In Conversation: Steve Bracks full transcript

Former Victoria Premier Steve Bracks was one of Australia’s most successful and longest serving premiers. Alan Porritt/AAP

Stephanie Brookes: We’re here for The Conversation, I’m from the University of Melbourne Media and Communications program and I’m here in Conversation with former Victoria premier Steve Bracks. Thanks for joining me.

So I want to start really big, what makes a great communicator? What makes a politician a great communicator?

Steve Bracks: I think there’s several things. One is understanding and believing in what you’re saying. There’s no use just having an understanding without having a deep belief in what you’re about to communicate. That’s very important because you won’t come across effectively if you are simply mouthing words trying to persuade, acting as if you would like people to believe it, but not believing it yourself. So I think a sense of belief in what you do is very, very important and therefore you can persuade and argue the case on that basis.

I think secondly understanding who you’re talking to. I used to always have a rule that if I was talking to say a press conference that goes out to every Victorian, you’re talking to the media through the microphones, but you’re not talking to the media and microphones you’re talking to people. So imagine what you’re talking about, it might be about education, it might be students staying in school longer to year 12, therefore having a better chance in life to succeed and move on to other opportunities. You should be addressing your comments as if you were talking to either the students or young people or their parents about that issue. All the media is, is the intermediary. So a belief, a conviction, being able to persuade. Of course the techniques of that I think are understood, but also understanding who you’re talking to is very, very important.

Stephanie Brookes: That idea of understanding what the people you’re talking to care about, understanding what drives them. Is that something that you connect from your own experience? What drives me, my priorities, my values and the priorities and values of the people I’m speaking to? Is that important?

Steve Bracks: That is important, but what is also important is the reason that you are there. Let’s say in public life, in a leadership position, you’re there for a reason, you’re there because you want to achieve things. If you’re there for any other reason you shouldn’t be there. If you want to achieve and do things then being able to understand what you want to achieve and how to describe it in an empathetic way to the people that receive the message is very, very important. But I think that I would weight your beliefs and your convictions higher than I would weight any other part in the effort and communication. Empathy is important and crucial in getting across an issue. If you don’t believe it, it’s an interesting thing people will see through it. I think people are seeing through politicians more generally now when they look like they’re acting rather than talking about an issue they believe in. So they look like they’ve been to Politics 101. They’ll answer your question by saying what they want to do not what you want them to answer and therefore repeating something they think by repetition will get resonance. If they don’t have the belief first then all that is absolutely and totally useless. You have to know what you want to achieve and therefore being able to communicate is very important.

Stephanie Brookes: The idea of people seeing through it is very interesting to me.

Steve Bracks: People do.

Stephanie Brookes: I feel like watching a lot of what is happening at the moment, in federal politics and state politics, I wonder sometimes if this is a bit of moment of change. I watch the coverage of federal political leaders in western Sydney campaigning, going out to Rooty Hill RSL, and I wonder whether those techniques are no longer as effective?

Steve Bracks: When I first entered politics the technique was, it doesn’t matter what the question is you only answer and repeat. Repetition was important as people only understand after the 15th time it was said. They were the sort of rules of engagement at the time. I think at the time people see through that and they want to see what we’re actually about. If you’re describing an issue they want to see your passion, your commitment, your beliefs are coming through. If they’re not I think they’ll see through it. And that’s just because people are very used to the communication methods that are there more broadly. They’re there very broadly, every day in the lounge room, they can see through it now. As you know the body doesn’t lie either, they can see through the non-verbal cues pretty well as well, they’ll feel it, they’ll see it, they’ll understand it.

So I don’t know if it’s a moment in time. I think that would be a bit too simplistic to say we’ve snapped over now because of this current crop of politicians but I think it’s been a developmental issue over a period of time and I think it’s been coming for some time.

