Bracks and Democracy


There is no doubt that after eight years of Steve Bracks’s Premiership, Victoria’s democratic institutions are in much better shape than when he came to office.

The previous Kennett Government’s massive majorities in both Houses of Victoria’s Parliament, together with a weak Opposition, gave rise to widespread concern at the state of Victorian democracy and was a key factor in Labor’s victory at the polls in 1999.

Victoria ‘s judicial system fared particularly badly. Beginning with the sacking of 11 judges from the Accident Compensation Tribunal, the Kennet Government went on to remove the Supreme Court’s ability to review numerous Government decisions, including those relating to the closure of schools, the reorganisation of local councils and hospitals and the conduct of the Grand Prix at Albert Park. In their 1994 Annual Report, the judges of the Supreme Court asserted that ‘legislation of this kind can create arbitrary power, inequality under the law and increase the risk of corruption.’ They were right.

But it wasn’t just the courts that were emasculated. Other independent office holders were either sacked, as in the case of the then Equal Opportunity Commissioner, or had their powers seriously eroded, as in the case of both the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Auditor General.

Although Opposition Parties regularly point the finger at the excesses of power committed by their opponents in Government, it is almost unheard of for them to do anything to curtail their own power when they come to office themselves. Steve Bracks changed all that.

His Government restored the powers of both the DPP and the Auditor General, entrenching their independence in Victoria’s State Constitution. He also established a new independent statutory office holder in the form of the Victorian Privacy Commissioner. All these moves increased the scrutiny to which his own Government would be subjected, and curtailed its powers.

More recently, Bracks enacted the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities. In the absence of a national Bill of Rights, the Victorian Charter the first of its kind in Australia will, over time make a lasting contribution to the development of a popular culture of human rights in Victoria and beyond.

But of all Bracks’s efforts to strengthen democratic accountability, it was the reform of Victoria’s Upper House that made the biggest contribution to reversing the State’s democratic deficit. The decision was all the more remarkable because moving to proportional representation was clearly not in Labor’s immediate political interests.

The change almost certainly ensures that no Victorian Government will again enjoy a majority in the Upper House. There is no greater accountability mechanism on Government than an elected body charged with the task of scrutinising the actions and legislative program of the Government of the day.

When Labor finds itself back in Opposition it will be thankful for the opportunities that a more diverse and democratic chamber affords it.  Together with the decision to introduce fixed four-year terms for both Houses of Parliament, the reform of the Upper House clearly demonstrates Steve Bracks’s regard for the rule of law and his sense of the importance of democratic accountability.

There are no doubt plenty of decisions that many Victorians disagree with Bracks and his Government on. But there is no doubt that all Victorians today have more and better ways in which they can participate in and review the Government’s decision making.

Bracks leaves office having restored faith in the Victorian Government’s capacity to govern fairly, honestly and transparently, which, together with strong democratic institutions able to act as checks and balances on Executive power, will be as important to Victoria’s new Premier as the strength of the State’s economy.

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