP held power for 11½ years under Bracks and Brumby, we must first acknowledge that they were extremely presentable. Steve Bracks’ grandfather was Lebanese. Bracks is a touch over six feet in the old language: 187 centimetres tall to be exact. He is a handsome man, with a good head of strong black hair, which never goes astray in politics. He largely escaped what is known as “parliamentary spread”.
John Brumby is a Melbourne Grammar Old Boy. He was a teacher, a good one. He knew how to control a class. Fair-headed John Thwaites could have been a tee-shirt model. Rob Hulls, a Xavier boy, was the rebel, the political equivalent of a chainsaw. Together, they made a good team. When Steve Bracks resigned, he was at the top of his game. His successor as Premier, John Brumby, was a hard worker but lacked the magic touch that Bracks had with the electorate. Brumby never won an election under his own steam.
Under the Left machine politician Daniel Andrews, Labor did what was thought to be impossible – through a combination of Liberal ineptness and effective campaigning, the ALP won back government after a single term.
How can you write about the Victorian branch of the ALP without talking about factions? Joel Deane doesn’t shirk the issue. A lot of what is rotten about the ALP has to do with the factions. Professor Patrick O’Brien of the University of Western Australia compared the ALP to the medieval, pre-Reformation Catholic Church –- great latitude is possible, as long as a few basic tenets, such as acknowledging the authority of the Pope, are upheld.
This book is a story about, rather than the history of, the Bracks-Brumby years. A lot of it is about the staffers and policymakers that we the public never hear about. The language slips into the occasional profanity, reflecting a realist transcription of how those in the political class speak to each other. That is what makes this book interesting and valuable. It reveals the inner workings of government such as they are rarely revealed to outsiders.
The least satisfactory element of this book is its handling of the battle in the Legislative Council to defeat the legislation to decriminalise abortion. Deane attributes much of the credit, if that is the correct term, for the passage of this legislation to Justin Madden MLC (ALP, Doutta Galla), while ignoring the role Peter Kavanagh MLC (DLP, Western Victoria) played as leader of the forces opposed to this legislation.
One must assume that Joel Deane, with a heritage of Irish-Australian Catholicism, was aware that this would be one part of his book that would be dissected by his readers. Yet he says little about the NCC and DLP, except that he liked the late B.A. Santamaria’s Point of View television broadcasts.
In all, this is a valuable book. Deane is fair and even-handed. He is an ALP man without a faction. As far as state Labor governments go, the Bracks-Brumby era looks, in retrospect, like a golden age, especially compared with Premier Daniel Andrews’ shameless pandering to the left-wing public-sector unions, which have been glutted with taxpayers’ money. But in the long run, we can be sure that there will be tears before bedtime.
Jeffry Babb was a Senior Research Officer at the Parliament of Victoria Library.