What do we know of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews?
Having overseen the most disastrous flare-up of the virus in Australia and having responded with one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the world, he has been a near-permanent fixture in the national media, in ways a state premier has rarely been.
It took an extremely specific set of historical circumstances for Andrews, an unusually colourless machine politician, to inspire the level of love and loathing that he now does.
Andrews is a political lifer, a “party apparatchik from central casting”. He worked as a staffer for Federal Labor MP Alan Griffin (Griffin’s “brains and bagman” according to an insider at the time) from 1996 to 1999 before eventually taking over as assistant secretary for the Victorian Labor party, and then working his way up the parliamentary wing.
The times have suited him.
He was seen as a stop-gap leader by some within the party, likely to be ousted and replaced with Frank McGuire. Yet, the ongoing collapse of the Victorian Liberal party as an organised political force — from the issues that beset the Napthine and Ballieu administrations, to the racially charged gaffe factory of Mathew Guy to … whatever the hell the party is trying at the moment — has meant there has never been viable opposition in his premiership.
He has lead a competent administration — don’t take my word for it, just ask Michael Kroger — and he’s a more astute communicator than he gets credit for, able to skillfully signal the various sensibilities of different voting blocks.
Indeed, his hardline approach, the grim determination to stay in lockdown until the virus is eliminated, and the restrictive and at times brutally-policed response is in keeping with Andrews approach — at times parody-level left-wing touchy-feeliness in rhetoric and fairly hard right in execution.
So it has gone with lock down — we’re all in this together, we are told, while the police surround tower blocks filled with migrants, pregnant women are handcuffed over a Facebook post and mobile surveillance units circle public parks.
Therein, of course, lies a big political risk.
University of Canberra associate professor Dr Michael Jensen, who specialises in political communication, told Crikey that this approach could breed greater discontent and spark more widespread protests.
“It might lead people who are otherwise happy to participate in the lockdowns say, ‘look, I don’t agree with the way this policy is being executed, so I might go out and protest it, because even if it’s a good idea, we are risking our democratic rights’,” Jenson said.
Over time it could also undermine Andrews’ credibility, Jensen said, and “that’s where you start to run into problems”.
“Most people don’t like being told what to do, especially when it comes to freedoms that they take for granted,” he said.
But Australian political historian Frank Bongiorno thinks the electorate’s lust for freedom above all else might be overstated
“Australians are much more obedient than they’re given credit for. We like to think ourselves as anti-authoritarian and easy-going,” he said. “Maybe, but when democratically-elected governments are able to make a reasonable case that liberties need to be temporarily curtailed for the common good, we’ve generally given them the nod.”
Bongiorno points to the labour movement as the exception — say in World War I, when the union movement organised in opposition to conscription. But again, the fragmented times suit Andrews.
“There is no social movement in Australian society today with the will or capability of running such a campaign,” he said. “Hence opposition has been a minority taste, even when encouraged by conservative sections of the media and political class.”
The war analogy is a suggestive one.
Andrews has played the grim, unflagging wartime leader, stepping to the lectern, day after day after day to recount the death tolls, missing family time, heedless of the incessant drubbing he takes in the conservative media.
As ever, it plays equal parts calculated and sincere.
“Dan Andrews is in that rare position that he must do what he believes to be right, irrespective of the bile that is poured on him,” veteran political strategist Toby Ralph told Crikey, adding that “Andrews looks utterly shagged out, and thoroughly miserable”.
“His responsibility is larger than political consequences, and his stoic slouch at the daily press conference shows how it wears him down,” he said.
Ralph believes the electorate has not yet comprehensively turned on Andrews: “The vast majority of both medical professionals and the public acknowledge he’s doing the right thing, and begrudgingly accept it.”
“The best comparison is the Curtin government in World War II which imposed significant controls which some saw as heavy-handed — over censorship, for instance,” Bongiorno said.
“But people accepted them overall, even while having qualms, and democracy kept the government accountable in the end, as it will this one.”
Andrews has been lucky and unlucky to have been raised to levels of dictator and messiah by unprecented times which may, ultimately, finish him off.
Despite a largely understanding electorate, Ralph said: “Politically I suspect he’s toast. He’s the messenger, and likely to get shot. Even Churchill was tossed out of office after the war, because people wanted to forget and move on.”