Stephanie Brookes: So if you think back to 1999 and winning the election, that was considered now to be a very successful election campaign, if you think back then is there something for you when you remember it that you think “I got that right, I did this thing right” and everything flowed from that? Is there a kind of moment you remember in that way?

Steve Bracks: Well the first thing I did right was deciding to become leader. And I’m not boasting myself on that, I’m just saying that was important. That was a very difficult decision. It’s not easy to be leader of your organization or party and that was a very seminal moment. But I became leader with a plan and that is to not to simply bait my opponent, and in that case it was Jeff Kennett, by being the last paragraph of everything he did, commenting on everything he did. But to have a set of beliefs of what I thought was better for Victoria. It was the lead up to being leader where I developed a set of ideas of things that could take the party forward, different to what it was. And that is we could have a proposition of doing things that the previous, or then government wasn’t doing. And that is improving health education, public safety, developing the regions and not treating them as second-class citizens and restoring democracy.

Now they seem ordinary now and yes every state government should be doing it but you know in 1999 it wasn’t being done. It was largely bred with circumstance, it was the colour of politics not the substance of it and it wasn’t about improving services or equal opportunity no matter where you were or where you lived or openness in government and having the opportunity to not be seen as excluded from it. So these were propositions, which are now embedded, so I would see that as a success. The very commitments we made have now become the base stock politics in the debate overall so the whole paradigm shifted. So I would rate that as an important success.

I had a lot of criticism from the media at the time as news leader, another leader to sacrifice on the altar of Jeff Kennett who was written large, travelling very well. “Why’s he talking about boring issues, like health, education, public safety and the regions? We live in Fitzroy what are they? Why doesn’t he just have a go at Kennett and get into them and whatever they’re saying.” But I knew I was speaking not to them but to the public and I knew it would take a long time but it would shift in the end because people wanted better education, better opportunities for students after significant education cuts. They wanted to ensure they had better access to health systems after years and years of cuts into the health system. They didn’t want 10% or 12% unemployment in Bendigo or Geelong they wanted to be as affluent, have similar opportunities for getting jobs as someone in central Melbourne did. And they disliked the fact that if they criticized the government they were seen as disloyal and un-Victorian. So I stayed the course, despite the media criticism, and in the last couple of weeks there was a big swing to us and we won government.

Stephanie Brookes: Media criticism, it’s really interesting because you keep it in your mind, don’t you?

Steve Bracks: Well the media has its impacts, it’s not a lot of original thought. Usually they’re followers of one or two leaders, there’s the federal rounds, the state rounds. And that’s understandable because they’ve got to get instant gratification from a story of that day, and scandals always rate better, and they want “he said, she said”. It’s an easy package to put on and that’s why they all tend to follow. I’m not overly critical, I understand the profession and it’s a very noble profession but I don’t think it’s the only prism in getting across your message to the public. If you don’t have a good message, that’s really important.

Stephanie Brookes: Would it be harder now, do you think, to campaign?

Steve Bracks: I think it would be harder, yes. The 24-hour media cycle didn’t start until I left in 2007. So I could have a story in the news, printed up the day before, you bounce off that the next day, you could react to other issues that happen during the day and you’d be on the evening news so therefore there are one or two points where you’re able to say I dealt with the media that day. And now it’s relentless, you’ve got ABC News 24, Fox doing 24-hour news cycle.

I can’t tell you how many times ABC 24 contacted me when they were setting up, “could you come and comment about this and this?”, because they’re just desperate for content. Even though nothing was happening and they were commenting on the same issue they just wanted a slightly different angle to it.

Anthony Agius

I think it would be very difficult and I think it’s not very clear on how governments and oppositions are going to handle this in the future but we know the way they’re handling it now is not suitable. I don’t think feeding the beast is the way to handle it, I don’t think we need to comment on everything. I think you need to comment on things you want to do and achieve or if you have to answer questions because accountability is important but to simply comment on everything that’s happening in a 24-hour news cycle is just unproductive. And the utility value of government is just worn out bit by bit because of that and you’ll see much more volatility as a result of that if you just respond to that 24-hour cycle. And not much really happens in 24 hours, some of the analysis you see in the papers where you have commentators giving opinion every day. What’s happened today compared to yesterday? What analysis are you doing? What is the trend that you’re actually examining? It’s very, very hard to work out. Yet that’s happening, this is the consumption, this is the content we’re being given.

