Books

Joel Deane
Catch and Kill

I’d always thought of Steve Bracks as an accidental premier – a sweet, goofy guy who, as nightwatchman opposition leader in 1999, toppled Jeff Kennett by sheer fluke. Joel Deane’s Catch and Kill set me straight. Bracks, it turns out, was a consummate politician and his rise to power anything but accidental.

The title comes from a brutal-sounding boast of Bracks’s, that his was a government that could “catch and kill its own”. In political and criminal circles, that expression usually refers to doing one’s own dirty work or, more particularly, to disciplining one’s own. But it seems as if Bracks meant it in the near-literal sense of being self-sufficient. For a good part of its three terms, the government, led first by Bracks and then by Brumby, not only determined its own agenda, but strove to exert influence in the federal arena.

Deane is known as a fine poet as well as a novelist. He began his writing life, though, as a journalist, and for years his day job was as press secretary then speechwriter to the Victorian Labor leadership. The spur for this book, Deane’s first of nonfiction, came from his old boss, John Brumby, after Labor’s 11 years in government ended in 2010. Deane had misgivings: he didn’t want, he told Brumby, merely to chart the government’s arc and achievements. “What interested me,” he writes, “was the unholy trinity of political power: winning it, wielding it, losing it.”

Even so, chronology and landmarks are vital to any account of government in action. The book’s early chapters background Victorian Labor’s years in the wilderness, from the foundering of the Cain–Kirner governments in the early ’90s through seven impotent years in Jeff Kennett’s lurching shadow.

Deane constructs for the reader the framework upon which Labor would again form government in Victoria, by profiling four key figures: John Brumby, Steve Bracks, John Thwaites and Rob Hulls. (In the patois of the gang, they were “Brumby”, “Bracksy”, “Thwaitesy” and “Hullsy”; only the contrarian John Button dared reduce Brumby to “Brums”.)

Perhaps not surprisingly – he was speechwriter to premiers Bracks and Brumby – Deane takes the premier’s office as his vantage point. He goes to considerable lengths at the outset to establish the centrality to his story of “golden boy” Thwaites and the wildcard Hulls, only to let them recede once Labor achieves power. But together, he says, these four formed the government’s “nucleus”, not only taking senior roles but demonstrating “an instinctive understanding of the nomadic nature of power”.

Brumby seems to have been as philosophical as a politician can be when, after six years as opposition leader, his holding-power with the factions ran out and he was dumped in favour of Bracks just months out from the 1999 election. He would steer a true course as treasurer and inherit the top job, unopposed, upon Bracks’s resignation in 2007. Nobody worked harder than Brumby, or ran more headlong at obstacles.

Bracks’s gift was emotional intelligence. Deane marvels at “his duality, his ability to be political without being political, that he won power by behaving like anything but a politician”. It seems I wasn’t the only one to underestimate “the man inside the cuddly bear outfit”. Mark Latham approached him in 2004 to help boost federal Labor’s electoral chances in Victoria and, in his diary, cursed Bracks’s woodenness and “silly grin”.  Deane writes: “I guarantee the premier wasn’t smiling inanely. On the contrary, I suspect he was thinking dark thoughts indeed.”

Factional wranglings and bitter compromises play only a small part in Deane’s account of Labor’s rise to and hold on power in Victoria. He ascribes – and it doesn’t read like the hyperbole of a former speechwriter, or the thrall of a true believer – an uncommon refinement and energy to the Bracks–Brumby government’s wielding of power. Fiscal good management and fortune (at least until the GFC) enabled the government to lift its gaze past the immediate term.

But Deane portrays a rare convergence of intellect and principle at the top that manifested in a passion for policy reform, a luxury few governments can afford to indulge, or even to have. He writes that “they defied, then defined Canberra – forging a quasi-federal government with, in financial terms, the means and, in policy terms, the ways to stand on its own two feet”. This, he says, is what Bracks meant by “catch and kill its own”.

Yet, in Deane’s telling, it seems as if the person who did the most to initiate a long-term, and long overdue, shift in state–federal relations was not one of the fab four, but a public servant: Terry Moran, secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet. It was he who commissioned policy reviews and insisted that the resultant reports run no longer than 20 pages – perfect for digesting on a Melbourne–Canberra flight. And it was the well-connected, strategic Moran who knew just where to plant Victoria’s reform initiatives for the best chance of a yield.

But if the Bracks–Brumby government took a long view on policy reform, it proved woefully short-sighted with regard to Melbourne’s public transport system and water supply. After three terms, in 2010, its time was up. When it came down to, “Well, what do we think Ms Narre Warren wants?” the government was out of ideas.

Being an insider’s view, Deane’s book is necessarily partisan. He’s a former insider, though, and perhaps a divided one at that. The reader senses that he’d rather be writing poetry. At any rate, he proves an enlightening guide to a government’s inner workings – more so than would a rusted-on operative or a browned-off political commentator.

“Jesus Fucking Bananas” is the title of a chapter dealing with abortion law reform, in which readers are introduced to the term “putting it in the taxi” for “when an issue was set aside or sent figuratively away, hopefully never to return”. The following chapter is titled “A Taxi Called Kevin”.

Deane’s depiction of the state–federal divide, its history and consequences, is particularly acute. It seems odd, though, when, as proof of their acuity, Deane quotes from speeches made by his former masters – speeches he wrote.

Probably the book’s sharpest assessment of the Bracks–Brumby government’s approach to political power exists in the unmanicured words of John Brumby: “To be honest, in government, if you can’t get stuff done and don’t use the opportunity, you’re a mug.”  FL

UQP, 368pp, $32.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 1, 2015 as "Joel Deane, Catch and Kill". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL