Reading Catch and Kill, the Politics of Power serves as a good reminder of why – even though I’m interested in politics – I chose never to enter politics or even to join a political party. It’s just too feral for my taste…
Catch and Kill (a remarkably silly title except for a crime novel IMO) is an analysis of the Bracks-Brumby Labor government in Victoria (1999-2010), a government which like the current Andrews government won power when it was never expected to, and surprised us all by turning out to be competent, fair and innovative. Like all governments it eventually ran out of steam and was turfed out, but after the soul-destroying years of the abrasive Kennett government (1992-1999) it was nice to have civilised people running the state.
Catch and Kill reveals the ruthlessness that preceded that Bracks-Brumby electoral victory. He explains the internecine factional warfare that went on behind the scenes and had to be managed during the period in power. At both federal and state level much of it comes down to this: if your policies are not palatable to middle-Australia and its uber-sensitive hip-pockets, nobody will vote for you. Whether on the Left or the Right, maintaining ideological purity in feral public spats makes a party unelectable. Parties held captive by ideological purists need determined and pragmatic leaders capable of outsmarting them in order to sort this out.
Deane quotes Gough Whitlam on this issue of pragmatic power right at the very beginning of the book:
There is nothing more disloyal to the traditions of Labor than the new heresy that power is not important. The men who formed the Labor Party in the 1880s knew all about power; they were not ashamed to seek it and they were not embarrassed when they won it. This party was not conceived in failure, brought forth in failure or consecrated to failure. So let us have none of this nonsense that defeat is somehow more moral than victory. (Gough Whitlam, Speech to Victorian Labor’s 1967 State Conference).
The downside is that when pragmatists eventually triumph and win government they don’t do some of the things the ideological purists would usefully have done had they ever won government. For progressives, this means that pragmatic governments generally go on building roads at the expense of public transport infrastructure, they don’t do anything unpalatable about climate change, they don’t tackle inequitable taxation, and they sell uranium to countries that shouldn’t have it. On the other hand they’re not bad at supporting public education and the public health system.
What was remarkable about the Bracks-Brumby government was that the pragmatism that led them to power was transformed into a genuinely socially-progressive future-orientated government. They didn’t just restore the health and education systems as they had promised to do; they also built a synchrotron to fast-track Victoria as a national centre for science and medical research. They didn’t just restore regional rail services that Kennett had shut down; they built Regional Fast Rail. They dealt with Victoria’s worst drought by building the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline to support water security in electorates that were National Party heartland, seats that they were never going to win. And though they were pilloried for it, they built the massive future-proofing desalination plant that the current government may use to supply water to the drought-stricken farms in the regions.
Deane shows that the main players were fortunate in that they had a rare constellation of very able people who worked well together. The quartet of Steve Bracks, John Brumby, John Thwaites and Rob Hulls were big picture people who together had management skills that enabled skilful policy development and implementation, and as their capabilities grew, were also able to influence the national agenda during the policy vacuum under Prime Minister John Howard and ALP Opposition Leader Kim Beasley. The book also argues that social, cultural and political differences between states are more than cosmetic, and that Victoria has much to be proud of. (Well, I would like that, wouldn’t I?!)
Joel Deane is a versatile writer – also a poet and a speech-writer – and although much of this book is necessarily written in journalese, he also comes up with stunning images like this:
Political parties are like glaciers. At a glance they appear as motionless as they are monolithic, but they are always moving. People and ideas are forever coming and going, factions begin fracturing and re-forming, and the perpetual momentum of collective ambitions building and building until the pressure overcomes institutional inertia, something breaks and, somewhere cold and dark, a piece of ice the size of Tasmania falls into the sea.
Such moments of transformation are, due to size and scale, inherently dramatic and unexpected, but, in hindsight, inevitable. (p. 97)
Although federal politics is not the focus of this book, Deane names Julia Gillard as an unstoppable force not recognised at the time:
The troubles of 1996 circled around the thwarted ambitions of one woman, Julia Gillard. Although Gillard is today known as the first female prime minister of Australia and, in the eyes of her supporters, the Boudicca of progressive feminism, in the 1980s she was just another left-wing insurgent. (p.97)
and of course Kevin Rudd comes into the picture in the chapters about federal-state relations and Victoria’s proposals for reform. (Deane repeats oft-heard criticisms of Rudd, but also a nice anecdote about Brumby’s eventual reconciliation with him.)
There’s a lot of arcane detail which as a Politics Tragic I found fascinating but may be of less interest to general readers, though I can’t help wishing that hip-pocket voters who took vengeance over issues like the backflip over tolls for the Scoresby Freeway would read the chapter that explains the cogent reasons why it happened. But it’s pointless to wish for a better-informed electorate in the days of the three-second sound-bite and headline news read on a phone. Democracy has to figure out better ways of engaging with the contemporary electorate, which is why I liked my local member’s ideas in Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment.
I grew up in the waning days of Menzies’ domination of Australian politics and 23 years of Liberal rule, and had my first vote during the brief Whitlam administration. But after that governments – state and federal – had a longevity mostly of about three or four terms, described eloquently by Deane like this:
Governments are like dogs: they age quickly. The sins of omission and commission accumulate, the passage of time accelerates, the arteries of opportunity narrow and the ambition to chase cars to Canberra diminishes. Some governments stay in their flea-bitten beds and chew old toys. Others strain at the enclosures of their yards, and become liable to bark or bite without warning. Whatever the case, sooner or later all are put to sleep when the electorate takes a liking to a new puppy. (p. 311)
Recent volatility in Australian politics – the reshuffling of Prime Ministers and the eviction of state governments after just one term – is a rare phenomenon in democracies. It makes reading about what was achieved in three terms of sound, stable government in Victoria look like a Golden Age which may never come again.
Author: Joel Deane
Title: Catch and Kill, The Politics of Power
Publisher: UQP, 2015
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings
Fishpond: Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power