Daniel Andrews: Victoria’s dictator, or just a wildly popular, unstoppable political force? | Gay Alcorn | Australia news
To listen to the more vociferous critics of Daniel Andrews – confined mostly to the Murdoch media and a rogue Victorian Liberal MP – he is a dictator revelling in his power, with “a disturbing streak of authoritarianism”, a premier who wildly exaggerated the risk of Covid-19 and is now deliberately hampering the economic recovery.
It’s nonsense and wouldn’t matter much except that now is a moment when trust in governments – at dangerously low levels pre-pandemic – has tentatively revived. Who would have thought it? Citizens like governments to work through issues using evidence, to be honest about the complexity of challenges, to protect the health and wellbeing of their people. They even like governments of different political hues working together if possible. They loathe transparent point-scoring, and they will forgive inevitable mistakes.
The sniping against Andrews defies reason. Australia’s health response to the global pandemic has been superb to date, for whatever combination of factors including geography, early social distancing restrictions, the national cabinet process and brave public health advice. The economic recovery will be slow, painful and complicated, and most likely less edifying.
These past few months were a moment when the Australian states and territories – under-scrutinised and undervalued compared with the federal sphere – have asserted their importance to the federation. State governments of both major parties have performed slightly differently, but exceptionally well by any international comparison. We have had 101 Covid-19 deaths to date. Four people have died per 1 million people in Australia, compared with 597 in Spain, 537 in the UK, and 285 in the US. It’s a stunning achievement.
Andrews is the most experienced of the premiers and has grown in his 10 years as Labor leader, six as premier. He and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian lead the biggest and most powerful states, which between them have had the largest numbers of coronavirus cases, with 48 deaths in NSW and 18 in Victoria to date.
The times, as Monash University’s associate professor Paul Strangio points out, play to Andrews’ strengths and style, with the crushing victory in the 2018 state election empowering him further. “He’s always been prepared to take leadership risks on the calculation that the public prefers decisiveness and assertiveness, rather than vacillation,” Strangio says.
‘Not a popularity contest’
Victoria was the most firm among the states in insisting on early shutdowns in March and has been most cautious in reopening its society and economy. It is Victoria, too, that has asserted its independence over its economic relationship with China.
After Scott Morrison detailed the national cabinet’s three-stage roadmap for lifting coronavirus restrictions on 8 May – emphasising that the timing would be at the states’ discretion – it was Andrews who held firm that no Victorian could visit their mother on Mother’s Day. The state’s announcement on loosening restrictions would not happen until the following week, after a testing blitz could be analysed.
Andrews did begin lifting restrictions, but they remain the tightest in the country. For now, Victorians cannot stay overnight at the home of family or friends – in every other state, this is allowed. Unlike other states, cafes and restaurants in Victoria are still unable to seat diners, but from next month, they can host up to 20 patrons at a time indoors and, all going well, that will increase as weeks go by. Victoria has been more cautious about students attending school – some years return on Monday, with all students back by 9 June.
But these are differences of timing, not substance, and Andrews has explained them this way. He has listened to the advice of the state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, and this has been slightly different to national advice. There’s no perfect answer to how to handle this virus, no one set of modelling that sets a roadmap. “This is not a popularity contest; it’s a pandemic and we’ve got to make good logical decisions, and that’s what I’ve tried to do,” he told ABC radio this week. He’s exercised sound judgment “in a Victorian way – slow steady cautious”. Opening up needs to be done “properly and once”.
The quibbling so far is having no impact on Andrews’ popularity, which will inevitably come under greater pressure as the full economic impact becomes clear. People often rally around a leader at a time of crisis, and all state leaders, as well as Morrison, have seen their support soar.
An Essential poll last week showed 71% of Victorians rated their government’s performance as good or very good.
‘Sticking to his guns’
Kosmos Samaras served as Victorian Labor’s deputy campaign director for 14 years until 2019, and now heads RedBridge, a political consultancy. Since March, the company has conducted detailed focus groups around the Covid-19 response, predominantly in Victoria (Samaras says the company has no political or corporate clients for this work).