Stephanie Brookes: Is there space for that longer-term conversation then? When you have the conversation with the electorate.

I had a look before I came in and I couldn’t find the official Steve Bracks twitter account.

Steve Bracks: I don’t have twitter.

Stephanie Brookes: How do we have these bigger conversations in a space where things are moving so quickly?

Steve Bracks: I’m not against people having twitter. I think social media is liberating in lots of ways, it’s great for democracy, I think it’s good. If I was there now I would want to manage and be on top of it, of course, and be much more accessible as a result, I think it’s a good part of it. I think the bad part is that you feel you have to respond every minute of the day. Does it matter if a premier or prime minister doesn’t have a view on Oprah Winfrey if she’s coming to Australia? But you’re there, you’ve got to be accessible, you’ve got to talk about it. Does it matter? Not really. That’s my point really. The only thing I can think of in handling the relentless 24-media cycle is to do your own thing and to be out there on content when you have content to be out there on. I think that’s probably the mistake people make, is my preliminary view anyway.

Stephanie Brookes: It’s an interesting thing, a lot of these conversations about the trivialisation and professionalisation of politics. We also get concerned about where the future lies in political communication, in election campaigns.

Steve Bracks: Yes there’s a constant tension there with the public. It’s like the public saying my biggest concern is always education but when they come to vote they don’t weight it as high as say economic management even when they say it’s a bigger issue. Like, I want more debate about the future but I’m not going to listen to the radio stations talking about it. It’s an interesting thing and it deserves deeper analysis on why it happens but does happen.

Stephanie Brookes: So how do we make space then? I see concerns in the United States about the divisiveness of political debate and the kind of adversarial nature of some of that in politics. Is that something you worry about in Australia?

Steve Bracks: No I don’t worry about that. I don’t have a problem with adversarial politics, I think it’s good for contestability and I would expect nothing less. This is nothing new, it’s a joke really to analyse this to something new. In the 1950s in Australia, post war, we had governments that were brought down on adversarial politics, between the Queensland government and split of the Labor party. We talk about schisms and differences now but not really, they’re not as big as there’s always been strong philosophical differences.

I’d argue the opposite; I’d say the philosophical differences are probably a bit less. There’s been a merge to the middle much more than there used to be. I think that’s not a fair analysis and is it a bad thing that you have robust and strong debate about issues and differences? No, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think it’s a pretty poor that it’s just simply about nothing. But I think it’s a common view, “why can’t they just get together for the good of the nation?” sort of a top of the head view. “Wouldn’t it be much nicer if they all just agreed?”

Stephanie Brookes: And some of that’s about values, right? So that’s the different values of different people.

Steve Bracks: Absolutely. And they should be contested. I’m on the left side of politics, I’m a social democrat, member of the Labor party and I have different views to people on the other side and that’s fair. I like those presented, I love them to debate their views as well. I don’t have any problem with that. If that’s adversarial that’s good.

Stephanie Brookes: Something incredibly valuable about debating those values.

Steve Bracks: Yes, there is.

Stephanie Brookes: You’ve talked passionately about the Labor party and Labor values consistently throughout your career. Are there political heroes that still kind of drive your post-politics interest, and post-politics agenda?

Steve Bracks: I’d probably nominate two. One is John Curtin, probably one of the greatest leaders that Australia had during the second world war, but also in domestic policies. A lot of the domestic architecture we had for the arbitration system of the Reserve Bank, social safety nets we have, were largely designed during that period. As well as positioning us historically to not necessarily rely on the UK for our defence capabilities but have interests serve more broadly elsewhere. He had a great quality: humility, which is not often repeated in public life, Kim Beazley had it too, very endearing quality.

