Daniel Andrews will be remembered as a titan of politics who bent Victoria to his will

Renowned sculptor Peter Corlett, creator of the marvellously evocative statues of Victoria’s longest serving premiers, can start sharpening his chisel. This month, Daniel Andrews will qualify for immortalisation in bronze by hitting 3000 days in office. He will join John Cain jnr, Rupert Hamer, Henry Bolte and Albert Dunstan in the select grouping of premiers (four at present out of 48) who form the truncated avenue of political honour in the forecourt of 1 Treasury Place.

Thereafter, the milestones come thick and fast for Andrews. In April he will eclipse Cain’s record as the longest-serving Labor premier in the state’s history. Then, if as he has vowed, he stays a full term, he will progressively leapfrog Hamer, James McCulloch (who qualifies for a statue but anomalously has missed out) and Dunstan, to become Victoria’s second-longest-serving premier behind the Liberal postwar colossus, Bolte.

Credit:Matt Davidson

Longevity of office isn’t everything. But combined with his record of activism in government, Andrews will undoubtedly be remembered as a titan of Victorian politics.

His reign has been momentous in several ways. Most obvious is his electoral genius. He won office at his first attempt in 2014, defeating Denis Napthine’s Coalition government: the first single-term administration for 60 years in Victorian politics. Andrews has followed with two landslide victories, in 2018 and 2022. He has joined Cain and Steve Bracks, two other modern three-time election-winning Labor premiers, in making the ALP the state’s natural party of government.

Then there is what Andrews has done with power. Since gaining office in 2014 he has bent the state to his will. A leader who understands power and relishes its exercise, he is the most significant reformist premier since Cain. Andrews’ legacy is everywhere to be seen, with his government radically remaking Victoria’s physical infrastructure. Not shy of accumulating mountains of debt, it has embarked upon a suite of gargantuan transport projects that will shape the lives of the state’s citizens for decades to come.

The Andrews government also has a record of adventurism in social policy. For example, establishing the state’s first drug-injecting room, strongly supporting the Safe Schools program, legislating protection zones around abortion clinics, decriminalising sex work, and banning LGBTIQ+ conversion practices.

Daniel Andrews (right) is set to eclipse in April John Cain’s record as the longest-serving Labor premier in the state’s history.Credit:Aresna Villanueva

Andrews is a premier of national consequence. He routinely proclaims Victoria the most progressive state in Australia, and in at least two areas his government has been a trailblazer nationally. After John Howard’s federal Coalition government overturned the Northern Territory’s short-lived euthanasia laws in 1997, the issue languished throughout Australia. In 2017, however, the Andrews government became a pioneer of voluntary assisted dying laws among the states. It is a measure now emulated in every state.

Under Andrews’ leadership, Victoria has also been in the nation’s vanguard by embarking on an elaborate process for concluding a treaty with the state’s Indigenous communities: a process launched against the background of the federal Coalition government’s spurning of proposals contained in the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart by First Nations Australians for a treaty and truth-telling commission.

A further striking feature of Andrews’ premiership, as well as an indicator of his effectiveness as a progressive reformer, is how much he has incensed conservatives. Last November’s state election campaign exemplified this. In Herald Sun columns and on Sky News, right-wing warriors denounced him in the most extravagant of terms.

What especially infuriated and bewildered them was Andrews’ enduring electoral popularity. They concocted various explanations for it, including that Victorians had succumbed to a form of Stockholm syndrome, or in even more sinister plot lines they imagined Andrews as a kind of local version of Kim Jong-un, a supreme leader grown untouchable.

Supporters of Victoria’s first safe-injecting room rally in Richmond in 2017.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Putting aside such fanciful theories, there has been a democratic deficit to Andrews’ premiership. He is a classic strong leader, domineering and controlling. He is chary of scrutiny and gives little truck to critics. He has railroaded through controversies such as the “red shirts” affair and the hotel quarantine fiasco that might have proved fatal to a mere political mortal. He equates leadership with making tough, sometimes unpopular decisions. Consultation and compromise are to him secondary. The longer he has been in office his supremacy over the state and his government have grown.

Leader for a remarkable 12 years, Andrews dwarfs the Victorian Labor Party. It was memorably remarked of Robert Menzies in relation to the Liberal Party that he was the banyan tree under which nothing would grow. Victorian Labor might face a similar predicament once Andrews retires.

The centralisation of authority under Andrews has been reinforced by the dense advisory machine around him. The premier’s private office is reportedly some four times bigger than it was before he took over the reins at Spring Street. Stacked with Andrews loyalists, its activities rather than promoting good governance are arguably an obstacle to accountability.

Nor is everything progressive in Andrews’ Victoria. Labor’s law and order agenda has had a punitive edge. An instance spotlighted by the shameful circumstances of the death of Veronica Nelson is that discriminatory bail laws have contributed to Indigenous Australians being incarcerated in disproportionate numbers.

Sir Robert Menzies’ daughter Heather Henderson and Peter Corlett with the artist’s Menzies sculpture in Commonwealth Park, Canberra.Credit:Richard Briggs

In an environment in which Victoria has virtually become a one-party government state (such is the ALP’s ascendancy and the Liberals’ weakness) a change in Labor leader and premier may indeed be welcome before too long. It would have the benefit of disturbing the power relations that centre upon Andrews. The strong likelihood is that Andrews will, in fact, relinquish the premiership no later than the middle of this term, handing over to his chosen successor, Jacinta Allan. It will be a final act of control of a political force of nature.

Paul Strangio is a professor of politics at Monash University.

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