Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power. Joel Deane, 2015

Voting is compulsory in Australia – but don’t expect higher levels of political engagement as a result. We are remarkably relaxed (some may say apathetic) about politics. Even those of us who feign interest probably feel more comfortable talking about American politics than our own. After three years, a politics student may be able to hold court on Islamic extremism, deliver a stinging rebuke of America’s institutional failures, and explain the causes and consequences of Chinese economic growth. Just don’t ask them who our first Prime Minister was, or who ended the White Australia Policy. Edmund Barton and Gough Whitlam, by the way. But I digress: Australians should know more about their own political history. That is why I decided to read Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power (2015) by Joel Deane.

Catch and Kill’s sweeping title belies its parochial content. This isn’t a book about Australian politics, it is a book about Victorian politics. Victoria – Australia’s second largest state and home to its greatest city, Melbourne. Politically speaking, Victoria is incredibly interesting. Once upon a time it was the jewel in the Liberal Party’s crown. Victorian Labor sat in opposition from 1955 until 1982. Melbourne gave us Robert Menzies, founding father of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. Federal Labor’s underperformance in Victoria contributed to almost three decades of conservative rule in Canberra. Today, however, the situation could not be more different. Victoria is, according to former Prime Minister John Howard, “the Massachusetts of Australia.” In other words, “conservatives, don’t even bother.”

Victoria’s transformation from conservative bastion to progressive stronghold was far from inevitable. Labor did not simply ride the wave of demographic change back into power; its electoral dominance was engineered from the top-down. Deane tells this story from start to finish. It is engagingly written and manages a fine balance between exposing factional politics, discussing details of policy reform, and ruminating on the nature of power itself. It is the most well-rounded book on Australian politics I have read so far.

Deane’s story begins shortly after the defeat of Joan Kirner, Victoria’s first female Premier, in 1992. Labor had lost all economic credibility. Mired in debt, Victoria Labor was labelled the “guilty party” by Liberal leader Jeff Kennett. Kennett ruled Victoria with an iron fist, mercilessly privatising anything that moved. No scandal stuck to him. It seemed that Labor was headed for another extended period in the political wilderness. Enter John Brumby. A one-term member of Federal parliament during Bob Hawke’s government. Brumby is meticulous, writes Deane. He approaches things systematically and relentlessly. So when Brumby was asked to step up and become state opposition leader, he set his sights on modernising Victorian Labor.

Brumby matched Kennett with a ruthlessness of his own. Old and untalented Labor MPs were targeted one by one and purged, making way for a better, smarter party. Future ministers such as Rob Hulls, John Thwaites, and of course, Steve Bracks, entered parliament during this period. These four men – Hulls, Thwaites, Bracks and Brumby – were the driving force of Labor’s strategy to unseat Kennett. In 1999, they succeeded – defeating the Liberals after just two terms in office. But it wasn’t Brumby who got to reap the electoral rewards of his modernising efforts, it was Steve Bracks. Bracks had unceremoniously replaced Brumby earlier that same year. Politics is about power, argues Dean, and power is nomadic: it moves around from person to person, party to party. Like a game of musical chairs, you better be ready when the music stops.

Labor was now in government. It got there by focussing on the bread and butter of state politics: health, education, roads and jobs. A strategy continued by Labor Premier Daniel Andrews today. As it turned out, Kennett’s privatising spree had one upside: the state budget was overflowing with cash. Labor financed all its election commitments within the first year, with money to spare. With all that excess cash, Labor decided to spend big on long-term projects. Most notably was the synchrotron, now located at Monash University. Victoria was bidding for Federal funds to host Australia’s first synchrotron, alongside New South Wales and Queensland. They feared that political considerations would intervene and the money would go to Queensland, a state critical to John Howard’s re-election. So, rather than be left out in the cold, Victoria decided to build and finance the synchrotron itself, Federal funds be damned. Queensland was incensed. Ironically, they eventually realised the superiority of Victoria’s case and ended up investing in the synchrotron at Monash University.

The major blind spot of the Bracks-Brumby Government (Brumby returned as leader in 2007) was public transport. Kennett had privatised the rail network just before the 1999 election. Unsurprisingly, the business case for privatisation was built on wildly optimistic assumptions. It assumed that the state subsidy would gradually decline over time and the train network under a private provider would eventually turn a profit. It did not. The private company in charge of Melbourne’s train network walked away from their contract after failing to make a profit. Although the Labor Government stepped in to pick up the pieces, they failed to appreciate just how much Melbourne’s population growth would increase train usage over the coming decade. Melbourne’s trains became notoriously overcrowded. Victoria’s current government is dealing with a problem that should have been anticipated long ago.

Despite these challenges, Bracks and Brumby turned Victorian Labor into an electoral juggernaut. Labor shockingly lost the 2010 election but was promptly swept back to power in 2014. As I write this in 2022, Labor looks poised for a third consecutive election victory. Victorian Labor has held office for 18 of the last 22 years. To be successful in politics you have to be united and determined to seize power. There is no use being a martyr. As Gough Whitlam said, “only the impotent are pure.” Victorian Labor is certainly not pure, but neither are they impotent.

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