Swings and roundabouts as Premier seeks to keep energy up

Brumby's transition from treasurer to Premier has been remarkably smooth.

Brumby's transition from treasurer to Premier has been remarkably smooth.

ON JULY 16, 2007 - one year ago yesterday - premier Steve Bracks called aside his two most senior lieutenants after a cabinet meeting and changed the course of Victorian history.

Bracks was quitting politics. He didn't say exactly that to his deputy premier, John Thwaites, and treasurer, John Brumby, but in telling them he was thinking of getting out, they knew he had crossed a psychological Rubicon.

Three days earlier, on Friday the 13th, Bracks' son Nick had wrapped the family Saab around a tree while drunk. Bracks told his cabinet confidants the incident had caused him to reassess whether he could find the energy and commitment to keep at the 24/7 job he had held for nearly eight years. He promised Thwaites and Brumby he would get back to them by the end of the week, once Parliament rose.

Thwaites, the most sentimental of the three men, didn't have to wait for the confirmation. He remembers thinking, as Bracks sat down after fending off a question from Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu on the final sitting day that week, that the most significant figure in the history of Victorian Labor would never speak again in State Parliament.

Events moved quickly after Bracks that evening confirmed to his two friends that he was resigning. Eight days later, he let the rest of Victoria in on the secret. Within four hours, Thwaites announced that he would follow his leader into political retirement. Three days after that, Brumby was elected unopposed by the Labor caucus as Victoria's new premier.

Labor's immediate task in those dramatic days was to ensure a seamless leadership transition. Mission accomplished. Nothing leaked. No blood was split. The smooth changeover was a testament to the professionalism and discipline of the political machine that Bracks, Brumby and Thwaites had built.

Brumby's longer-term task is to remake Labor while in office. It's a work in progress, but so far, so good.

The extent of the change Bracks' departure has wrought at the top echelons of government in Victoria should not be under-estimated. The Government has been re-energised, but also thinned out. Everywhere you look there is evidence of what the political class these days calls "renewal".

A year ago, Victoria's premier had an election record of three big wins (1999, 2002 and 2006) and no loses. Today, the Premier's election record is one big loss (1996) and no wins. Bracks proved to be a vote magnet. Brumby may yet do so, but we won't know for sure until election night in 2010. That weighs heavily on the minds of some of Labor's marginal-seat holders.

A year ago, Victoria's treasurer, Brumby, was recognised as the master of his brief. Bracks used to tell of business leaders from interstate, even other premiers, privately saying to him that they wished they could steal his treasurer. Today, Victoria's Treasurer, John Lenders, is a sometimes nervous novice, with a low public profile here and none interstate. Lenders is impressing his colleagues as he climbs his learning curve, but it will be years before he can hope to command the sort of respect Brumby earned within government and around the board tables of Melbourne.

A year ago, the premier's office was run by perhaps the best-credentialled Labor backroom operator in the country. Geoff Walsh, Bracks' chief of staff, was a former national secretary of the ALP and a veteran of the offices of Labor prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Today, Walsh is BHP Billiton's public affairs director. Brumby's hand-picked chief of staff, former Bracks and Brumby adviser and National Australia Bank executive Dan O'Brien, is putting his stamp on the job, but the depth of political experience Walsh brought to the premier's office cannot easily be replaced.

A year ago, the head of the Victorian Premier's Department was regarded as the pre-eminent state-based bureaucrat in the country. That's why Kevin Rudd on winning office poached Terry Moran and appointed him secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Moran was the brains behind the so-called National Reform Agenda, developed in Victoria and now adopted by the Council of Australian Governments as a road map to the nation's economic and social future.

Brumby has appointed one of Moran's former deputies, Helen Silver, as departmental head. She brings to the job a soaring intellect and enviable CV in the public and private sectors. But as well as having to live, at least for now, in the shadow still cast by Moran, she is having to cope with something of a brain drain: several other former Moran assistants in Treasury Place now work with him or within the Rudd Government in Canberra.

The Victorian cabinet is also a very different, and less experienced, beast these days. When the Top Two, Bracks and Thwaites, moved out, Tony Robinson and Maxine Morand moved in as junior ministers. Just eight months before that, Bracks had brought six new-comers into his cabinet. That means eight of the 20-member Brumby cabinet have been ministers for less than two years.

Bracks and Brumby have always been big on the need for renewal in politics. For this Government it's not just a slogan, it's a lifestyle. Twelve months ago, Bracks made a shock decision that brought on a bigger and quicker round of renewal than anyone might have predicted.

Brumby has been left the task of making it all work. It's a challenge he is embracing. His high-octane performance over the past year has been driven by a historic mission: to seek to ensure the Bracks/Brumby Labor Government does not peter out in the style of the Howard Coalition government. Paul Austin is state political editor.

Email: paustin@theage.com.au

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