THROUGH the corner window of his Old Treasury office, former Ballarat man Steve Bracks has a good view of the four bronze statues of Victoria’s marathon premiers – Henry Bolte, John Cain II, Dick Hamer and Alfred Dunstan.
They stand outside Number One Treasury Place, paying tribute to the men who each chalked up 3000-plus days in office. Bracks was expected to join them after his third election win in November 2006 but, like a batsman retiring five runs short of his century, he shocked the state by quitting politics eight months later, 162 days shy.
However, contrary to reports at the time, it was not connected with son Nick’s drink-driving troubles two weeks earlier.
“I always had a comfortable work-family balance,” Bracks says. “I had a little test. I knew that if I went to my colleagues and said ‘I think it’s time to go’ and they agreed, it would be too late. I didn’t want to reach that stage.
..”I had close to eight years as premier and couldn’t give much more. I wasn’t interested in a statue. I thought we’d win that next election - my judgment wasn’t as good as I thought. We lost, but that is not necessarily a bad thing long-term because our credibility is still intact.”
Now Bracks the private businessman announces that he has just made another career change, walking away from the controversial job – reportedly worth $100,000 a year – that he accepted in 2007 with multinational auditing firm KPMG, holder of multiple state government contracts. It was a posting that drew the ire of fellow ex-premier and political mentor John Cain, who said the inside knowledge and contacts of a premier “should not be a tradeable commodity”.
Bracks says he was scrupulous in keeping a separation. “I can understand what John is saying but if you are careful not to use your period as premier to advantage yourself later, it is reasonable to accept positions. You still have skills. I saw it as a different career.”
Bracks, 57, has built up a portfolio of post-political pursuits, many of them voluntary posts such as adviser to the Prime Minister of East Timor and chairman of Deakin University’s Deakin Foundation.
He has also been working on a book of memoirs for Melbourne University Press due out in August and co-written by Murdoch journalist Ellen Whinnett, a former partner of Tim Holding and a Herald Sun political writer. Obviously Bracks does not hold a grudge – a Whinnett article tore strips off him in 2007 over the parliamentary inquiry into pokies.
Tanned and relaxed, with that same winning smile, Bracks enjoys an enduring reputation as a political winner but, in fact, as he readily admits, he failed three times before winning the seat of Williamstown vacated by Joan Kirner.
“I ran for Ballarat North,” he says. “Two elections and a byelection in 1985 and 1988. It was tough – one campaign was six months through the middle of a Ballarat winter – but I rate that time as important, I cut my teeth there. You learn how to deal with the media and convince people who are not necessarily with you.”
Like fellow ex-premier John Brumby, Bracks started working life as a teacher. Parents Stan and Marion raised him and three sisters in Ballarat. Stan Bracks died when Steve was 32 and never saw his son in the state’s top job, but his late mother did.
Bracks says politics is getting harder and his feat of winning three terms – he still holds the record for the biggest majority in Victorian history – will be increasingly difficult. “There is wear and tear on government from a much more regular media cycle than even I had when I was there. Henry Bolte used to have a press conference every couple of weeks, smoke a Turf cigarette, meet the Herald reporters and maybe give them one story and that was it.”
He warns that Victoria is now in a ‘’precarious’’ position because of conditions beyond government control.
“We have this dual-speed economy. The advantage we had – strong growth, low unemployment, good budget position - that is going to be increasingly under pressure.”
It seems a long time back that Steve Bracks stepped down voluntarily as premier, but he recalls clearly how strange it felt.
“Suddenly, the phone doesn’t ring,” he says. “You are not a required player. You wonder why no one is consulting you on matters of high importance, wonder if you should offer advice.
“Seriously, you have to deal with it. It takes about six months to accept you are no longer part of running the state. But I have never thought I made the wrong decision.”