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It is perhaps fitting that arguably the most consequential premier in Victoria’s history was derided as uncharismatic and unimpressive when he became Labor leader after the Brumby government’s defeat at the 2010 election.
Daniel Andrews continues to surprise, 13 years later.
This time the surprise for Victorians was that Andrews had resigned after promising before the last election to see out the full term of government. He continued repeating that commitment until as recently as August.
Daniel Andrews’ demeanour assured people there was a steady hand at the tiller.Credit: Marija Ercegovac
His responses to that question were always believable because they were laced with his unique brand of certainty. Many Victorians found that certainty, perhaps arrogance, assuring in the lowest moments of the pandemic; others found it condescending and authoritarian.
But Andrews announced his resignation on Tuesday with the sure-footedness of a man who had mastered his art. A surprise for those who in 2010 derided him as someone who, as Tony Wright puts it in his look at Andrews’ place in the state’s history, had all the charisma of a suburban accountant.
Master or accountant, Andrews’ demeanour assured people there was a steady hand at the tiller in Victoria, even if they didn’t agree with the direction of the ship. Lately, that ship has come dangerously close to the reefs of budget distress, integrity failings and the international embarrassment of a bungled Commonwealth Games.
Andrews makes his announcement on Tuesday. Credit: Jason South
It is important to acknowledge those failings, but it would be unfair to judge Andrews’ entire 13 years in office by only the year since the most recent election, a year which he has spent removing some of those barnacles from the boat.
For many, the enduring image of this premier will be that of a broad-faced man with a Cheshire grin, a snug-fitting high-vis jacket and white hard hat ogling diggers and admiring tunnel borers. He wanted to be the builder-premier – and for the vast majority of his time in charge, he was. He lived up to his “say what you do and do what you say” mantra.
His focus on this task made “level crossing removal” the three sexiest words in Australian politics during the middle years of the last decade, despite Melbourne being brought to a standstill at times by the enormous scale of the work taking place at some of the city’s most frustrating road-rail intersections.
Although the brakes have been applied to plans to improve rail services to regional cities and Tullamarine Airport, the Metro Tunnel, West Gate Tunnel and North East Link will have a profound effect on Melbourne when they are completed.
The impact on the state budget of so many major projects, however, has also been profound. With the worst credit rating of any state in the country and a climbing debt bill, children not yet of voting age who will pay for these projects may not share this fondness for the ambitious building regime. They may also look back despairingly at last week’s missed opportunity for meaningful measures to address housing affordability in the midst of a housing crisis.
As a COVID premier, there were none more divisive than Andrews. He became known as the lockdown premier and oversaw the toughest containment regime in the country, as well as some of the largest institutional failings. The bungling of the state’s hotel quarantine regime and ring-fencing of public housing towers should be recorded in textbooks and distributed to incoming public servants and politicians as examples of government folly.
But in spite of those mistakes, Andrews kept turning up and speaking directly to Victorians. For 120 days running, he told us how many had died, how many had been infected. We listened closely to every word. His appearances replaced our shared experiences at a time when a cup of tea with the neighbours or a trip to the park was outlawed. Even as protesters began wielding violent imagery of Andrews, wishing him ill as they blamed him for their pain, he remained unflappable and showed resolve when making unenviable decisions in defiance of the angry, increasingly desperate mob.
The Age accepts that difficult decisions were made during that time with the right intentions by a government attempting to navigate a cataclysmic event not experienced in living memory. It also repeats calls made in recent days for a full and thorough investigation of the decisions made by the premier and others during that time. Only then can we know for sure whether the decisions our leaders took were appropriate, or disproportionate.
Another surprise, given he introduced curbs on freedom that would make a dictator blush, was that support for the Andrews government remained indomitable throughout his time in office and post-lockdown. He has been politically blessed now for many years by a state opposition afflicted by infighting and bereft of purpose.
Andrews’ political dominance cannot be attributed to that fact alone. Indeed much of the Coalition’s floundering has been caused by Andrews’ ability to outmanoeuvre them at every turn.
When considering Andrews’ legacy, many will attempt to place him in one of two categories – excellent or terrible – based on their world view. But even the most strident critic can surely find cause for admiration in the feats of such an influential and dominant premier.
The Age does not believe this complex character is so easily categorised. There are issues on which he deserves to be lauded and those for which he may never be forgiven.
But when considering whether the time was right for him to leave, The Age cannot look past the increasingly troubling record of the Andrews government on issues of integrity in government. For years now, The Age has championed transparency and accountability. And for years we have been disappointed on behalf of Victorians. We have seen corruption reports dismissed as “educational,” political activity being carried out by taxpayer-funded staff, politicisation of the public service, delays in apologies to the families of dead people signed up to Labor branches and apparent contempt and hostility for any criticism of the government’s actions.
The Age has previously described the premier’s response to allegations of soft corruption raised by the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission and the Ombudsman as deceptive, and the “nothing to see here” approach as a “magician’s trick”.
This masthead does not doubt that the prosperity of Victoria was the primary consideration in most of the decisions Andrews made as premier. His response to issues of integrity in government, however, was difficult to excuse. Indeed his final act was to go back on the commitment he had made to serve out this term of government.
To answer the question he often asked of reporters before a press conference: “Are we right to go?”
Yes, he is.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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