There’s an interesting story about John Curtin when he had to bring the 2/2nd of the 2/4th troops back from Europe in defiance of Churchill to defend Australia because the Japanese had landed in Papua New Guinea, Moresby, and he had defy the old country in doing it. And of course they came back without defences, he was worried, he was called a traitor by the then Herald, by Rupert Murdoch’s father at the time – so Keith Murdoch - and he was lampooned as a traitor in all the papers for not kowtowing to Churchill and agreeing to leave the troops there. He was worried they were unprotected and couldn’t have saved anyone. Anyway they landed, and he’s a very humble man, and thought he’d at least meet them in Fremantle and then travel on the train and meet them elsewhere. Everywhere he went he was cheered for saving Australia and so it went as he went on, he couldn’t believe the reception he got. And then the Herald changed their editorials after, says something about the media. So he was a great leader.

“Bob Hawke…ran probably the best government Australia’s ever had.” Julian Smith/AAP

And the other one is Bob Hawke, as I thought he ran probably the best government Australia’s ever had. He was the chairman of the board not the chief executive. He didn’t confuse those roles and try and do both. He enabled ministers to do their jobs and interfered when there was failure. He opened up Australia more broadly to the rest of the world while keeping the social safety nets strong and really coined the notion of the third way. Which was accepting the market but moderating the market, intervention when necessary and keeping strong industrial, medical, health and social security safety nets. And doing it while persuading an argument to the people that it needed to be done even though it was disruptive to their lives at the time. A remarkable effort and one of the best governments ever. And he did it because of his capacity to be an effective chairman and great communicator as well.

Stephanie Brookes: It seems like an interesting tension, being courageous on the one hand as a leader and having that conviction but also having that humility you speak of.

Steve Bracks: Yes, well Bob didn’t have any humility so they’re different in that.

Stephanie Brookes: How do you manage that balancing act?

Steve Bracks: Well I think the answer to your question is quite different to what you think. I think one of the things you have to be is yourself. If you are a humble person you should not try to be otherwise. I hate it, and I think the public hates it, when people act to be something they’re not. They’re told to be tough so they look like they’re tough; they’re not tough really they’re just trying to sound like it. Be yourself, you will communicate better if you be yourself, you will get the message across better. People see through if you’re not and they’ll just think you’re an empty suit if you’re doing otherwise. In either case, Bob Hawke: gregarious, open, loved people, very tactile. Curtin who was shy, humble but a good orator when needed to be, they were being themselves. Their personality was understood by people but they were getting the message in something they believed in themselves by doing it. They weren’t going to a media course and told how to answer questions.

Stephanie Brookes: And there’s a natural element to that?

Steve Bracks: I think the natural element is good, yes.

Stephanie Brookes: Rather than something you can learn?

Steve Bracks: Yes.

Stephanie Brookes: Looking forward, the 2010 election has virtually this mythical status as a horrendous, low point in campaigning and we look forward to 2013 and whether or not we’re already in an election campaign. As you look forward to that are there things that you look for in terms of where we look next and where the conversation and that public debate will go next?

Steve Bracks: Every election is always the most important but there is a lot at stake because there is a lot of unfinished policy, which would be interrupted if there was a change of government. The need for aggregating risk and to have a national insurance disability scheme, which I think is an excellent scheme, will not be finished and if the government loses the opposition will find a reason not to fund it because they believe the budget is worse than they thought. The Gonski reforms, I think will go, so I think there’s a lot at stake in these issues at the election and I hope the fight is about that, about the alternative visions.

Stephanie Brookes: But an actual fight, a conversation that is sticking to those values?

Steve Bracks: Yes.

Stephanie Brookes: How do you feel about the way that is going to play out. Do you look at these things and your political antenna kind of pop back up? Or do you watch as an observer?

