How the man with the charisma of a suburban accountant became Victoria’s most consequential premier

By Tony Wright

Daniel Andrews has surpassed Jeff Kennett as Victoria’s most influential premier.Credit: Marija Ercegovac

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Daniel Andrews seemed a bit of a nerd: a big stooped figure squinting through Coke-bottle spectacles and, in an unlikely shot at cool, a leather jacket, as he trawled inner-city Melbourne in quest of votes during the state election campaign of 2014.

Dan, as he was called those days, was quietly derided as having all the charisma of a suburban accountant.

And yet, he won that election, and the one after and the one after that, increasing the Labor Party’s hold on power in Victoria every time.

On the way, Daniel Andrews transformed into the most consequential premier in Victoria’s history, consigning the once powerful Liberal-National Coalition to a near irrelevance writhing in seemingly endless internal agony. What might be meant by consequential, however, is subjective.

Daniel Andrews on the campaign trail in 2014.Credit: Arsineh Houspian

Jeff Kennett, of course, who brought central Melbourne back from the dead in the 1990s, would blow a fuse to be judged less consequential than Andrews. Truth is, though, Kennett lost government, handing the state to the Labor Party for all but the two brief and fraught administrations – of Ted Baillieu and Dennis Napthine, lasting a grand total of four years – in the 24 years since.

You’d also be hard-pressed to explain such a verdict about Andrews to furious conservatives across the land who can barely utter the man’s name, either.

Murdoch media commentators who dubbed him “Dictator Dan” would not concede it, nor the many observers from beyond Victoria’s borders who still look in disbelief at Andrews’ electoral record and often end up trying to explain it by patronising Victorian voters, accusing them of suffering Stockholm Syndrome.

A pandemic premier

The truth about Andrews’ influence, however, extends well beyond Victoria’s borders.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he became a force to be reckoned with in the national cabinet, leading other state premiers to wrest much control of the emergency from the prime minister of the time, Scott Morrison, and in many ways, to redefine Australian federalism.

Premier Daniel Andrews and former prime minister Scott Morrison at national cabinet in December 2020.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

The states gained a pre-eminence long denied them by powerful Commonwealth governments largely because Andrews formed an alliance with the then NSW Liberal Premier Gladys Berejiklian to stare down a reluctant Morrison over closing schools and other tough measures to try to limit the spread of COVID.

Across the country, then West Australian Labor premier Mark McGowan was so enthused by the shift in power championed by Andrews, he closed his state to the world, becoming the most popular premier in the nation and reducing Liberal representation to a risible two MPs in the state’s lower house.

Meanwhile, Andrews copped vicious media and political criticism for presiding over the longest period of lockdowns during the pandemic, for imposing a curfew, and for leading a state that suffered the worst death toll after his government chose to isolate arrivals in hotels that had inadequate private security, rather than military or police arrangements.

Through the depths of it all, Andrews stood every day for 120 days answering questions from often carping reporters, speaking directly to the cameras to explain the latest horror – the death toll, the hospitalisations, the numbers in ICU and all the rest. No other Australian leader could boast such a marathon of press conferences; not even in time of war.

Andrews held daily press conferences during the pandemic.Credit: Eddie Jim

The public marked him up for that effort, despite the jeers from the growing anti-lockdown, anti-vaxxer and anti-authoritarian crowds.

In Victoria, his satisfaction rating never dropped during the pandemic period below 50 per cent across Essential, Roy Morgan and Newspoll polling.

In mid-2021, the media monitoring and research company Isentia found that when news organisations reported on Andrews’ handling of Covid-19, 75 per cent of coverage was negative and 29 per cent openly damned him as incompetent.

But when the wider Australian public was asked what they thought of Andrews’ leadership, 42 per cent said he’d been a good leader.

He is, in short, bewildering to behold.

Highs and lows

Raised as a Catholic, he led a determinedly socially progressive government to the point of personally rejecting church positions on abortion, and he stood firm in his support for safe injecting rooms and marriage equality.

His government also became the first to establish a truth-telling commission – the Yoorrook Justice Commission – to invite Indigenous people to tell the stories of the injustices they and their families have experienced since colonisation. The process is expected to lead to Australia’s first treaties being negotiated with Indigenous groups.