The pressure from some commentators to reopen quickly is not supported by the majority of voters, especially those in outer suburbs and regional areas. Samaras says that those now on jobkeeper or jobseeker are also cautious.
“They understand that if the lockdown is lifted too early or too quickly, we could endure another lockdown and they can’t afford that.”
Morrison’s performance is highly praised, but Andrews stands out. “Participants from across the political spectrum are praising his actions,” the March report found. “He is consistently described as ‘transparent’, ‘forthright’, ‘proactive”, ‘compassionate’ and ‘assertive’ on behalf of Victorians.”
The report of 6 May found Victorians were “still firmly in favour of a ‘very careful’, ‘slow and safe’ ending to the lockdown”.
“Those arguing against it are largely seen as pushing personal agendas (selfishness) or being motivated by the wrong things (money). This represents a serious values disconnect with voters.
“Andrews’ positive image is only reinforced when others put pressure on him to end the lockdown – he’s doing the right thing and sticking to his guns with it.”
On China, voters are not interested in the “blame game” but they are worried about Australia’s “over-dependence” on other countries. They want a more self-sufficient Australia, one that “goes back to building and making things here”.
All of which makes the job of an opposition leader tough. Michael O’Brien, a former treasurer, is considered a measured moderate, and became leader of the Liberal party after the devastating election loss of 2018. The party did not expect to win that election, but the 6% swing against them – especially the desertion of small-l liberal voters in its Melbourne heartland – highlighted an identity crisis that still persists. The level of personal animosity within the party administration, says one senior Liberal, means “the Victorian division is regarded as the most dysfunctional” in the country.
The party’s state conference has been postponed due to the pandemic, and with it, as former ABC presenter Jon Faine wrote recently, “the deferral of a reckoning” with moderates keen to reduce the influence of rightwing religious activists.
Federally, the looming vacancy created by Senate president Scott Ryan’s retirement is a test of that, as is a bitter battle over the seat of Menzies, where rightwing veteran Kevin Andrews is resisting pressure to retire.
O’Brien is doing what he can, putting forward policy proposals to help Victoria’s recovery, including exempting small and medium businesses from payroll tax. The government deserves to be scrutinised on many fronts, including the lack of independent oversight over billions in spending, and the $24.5bn in new borrowing the government is proposing, which will more than triple state debt.
“If we just see budget black holes being filled and paying recurrent expenses like public service wages out of borrowed money, that is the road to economic ruin,’’ O’Brien told the Age recently.
Victoria’s engagement with China over its Belt and Road initiative – against national policy – and the suggestion of state treasurer Tim Pallas that Canberra had vilified China by pursuing an independent coronavirus inquiry, has raised eyebrows even among senior Labor figures.
Yet O’Brien’s efforts have been undermined from within. Shadow planning minister Tim Smith, a master of self-promotion, has been tweeting away for months, first demanding the resignation of a senior health official for her tweet comparing the coronavirus with Captain Cook’s arrival, and then indulging in almost daily sprays against Andrews. O’Brien had had enough when Smith called the premier “loony”.
Smith is close to the most senior Victorian federal Liberal, treasurer Josh Frydenberg, and no doubt has leadership ambitions, premature for now. He is loud and aggressive but not one-dimensional; he called for social commentator Bettina Arndt to have her Australia Day award cancelled following her comments after the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children.
Yet many Liberals are frustrated with Smith’s antics, designed for maximum media coverage.
Strangio has some sympathy with the opposition’s dilemma. Score points and you’ll turn voters off. Stay quiet and you’ll allow Andrews to continue his dominance. “Andrews has now reached a point of such supremacy in the political landscape, they can’t just keep on keeping the gloves off.”
Andrews doesn’t have to do much to swat away the Liberals for now. Smith posted a silly Twitter poll a few days ago, asking whether Andrews should be called “Chairman” or “Dictator”.
Asked about it, Andrews said: “I don’t comment on people who are fundamentally irrelevant to the work that I do.”