Steve Bracks: I think it will play out. I think you’ll see a strong campaign by the government about what they might lose, what reforms will be trashed and what the effect of that will be. I think on the opposition’s side I’m not sure if they’ll lay out their full policy, I suspect they’ll try and be a small target and just let the government try and lose, I think that’s what they’ll try and do.

Stephanie Brookes: But a conversation that does draw people in?

Steve Bracks: You’re after an answer aren’t you? Which is to say in contemporary politics you’ll never get a good debate because it’s all about personality. I think it changes, you always think it’s the worst when you’re in it now and then it looks better in retrospect. It goes in cycles. There will good leaders that emerge in the future, there will be great debates that emerge in the future. You tend to judge history by the moment, I don’t think that’s probably right.

Stephanie Brookes: This idea of the cycles, that we go into each election remembering the one before but hopefully also the one before that and the one before that. So that long-term understanding of politics we have is part of that as well. I think back to the National Reform Agenda and the way that played out, if we fast-forwarded that to today, what would you put on the agenda now?

Steve Bracks: Well I initiated the National Reform Agenda because there was a gap in the nation, we had taken Victoria so far but we couldn’t achieve change unless there was cooperation from the Commonwealth to lift early childhood learning, to lift retention in education to year 12, to look at productivity in the economy more broadly and reduce regulation, all those things which would have made a difference.

I think I would argue that we should looking at sequentially areas that we can achieve cooperation between levels of government and just not simply say we have an enormous landscape and try and do everything at once. If I’m critical of anything about this government it would be by nominating too many things, not giving priority to all of them and therefore a lot of them being lost. So now one knows is 2012 is a year we would firm up reform in early childhood development and have more people participating in one-stop shops for families when they can go for child care welfare, infant welfare, pre-school or whatever else. Or whether it’s something else, because everything was urgent but when everything’s urgent nothing is done. So setting priorities, setting an agenda over a period of time, defining responsibilities better between the federal and state governments and to clarity that much more over time. And to work on areas which are going to lift the capabilities of Australia as the first priority. So educational attainment, we’re a high-wage, high cost country we won’t be able to compete on labour but we will be able to compete on our skills and abilities so an important emphasis on educational and skill attainment I think is one. On engagement with our region, I think they’re writing the Asian White Paper that’s another one I think we should be pursuing. So that would be some areas.

Stephanie Brookes: Again this is a way of watching these things play out and seeing how it happens. You’ve also spoken a lot about multicultural issues and that as a priority. How do you see that playing out?

Steve Bracks: We’re a bit different in Victoria, aren’t we? We understand, the others don’t as much. I’m a strong advocate of multiculturalism, I think it’s enriched us, it’s been a great benefit to Australia and I would hate to see for short-term political aims that we jeopardise the very thing that’s a great asset to us.

Stephanie Brookes: It is something that resonates with people isn’t it?

Steve Bracks: Well a good example is post the second world war we knew we couldn’t be any longer a population of around seven or eight million. So there was a consensus by both the government and opposition, the then Labor government and opposition Sir Robert Menzies sort of understood this as well, that we needed to double at least our population through a significant migration from across Europe and other places.

Now it could have been a bigger complexity because there was still some racism for Asian countries at the time but that dissipated over time. But that was agreed and it was agreed that leaders of political parties, and political parties more broadly, wouldn’t seek to use fear, fear of losing your job to someone overseas, as a motivator to prevent that happening. So there was a general consensus right the way through. You’ll notice through that period that from 1945 right up until a speech that John Howard gave on children overboard, that pretty well there was consensus all the way through and race was never used as an argument against post war development and development more broadly.

And I think we benefited from it enormously and I hope we go back to that at some stage because you can always appeal to the base level fears of people. Hope and fear both motivate people, and fear does motivate. And I think when you back something up against a wall as a political party using fear it’s a pretty miserable thing. So I think that’s one of the biggest dangers to multiculturalism.