The rambunctious Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett (1992 – 1999), used John Brumby, then the leader of the Labor Opposition as a punching bag. Kennett’s barrage of taunts and insults in parliament and through the media steeled Brumby’s political determination to lead the state of Victoria.
Times have changed. Since 1999 Brumby has been a leading member of one of the nation’s most successful Labor state governments. As Minister for Finance, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for State and Regional Development and later Treasurer under the ‘Mr Nice’, Premier Steve Bracks. Since 2007 he has been the Premier of Victoria, after what was a smooth and amiable transition of leadership from Bracks to Brumby.
Brumby’s credentials as Treasurer are in no doubt. Victoria experienced delicious rates of growth under his stewardship. But, he inherited the premiership: Brumby has not won an election as a Premier and the ALP Government has been in power now for 11 years.
For Brumby the rationale of electing his government in again is simple.
“We’ve got a genuine vision for the future, about keeping jobs coming, about making sure we keep the economy strong, create job opportunities, all the things that are important to Victoria.”
He adds, “a strong economy and job opportunities are number one.”
Victoria became, as Brumby says, ” the jobs engine room of Australia, generating more jobs in the last year than any other state in Australia.”
Brumby is not as well liked as Baillieu though, as one recent poll found. Victorians felt that Baillieu was less distant. Brumby is in essence the economics trained teacher – stern, dry, focused and strategic.
But he rejects the poll findings “I don’t believe that, I never worry about polls like that.”
He moves quickly to his favourite subject the Government’s economic credentials and significant points of focus.
“I want to focus on our government services, on things that affect families, investing in education, health, building the new children’s hospital, the new comprehensive cancer centre, new hospitals in Box Hill, Bendigo; these are things fundamental to peoples lives and quality of life.”
He points to the “big challenges in the future” as, keeping the economy strong in a fragile world economy; climate change and an ageing population.
“We need strong and experienced leadership. I believe I have the skills, experience and vision needed to provide that strong leadership for Victoria.”
When talking about the Coalition’s promises he retorts, “find one single Coalition ad for me that says anything about their policies for the future.”
“They want the Victorian people to deal them into government with un-costed policies, without putting any detailed policies to the people.”
Brumby is on a roll, focused and on message but are people listening?
“I’ve been talking about jobs, health, climate change. The Liberals are just running negative ads about their claims of what’s wrong with the state and not offering any solution.”
The gloves come off soon enough as he talks about Coalition promises totalling more than $13 billion. “Ted Baillieu is like an ATM on wheels. Being a government is a serious business, you have lots of competing demands; you’ve got to make the budget balance.”
The Greens are an imposing force as the results of the recent federal election and as polls predict in Victoria. They are a headache for the ALP as middle class progressives shift to the Greens.
As Brumby says, “probably about 10-11 per cent will vote for the Greens.”
“The major political parties are still Labor and Liberal, but the Greens have been important and we saw that in the Federal election,” he adds.
Brumby also turns green in an attempt to win back Green votes, saying “the reality is we’ve been the first state government to put in a climate change bill, a 20 percent cut by 2020.”
He goes on to highlight how that will be achieved in a way that “will generate new job opportunities.”
And in case anyone forgets, “we’re the progressive party, we’re the ones that are out there in terms of social justice, housing, tackling homelessness, making big investments in public transport, and tackling climate change.”
In response to Coalition criticisms that opaque deals between the Greens and Labor, Brumby says, “there are no deals with the Greens, in some seats their preferences will come our way in some our preferences will go their way.”
He reminds us of the recent Federal election. “It was the Liberal party that was helping to elect the Greens, that’s what happened to Adam Bandt.”
He points to the new demographics of inner city seats which 40 years ago were predominantly working class seats with a large population of Greeks and Italians. Now they are inhabited by younger, wealthier people many with professional backgrounds.
“The composition changing is what makes these seats such great electorates to represent, but it’s also hard to represent these areas because you’ve got such a wide range of different views” says Brumby.
The Premier rejects that there were cost blowouts in the desalination project or the much-troubled Myki transport ticketing system.
“You can go back to the 1990s with Kennett and look at City Link and Fed Square, when Kennett first announced Fed Square, it was a $50 million project it ended up closer to $500 million.”
On the desalination project he says, “We said it would close between $3-$3.5 billion to build and that’s what it will cost, that’s what the contract is.”
“If you add up the sum total of operating, maintenance and water costs over the 30 year life of that project it gives you a net present value of $5.7 billion.”
He does admit cost overruns on MYKI “because the contractors didn’t deliver as they should”, but says that “MYKI is the right thing for the future of our transport system.” He goes on to “guarantee” that it will give passengers “the lowest fare” and that it will it enable the state to best plan its transport system.
He lists his government’s future projects in transport like the regional rail expresses, a $4.2 billion project that will “free up to 10,000 additional passenger movements for the metro system.”
“Then our next project is the metro tunnel which will run from Parkville right through to St Kilda Road first and then Caulfield, and will be a big tunnel straight under, linking the east with the west, the south east with west and northern systems without having to cut through the grid and go through the city and it’ll be a brilliant project.”
According to Brumby the government is spending around “$4 billion a year on public transport.” And he never fails to remind everyone, “Kennett’s day when it was under $700 million”.
“Problems and challenges and some failures” particularly during the heat-wave last year, are not glossed over, but Brumby will spend “$16 billion improving the transport system over the next four years.”
“These are numbers Victorians have never seen before and they will make a profound difference, I think, to our transport system.”
He lists some of the reasons Victorians should be voting Labor, such as; “the most generous concessions for off the plan purchases, if you buy an apartment in Victoria you’ll pay less stamp duty than anywhere else in Australia.”
The fact that pensioners downsizing from a big house to a small house will pay less stamp duty than anywhere else in Australia, and first home buyers, “will get a bigger grant from us than anywhere else in Australia.”
He adds, “I don’t have the capacity to make tax cuts of the size Mr. Baillieu has promised and they’re a hoax.”
Adding, “It’s dishonest and he won’t deliver them and he knows that.”
Brumby may be keenly aware that he does not capture the national imagination as other premiers did like his past nemesis, Jeff Kennett or the visionary South Australian Don Dunstan. But he is confident and straight forward. He is after all the teacher and the logician.
“I’m looking forward to waking up nice and early Sunday morning, getting to work and getting cracking on our agenda for the future, because I’ve got real energy and drive to get the job done.”
What Premier John Brumby is not hoping for is a tight wire result the type that allowed two seats in the regions to knock off an unbeatable Kennett in 1999. From all indications in the Victorian 2010 elections nothing is a surety.
Laura Burgoine assisted with the article