A former teacher from Ballarat, a small city in central Victoria, he became Victorian leader of the Australian Labor Party, and thus Victorian Opposition Leader, in early 1999 after defeating the little-known John Brumby in a leadership challenge.
Political observers were united in the belief that Bracks had no chance of overcoming the popular but controversial incumbent Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett at the 1999 election: polls gave Kennett a 60% popularity rating. Bracks and his senior cabinet members (many also from provincial backgrounds) campaigned heavily in regional areas of Victoria on themes that the Kennett government governed only for Melbourne and was ignoring problems in the bush. To the astonishment of most observers, voters in regional areas, traditionally the most loyal of coalition supporteers, deserted the Kennett government in droves: Labor went from 29 seats to 41, with the coalition retaining 43 and 3 falling to independants. The vote for the final seat in the 88-seat Lower House was not counted because the sitting member for Franston East, dissident Liberal Peter McLellan, died on the day of the poll. No party was able to show a clear majority, and furious negotiations with the three independants began. Meanwhile, Kennett remained Premier in a caretaker role, and a supplementary election was called for Frankston East.
For over four weeks, it was not clear which party, if any, would be able to take government. Most commentators agreed with the coalition explanation that "it was just a protest vote that got out of hand", but the Franston East supplementay election saw the Labor canditate win with an 8% swing and now just one seat shy of the coalition's 43, Bracks returned to negotiaton with the three independents who held the balance of power. Through a combination of personal bitterness over (as they saw it) arrogance and mistreatment from Kennett, and Labor's willingness to negotiate deals on hot-button issues (in particular, reform of the Upper House), the independents agreed to support Labor in a minority government.
Both former coalition leaders resigned from Parliament in the aftermath of the 1999 election, and Bracks' popularity was such that their previously safe seats fell to Labor at by-elections held in December 1999 and May 2000. Bracks now had an outright majority of one, but chose to retain his alliance with the independants even so.
Despite Bracks' tortuous path to the job, his likeable public persona and consensus-based approach to leadership made him popular with the electorate, and the partnership of Labor and the independents provided stable, fiscally prudent government. Former leader Brumby, appointed Treasurer, was regarded as a major part of the government's success and indeed, like Kennett's Treasurer Alan Stockdale before him, is sometimes regarded as perhaps the real power behind the throne.
The major criticism of Bracks and his government has been that their penchant for consultation and review has stood in the way of effective, proactive government. Bracks, according to critics, achieved little, and lost the excitement of constant change that was characteristic of the Kennett years. The talents of some of the more junior ministers in the government were also questioned, although as Labor Government ministers are chosen by the Parliamentary Party, with the leader simply allocating portfolios, that was largely out of Bracks' control.
In the November 2002 election, Bracks led a savvy campaign that made the most of his personal popularity and countered the do-nothing claims of the Liberal opposition with a focus on the Government's claim to have been working to repair the damage of the Kennett years - an extraordinary irony as, with the roles reversed, Kennet had won several campaigns on the same theme. Two weeks before what was then expected to be a close poll, the opposition campaign was reduced to tatters when it emerged that Shadow Treasurer Robert Dean was ineligable to stand for Parliament because he had failed to register to vote.
Labor won in a landslide, finishing with 62 seats in the Lower House, and for the first time in Victorian history, a slim but clear Upper House majority as well.
Steve Bracks is married to Terry, who works as a political staffer for a federal Labor politician. They have three school-age children.
|List of Victorian Premiers||
Steve Bracks is the current Premier