Law and order, however, became a black mark on Andrews’ progressive reputation.

Victoria’s vast expenditure on police and prisons, with consequent high rates of incarceration of Indigenous people, grew at twice the rate of other states over the last decade, putting it well beyond even NSW, which has significantly greater area and population.

This is hardly accidental. The Kennett government cut spending on police, and suffered such a backlash it became an important factor in its shock loss in 1999.

Andrews, first and foremost, is a political animal, a keen student of political history and a determination not to reproduce such pitfalls.

The major physical consequences of his premiership, however, have yet to be fully determined.

His Big Build of road and rail, both proposed and actually undertaken – the North East Link, the West Gate Tunnel, the Suburban Rail Loop, the Melbourne Airport Link, regional rail upgrades and another 60 level crossing removals on top of the 50 already completed – added up to the most extensive infrastructure program in Victoria’s history, apart, perhaps, from the spurt of rail, road and city building following the Gold Rush of the 1850s.

It may be that Victorians will be able to look back and wonder how Melbourne in particular could have coped without the Andrews Big Build”.

They may also look aghast at the immense and lasting economic cost to the state, however, and to some projects never completed.

So immense was the cost that the long-awaited airport link – and its flow-on to hard-pressed and under-serviced new western suburbs – has been put on ice, and whether the fast train to Geelong ever gets going is anyone’s guess.

Indeed, Andrews leaves Victoria with the highest debt in proportional terms of all the states. It sat at $104.2 billion in April 2023 – equivalent to 18.2 per cent of the state economy.

His decision to cancel Victoria’s promised hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2026 caused howls of outrage from the opposition and critics from the sporting sector, but he simply declared the cost blowout, from around $2.5 billion to more than $6 billion, would have been intolerable. The details remain cloudy.

Level crossing removals have been one of the legacies of the Andrews government.Credit: AAP

His stubborn refusal to heed virtually any criticism, or to simply ride out controversy, led Andrews to become, in February 2023, one of the few premiers to serve 3000 days in office, making him eligible to be memorialised in a bronze statue outside his office at 1 Treasury Place after he leaves office. Ironically, the statues for long servers was an idea that came from Jeff Kennett, who ended up not making the required 3000 days himself.

Andrews purports not to care about being cast in bronze.

In a Good Weekend interview with Melissa Fyfe in mid-2020, he spoke instead of what he deemed a finer legacy: a shiny new sky rail at Noble Park, where a level crossing had been replaced, allowing traffic to flow freely.

It was, he said, an important statue, “not to one person, but to thousands of workers who were given the opportunity, because I lead a government that gets things done to fundamentally change a community. That’s the best sort of statue I can think of.”

It was a cute line, but apt enough for a premier who publicly prided himself with the mantra that “we say what we do, and we do what we say we’re going to do.”

It is the sort of approach that allowed him – for most of his tenure – to skate relatively unscathed through investigations that cast doubt over his regard for transparency and accountability, his dealings with certain unions and the use of public money to fund the so-called red shirt staffers during that winning election campaign back in 2014.

He is, however, far from the longest-serving Victorian premier.

That record is held – and probably always will be – by Henry Bolte, the pugnacious and canny Liberal farmer who was premier for more than 17 consecutive years from 1955 to 1972.

Bolte’s reign was made possible by the Labor Party split, which produced the Democratic Labor Party that sent its preferences to the Liberals, preventing the ALP from winning power. Bolte turned luck into populist fortune, attacking trade unions, intellectuals, protesters and the media, and eventually ensuring that Pentridge escapee Ronald Ryan was hanged.

Andrews could be seen as surfing political fortune, too. The Liberal-Nationals opposition fought among themselves right through his period as premier, brought down a succession of their own leaders and split into warring factions as right-wing evangelicals sought to control branches.

The alternative reality is that Andrews’ iron determination to maintain discipline within his own party while repeating the mantra about “doing what we say we’ll do” – while actually building useful infrastructure (and staring down critics when he broke big-spending promises in the latter years) drove the conservatives to such despair that he leaves a Labor Party that seems likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Rather more than a man with the presence of a suburban accountant, then. Or a nerd.

Instead, Daniel Andrews leaves behind what can only be called the very definition of a politically consequential career.


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