In the right place at the right time

Former Labour Party staffer Phil Quin looks back at another example of late surge leadership against the odds, but cautions not to squander success - and build something lasting

Changing leaders weeks or months out from an election is not usually seen as  a sign of robust political health — and, as a rule, it isn’t. Just ask the Greens.  

But when executed at the right moment, with minimal internal fuss, a new face can scramble the field in unforeseeable ways, derailing incumbents otherwise coasting to victory. In this way, the clinical, painless transition from Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern has effectively compressed a decade’s worth of political realignment into a couple of short months. It has energised the electorate, leaving whiplashed Nats rattled and seeming suddenly error-prone.  

I’ve seen this movie before, and Jacindamaniacs won’t hate the ending.  

Early 1999, facing another crushing defeat to Liberal incumbent Jeff Kennett, Victorian Labor leader John Brumby shocked the political and media establishment by stepping aside in favour of his shadow Treasurer, Steve Bracks. Working as an adviser to the federal ALP at the time, I was a lowly campaign volunteer on the state campaign. It felt like a futile slog. In retrospect, we were as guilty of falling for the Kennett-as-juggernaut schtick as he was. 

But Bracks lit a fire under the campaign while Kennett, a tireless showman with translucently thin skin, starts tripping up. Most egregiously, he disparages rural Victoria as the state’s “toenails” (in contrast to Melbourne, its beating heart).  

Sensing an opening, the ALP ran aggressively, albeit with next to no money, in places like Bracks’ hometown of Ballarat, Brumby’s of Bendigo and in Geelong where voters delivered the party a clean sweep. 

But, since the party’s support hardly budged in metropolitan Melbourne, even huge provincial swings weren’t enough.  

To complete this most unlikely victory, Bracks needed to win a byelection in a Liberal-held seat brought about about by the sudden death on election day of the incumbent MP, and then co-opt the support of three independent crossbenchers from rural electorates. It’s hard to conceive of a higher degree of difficulty, but few dispute that Brumby’s success in broadening the party’s appeal outside urban and inner-suburban strongholds made both things possible. 

Bracks went on to serve as a popular Premier until his own resignation, made under no political duress whatsoever, in 2007. Brumby succeeded him as Premier, but lost, once again surprisingly, in 2010 — to Ted Ballieu, the modestly-gifted scion of an esteemed Melbourne dynasty).  

John Brumby could be forgiven a degree of bitterness, although he never let on as much on publicly. He had done everything asked of him by party bosses, taking the drastic but necessary steps to rid the party of factional deadwood and build a team of talented shadow ministers. He helped restore the party to financial and organisational health. Most critically, on the policy front, Brumby’s steady hand helped turn around perceptions of reckless fiscal profligacy that plagued the party after the Cain-Kirner “Guilty Party” era. But, less than six months out from the election, and just 48 hours after a private dinner with factional powerbroker and Victorian state ALP president, Greg Sword, Brumby was gone. 

As Jacinda Ardern heads for what promises to be a smashing victory of her own, one hopes her thinking has reached a similar plane — and that, under her leadership, Labour won’t squander a prime opportunity not just to claim victory later this month, but to form a government built to last.  

Sword told me over the phone he had urged Brumby, a longtime ally, to voluntarily step aside but remain part of the frontbench.

“If you have a bloody coup, you end up with the rival sitting on the backbench, and that's been demonstrated with all subsequent leadership turnovers,” Sword said, a nod to the brutal rivalries of Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and Turnbull that have kept Canberra distracted and dysfunctional for 10 years. Brumby agreed, opting against exile, going on to serve as state Treasurer before returning to the leadership. 

“Brumby deserves credit,” Sword said, “because you can only have that smooth transition if you've got somebody who understands they're going to go anyway, and they're better off doing it for the good of the party.” 

At the time, Sword had modest expectations for Bracks, hoping his ascension would “save the furniture” at best. But, in the end, he says, “a new kind of leadership changed everything for us”.

“It gave us stability, gave us a fresh face, a lot of the criticism the party usually faced couldn't be made of Bracks. And [he] turned out to be a great leader, coming across as a nice, unthreatening guy”. 

These attributes, Sword points out, came to the fore during the first term when Bracks managed a minority government deftly enough to earn a thumping landslide four years later. 

In Bracks, the Victorian ALP had found for a leader who projected humility — a public persona most reminiscent for Kiwi observers of David Shearer, including those slightly inept media performances that troubled elites but which voters found authentic and endearing. As former speechwriter Joel Deane wrote in a riveting history of the period, Catch and Kill, the new leader was unusually comfortable in his skin for a politician. Bracks, he wrote, was “confident enough not to feel the need to win every argument, be seen as the smartest person in the room or take the credit for every idea. Most potently, Deane added, Bracks was secure enough in himself to “allow himself to be underestimated”. That insatiable yearning for affirmation and adulation common in politicians — it is, as they say, showbiz for the less attractive — skipped Bracks entirely.  

I spoke to Deane about how the events of 1999 can inform our understanding of the radical improvement in NZ Labour’s fortunes in the aftermath of Andrew Little’s resignation. 

“The lesson for Labour,” Deane said, “is that they are not in the box seat just because of Jacinda Ardern. They are ahead because the electorate is ready for change. Ms Ardern is obviously an excellent campaigner and is connecting with people, but this kind of surge in support usually demonstrates that people were looking for a reason to switch”. 

Like Bracks in 1999, Deane says, “Jacinda Ardern is the right person in the right place at the right time”. And yet good fortune only gets you so far. The leadership change in Victoria, circa 1999, made it possible for Steve Bracks to pull off one of the greatest electoral upsets in Australian history. But Bracks knew his election would go down as a fluke unless he could extend his good fortune into a lasting and consequential period of government. To do so, he surrounded himself with a core group of heavy-hitting ministers, Brumby at the forefront. He pursued a policy agenda commensurate with his mandate, focused on improving public services in practical and tangible ways, especially outside metropolitan Melbourne. He kept the fiscal house in order, and avoided ideological crusades. Above all, Bracks knew he couldn’t rely on good luck more than once. No shortcuts — Labor would need to earn reelection the hard way. As Jacinda Ardern heads for what promises to be a smashing victory of her own, one hopes her thinking has reached a similar plane — and that, under her leadership, Labour won’t squander a prime opportunity not just to claim victory later this month, but to form a government built to last.  

Phil Quin is a former NZ Labour staffer (1989-1996), and served as an adviser to Steve Bracks during his first term (1999-2003).

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