Bracks was immediately elected to Labor’s front bench, as Shadow Minister for Employment, Industrial Relations and Tourism. In 1996, after Labor under John Brumby was again defeated, he became Shadow Treasurer. In March 1999, when it became apparent that Labor was headed for another defeat under Brumby’s leadership, Brumby resigned and Bracks was elected Opposition Leader.
First term as Premier
Political observers were almost unanimous that Bracks had no chance of defeating Liberal premier Jeff Kennett at the September 1999 election polls gave Kennett a 60% popularity rating. Bracks and his senior colleagues (particularly Brumby, who comes from Bendigo) campaigned heavily in regional areas, accusing Kennett of ignoring regional communities. In response, voters in regional areas deserted the Kennett government. On election night, much to its own surprise, Labor increased its seat count from 29 to 41, with the Liberals and their National Party allies retaining 43, and three falling to rural independents. With the Coalition one seat short of government, the election was to be decided in Frankston East, when the death of incumbent Peter McLellan forced a supplementary election. That supplementary election was won by Labor on a large swing, resulting in a hung parliament. The independents agreed to support a minority Labor government, making Bracks the first Catholic Labor Premier of Victoria since 1932.
Former leader Brumby, appointed Treasurer, was regarded as a major part of the government’s success. He and the Deputy Premier and Minister for Health, John Thwaites, and the Attorney-General, Rob Hulls, were regarded as the key ministers in the Bracks government.
Following a pre-1999 election commitment to consider the feasibility of introducing fast rail services to regional centres, in 2000 the government approved funding for theRegional Fast Rail project, upgrading rail lines between Melbourne and Ballarat, Bendigo, Geelong and Traralgon. However, in 2006 the Victorian Auditor General noted that in spite of $750 million spent, “We found that the delivery of more frequent fast rail services in the Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo corridors by the agreed dates was not achieved. In total, the journey time outcomes will be more modest than we would have expected with only a minority of travellers likely to benefit from significant journey time improvements. These outcomes occur because giving some passengers full express services means bypassing often large numbers of passengers at intermediate stations along the corridors.”
On 14 December 2000, Steve Bracks released a document outlining his government’s intent to introduce the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001.
The major criticism of Bracks’s first government was that their insistence on consultation 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. Nevertheless Bracks got through his first term without major mishaps, and his popularity undiminished.
Second term as Premier
Labor won the 2002 election in a landslide, taking 62 seats out of 88 in the Legislative Assembly—only the third time in Victoria’s history that a Labor government had been reelected. In another first, Labor won a slim but clear majority in the Legislative Council as well. While this was the greatest victory Labor had ever had in a Victorian state election, it brought with it considerable risks. With majorities in both houses Bracks could no longer cite his weak parliamentary position as an excuse for inaction.
On 28 August 2002, Bracks, in conjunction with his then New South Wales counterpart, Bob Carr, opened the Mowamba aqueduct between Jindabyne and Dalgety, to divert 38 gigalitres of water a year from Lake Eucumbene to the Snowy and Murray rivers. The ten-year plan cost A $300million with Victoria and NSW splitting the costs. Melbourne Water has stated that within 50 years there will be 20 percent less water going into Victorian reservoirs.
In May 2003 Bracks broke an election promise and announced that the proposed Scoresby Freeway in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs would be a tollway rather than a freeway, as promised at the 2002 elections. As well as risking a loss of support in marginal seats in eastern Melbourne, this decision brought about a strong response from the Howard Federal government, which cut off federal funding for the project on the grounds that the Bracks government had reneged on the terms of the federal-state funding agreement. The decision seems to have been on the recommendation of Brumby, who was concerned with the state’s budgetary position. Also opposing the decision was the Federal Labor Opposition, which feared anti-Labor reaction at the 2004 Federal election. The then Opposition Leader Mark Latham described a meeting with Bracks and federal shadow ministers, writing:
Bracks has broken his promise, hoping the odium will wear off before the next State election. But we’re copping the fall-out electorally… Bracks, however, was unmoved, even when Faulkner put it right on him… Sat there like a statue, that silly grin on his face.
Steve Bracks at a Vietnam Veterans Day ceremony, August 2006
This backflip, while seen by many as an opportunity for the Liberals to make ground, saw the then leader of the Liberals, Robert Doyle, adopt a much-criticised policy of half tolls, which was later overturned by his successor, Ted Baillieu.
In 2005, Bracks announced that Victorian cattlemen would be banned from using Victoria’s “High Plains” to graze cattle, ending a 170-year tradition. Stockmen had been fearing this decision since 1984, when a Labor government excised land to create the Alpine National Park. 300 cattlemen rode horses down Bourke street in protest. Victorian National Party leader Peter Ryan was quoted as saying that Bracks had “killed the man from Snowy River”, a reference to the Banjo Paterson poem “The Man from Snowy River“.
Bracks’ second government achieved one of Victorian Labor’s longest-held goals with a complete reform of the state’s system for electing its upper house. It saw the introduction of proportional representation, with eight five-member regions replacing the current single-member constituencies. This system increases the opportunity for minor parties such as the Greens and DLP to win seats in the Legislative Council, giving them a greater chance of holding the balance of power. Illustrating the historic importance Labor assigns to the changes, in a speech to a conference celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Eureka Stockade, Bracks said it was “another victory for the aspirations of Eureka”, and has described the changes as “his proudest achievement”.
The staging of the 2006 Commonwealth Games, generally viewed as a success (albeit an expensive one), was viewed as a plus for Bracks and the government. With times reasonably good, a perception arguably reinforced by an extensive government advertising campaign selling the virtues of Victoria to Victorians, polls indicated little interest in change, although towards the end of the election campaign polling indicated that the Liberals under Baillieu were closing the gap.
Third term as Premier
The election campaign was a relatively low-key affair, with the Government and Bracks largely running on their record, as well as their plans to tackle infrastructure issues in their third term. Bracks’ image loomed large in Labor’s election advertising. Liberal attacks concentrated on the slow process of infrastructure development under Bracks (notably on water supply issues relating to the severe drought affecting Victoria in the election leadup), and new Liberal leader Ted Baillieu promised to start construction on a range of new infrastructure initiatives, including a new dam on the Maribyrnong River and a desalination plant. Labor’s broken election promise on Eastlink was also expected to be a factor in some seats in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
On 25 November 2006, Steve Bracks won his third election, comfortably defeating Baillieu to secure a third term, with a slightly reduced majority in the Lower House. This marked only the second time that the Victorian Labor Party had won a third term in office. His third term Cabinet was sworn in on 1 December 2006 with Bracks also holding the portfolio of Veterans’ Affairs and Multicultural Affairs.
Bracks announced his resignation as Premier on 27 July 2007, saying this was in order to spend more time with his family. He stepped down on 30 July 2007. According to the ABC, Bracks had been under political and personal pressure in the weeks before his resignation. Alone among State Premiers, he had refused to agree to the Federal Government’s $10 billion Murray-Darling Basin water conservation plan,and his son had been involved in an accident involving a charge of drink driving. Bracks told a media conference he could no longer give a 100 per cent commitment to politics:
Once you reach a point where you can no longer make that commitment, the choice is clear – I have made that choice.
— Steve Bracks, announcing his retirement