Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

Three years ago Daniel Andrews took on the Catholic Church and won. His push for voluntary assisted dying laws seemed to go against every rule in politics — and yet the long feared electoral backlash never happened. 

Indeed the Victorian premier’s popularity increased, despite the huffing and puffing of the church in cahoots with the Murdoch media (which still haven’t forgiven him).

Now Andrews is doing it again — he introduced a bill passed by the lower house yesterday to ban gay conversion “therapy” even amid warnings it will put him on a collision course with the religious right and church groups across the country. 

Andrews’ willingness to take on the church has become a significant part of his image as a modern progressive politician. Yet his pursuit of secular policies sets him apart from his generation of political leaders, and signifies a radical shift from Labor’s Catholic roots. 

In some cases his stance has been unavoidable — Victoria has become the site of some of the worst horrors uncovered by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

But at other times his motivation has seemed more targeted and deliberate, revealing a determination to tackle some of the most toxic elements of his own religion, and build a legacy around good secular policy.

Whether the wave of social reform in Victoria under Andrews reflects his government’s agenda or the expectations of a progressive electorate is hard to say. But on every occasion it has scored him political points, driving up his popularity and dividing his conservative opponents.

So how has Andrews defied the church? And what does it say about him as a politician, and the diminishing power of the church in his state? 

Mandatory reporting for priests

Andrews butted heads with the Catholic Church last year when it introduced laws that would make it mandatory for priests and church workers to report child abuse — even if it compelled them to break the seal of confession. 

Melbourne’s Archbishop Peter Comensoli said he would rather go to jail than break the confessional seal. Even Melbourne’s most beloved progressive priest, Father Bob Maguire, expressed concern: “They’ll have to get the prisons ready.”

Andrews was defiant, saying the bill was intended to send a message all the way to the top of the Catholic Church in Rome.

“I’ve made it very clear that the law of our state is written by the Parliament of Victoria” he said. “It’s not made in Rome.”

Support for sexual abuse victims

Andrews showed his support for sexual abuse victims after Cardinal George Pell was acquitted of abusing two choir boys in April.

“I see you. I hear you. I believe you,” he said. 

The Australian said the statement showed Andrews had “made it clear his sympathies did not lie with the 78-year-old man seven High Court judges found had been wrongfully imprisoned by Victoria for more than 400 days”. 

But Andrews said Catholics like himself needed to “face up” to the fact that there are people, some of whom are “free men”, who “moved predators around working-class parishes for decades, and others who knew that it was going on and actually facilitated it”.

He also wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison asking him to release secret sections of a report on the historical conduct of Pell.

Yes’ vote

Andrews campaigned in support of the “yes” vote during the same-sex marriage plebiscite in 2017 — despite his opposition to the survey. He framed his support as a vote on equality: “Love is love, fair is fair, and equality is not negotiable.” 

Of course it paid off. The state’s “yes” vote of 65% was the highest in the country, and more than 3% above the national average.

Andrews also committed $500,000 for LGBTIQ counselling and support services during the vote. 

Safe Schools

The Safe Schools program was another battleground where the church and the Murdoch press united to take down Andrews — and failed.

He stood by the program after a chorus of conservative federal government backbenchers led the Turnbull government’s revolt against it.

Andrews withstood a religious blowback from Murdoch media, with The Australian campaigning on it day after day.

He also stood up to intense lobbying by the Australian Christian Lobby which claimed the program — which offers professional development for teachers to support LGBTIQ students — had the potential to “increase gender confusion in young people”.

Gay conversion ‘therapy’ 

The government vowed years ago to take a “zero-tolerance approach” to anyone attempting to treat homosexuality as a disorder that can be “fixed” through medical or therapeutic means. 

After a bill banning the practice was introduced to parliament this week, church leaders claimed the law was the biggest threat to religious freedom in years.

Comensoli said the ban went too far. “Who I pray to, how I pray, what I pray for, and most particularly who I pray with is not of concern to any government,” he told The Age. The Australian Christian Lobby said the bill was “built on lies”. 

But Andrews called the practice “bigoted quackery” that has “no place in this state”.

The ban has divided the Liberal opposition, with an internal tussle breaking out between frontbench MP Tim Smith and religious hardliner Karina Okotel.

Voluntary assisted dying

Even Andrews’ Deputy Premier James Merlino was not willing to vote in favour of a law that would give terminally ill people the right to end their life. 

Andrews strongly supported the legislation, saying he had been pushed to change his mind after his father’s death.

The bill passed in 2017, and with 85% of voters in favour the premier was proved to be on the right side of history.