It’s so rare for politicians to leave office at the time of their choosing that it always comes as a shock. But where Bob Carr left office in 2005 with perfect timing after a decade in power, Steve Bracks’ resignation is a sadder, more sudden affair. He’s only 52, and only eight months into a term. So while he may have claimed that it was the right decision for his State and party, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be agreeing today.
The decision to “spend more time with his family”, as it’s always put in these situations, is understandable, since Bracks’ son Nicholas, 20, was recently charged with drink-driving. I wrote recently about the tendency of politicians’ children to get involved in these situations – Al Gore’s son was the most recent in a long list that includes President Bush twice, as both a political parent and a misbehaving child. While Bracks has claimed his children are grounded – and judging by his own personality, that seems likely, being a public figure’s child is never an easy cross to carry.
While Bracks has said his son’s mishaps weren’t the only reason, he has admitted that “I just felt hopeless and useless and you can’t help feeling a bit of a failure in some ways as a parent” – a more honest, human response than most pollies would have given in this situation. While his son must be feeling terrible today, it’s a statement, and an act, that really shows why Bracks became so popular with the Victorian electorate – because he really does seem like a decent bloke. He wasn’t obsessed with retaining power in the manner that has led John Howard to what still seems to be a likely downfall. Nor has he taken a self-indulgent extended farewell in the tacky manner of Tony Blair. Bracks has simply acknowledged that he’s had enough, so he has decided to leave. Making this one final classy decision from a leader who rarely put a foot wrong in his relationship with the public.
This is very bad news for Labor, though, which has now lost two of its three unbeatable long-term East Coast Premiers. With Beattie mulling over retiring as well, the ALP’s total dominance in State and Territory parliaments is seriously threatened, particularly if Bracks’ replacement has the charisma of Morris Iemma. So it was interesting to hear that Kevin Rudd was keen to try and retain his services, but, unsurprisingly under the circumstances, Bracks has ruled out standing federally. Popularity like Bracks’ could have made an enormous asset to Labor in Victoria, if not nationally.
Bracks achieved the ultimate accolade from the Victorian public – the nickname Bracksy, reminiscent of that other affable Victorian MP, Bob “Hawkey” Hawke. (Peter Beattie’s surname came pre-formed for political office in the XXXX State.) He was one of those few politicians that everyone would have liked to have a beer with, a stark contrast to the antiseptic professionalism of Kevin Rudd, who is the national equivalent of Bob Carr.
I met Bracks very briefly last year at the AFIs, shortly after he won his most recent election. As always he was out spruiking the virtues of Melbourne, and predictably he was surrounded by admirers wanting to shake his hand. Even after he’d been pressing the flesh for hours, he seemed extremely friendly. Mired as we were in the tepid contest between Morris Iemma and Peter Debnam, it was frustrating to look south and see a charismatic, popular leader on offer. My colleagues and I asked him if we wouldn’t like a new challenge, like perhaps running for Premier of NSW instead. He laughed and said something unconvincingly nice about Iemma, of course. But we would have been better off.
His government hasn’t been a visionary, reforming one like Jeff Kennett’s was – unsurprisingly, really, since Kennett’s vision proved dystopic for so many. He’s been rather like Bob Carr – an efficient manager who kept the show on the road and presided over a sporting contest that was probably too expensive, but made everyone feel good. Like Carr, he wasn’t expected to become Premier, but once he had the job he proved immovable. The difference is that while Carr’s record has been significantly tarnished since his departure, with NSW’s infrastructure woes leaving many with negative memories of his time in office, Bracks will leave Victoria wanting more. And that is the mark of a rare politician.