For those outside Victoria, Dan Andrews might appear to be a leader in deep trouble.
The Premier had insisted that a short, sharp lockdown would save Victoria from Sydney’s case numbers, yet Victoria’s daily figures have surpassed those seen in any other state during the pandemic, landing just shy of 2000 on Saturday.
Sydney dramatically lifts lockdown restrictions on Monday, while Victoria is weeks behind with tougher rules to stay even when the state hits its vaccination targets.
Victorian Premier Dan Andrews.Credit:Scott McNaughton
The health system appears to be crumbling under the pressure, the army has been called in to drive ambulances and hospital beds are becoming harder to source for Victoria’s most critically ill.
In a week that began with Melbourne earning the mantle as the world’s most locked-down city, many Labor MPs didn’t think it could get any worse.
Then, the government was hit with revelations an anti-corruption probe is investigating the Andrews government over its dealings with the firefighters’ union during a long-running industrial dispute.
For any other political leader, chalking up a week of scandals, which also saw him fined for not wearing a mask, would be career limiting, if not ending. Yet, Andrews, showing the Teflon-like quality for which he has become known, weathered the controversies without much mud sticking.
Support for the Labor government has dropped since the 2018 election, but it still has a healthy lead over the Coalition in the polls. That said, months and months of strict lockdown measures have made the Premier a divisive figure. Repeated surveys by Resolve Political Monitor, conducted exclusively for The Age, show Andrews is maintaining a net “likeability” rating, with slightly more Victorians expressing a positive view towards him than a negative one.
His seemingly unshakable appeal remains a mystery to even the most senior members of his cabinet who attribute it to a perfect mix of political nous, strong communication skills and a nose for sniffing the political wind. As one senior cabinet minister put it, “he can be a bastard, but he is the best I’ve seen”.
Pollsters put it down to Andrews’ unparalleled ability to speak directly to his state in a way other politicians could only aspire to. In polls, voters are divided, but in focus groups his name prompts a positive reaction more often than not. Observers say he is often described as a protector, as a pragmatist and someone who has been delivering on his policies.
While his opponents do their best to highlight his mistakes and broken promises during the pandemic, Labor’s former assistant state secretary turned pollster Kosmos Samaras believes the pandemic has only solidified the idea that he will look after Victorians.
“Prior to the pandemic it was about delivering on things that mattered to them – that was infrastructure and employment and sticking to his word,” Mr Samaras said. “During the pandemic we have seen an extension of that.”
Surviving political turmoil is nothing new for Andrews, whose time at Treasury Place has, in many ways, been defined by crisis and scandal.
First there was the so-called Red Shirts affair which saw Labor MPs investigated for using taxpayer money to help its 2014 election campaign. A high-profile industrial dispute with the United Firefighters Union then dogged the Andrews government for much of its first term.
These scandals, plus more recent allegations of branch stacking and hotel quarantine bungles, have ended the careers of some of the state’s most senior public servants and ministers, including Jane Garrett, Marlene Kairouz and Jenny Mikakos, while the Premier has survived relatively unscathed.
Even a lengthy absence from Spring Street after a nasty slip on the Mornington Peninsula, which would have left any other leader exposed to internal leadership rumblings, did little to damage Andrews’ authority over his party.
Mr Samaras believes his political rivals have focused too heavily on the minutiae of complicated political scandals such as who knew what, and when, about hotel quarantine and the intricacies of industrial disputes. He argues that such controversies give all politicians a bad name, but rarely change a vote.
In recent weeks, with reinstated leader, Matthew Guy, the Coalition has been given hope by internal polling which shows a small dip in the public’s view of Daniel Andrews.Credit:Justin McManus
Then, when the pandemic hit, he says the opposition underestimated the impact the virus had on Victorians’ psychology.
“The public have a mixed view of him. They may hate lockdowns, but they know he is in their corner and that trumps it.
“When he addressed the media, he was talking directly to 60 per cent of the public who supported the health measures even if they were fatigued by lockdowns. It was proof voters can have mixed emotions.
"He became like the footy coach, Victorians could simultaneously feel angry at him when things went wrong, but they will stick with him and defend him if necessary."
There is, of course, a divide between the ruthless and often intimidating persona he has developed on Spring Street versus the likable, down-to-earth, guardian-like characteristics which have been key to his enduring public appeal.
Inside Labor’s caucus, Andrews has a reputation as an intimidating leader who wields “unprecedented and extreme” control over his party, as one Labor MP put it. Privately, his colleagues complain that there is little appetite for unvetted questions or respect for others’ views inside caucus meetings. The pandemic seems to have exacerbated his centralised control and limited the voices he listens to.
But even colleagues who loathe him respect his skills as a politician and believe he remains Labor’s best chance of success on election day, though that view is increasingly challenged by the opposition. As one of his colleagues quipped, “The base think Dan is the bee’s knees, but some of those that are close to him view him with absolute contempt”.
His political longevity is, in no small part, linked to the fact he lacks a natural heir. Unlike Bob Hawke who was stalked by Paul Keating, or Malcolm Turnbull who took on the status of a leader-in-waiting during the Abbott years, Andrews lacks a natural successor and has so far maintained an “unflinchingly loyal cabinet”, as one colleague put it.
“None of the senior people in the cabinet are political hunters,” one cabinet minister said.
“He doesn’t have someone in there, like Gladys [Berejiklian] had, pouncing on any f—ing error, and that makes a big difference.”
For a long time, his premiership was also aided by a weak opponent in Michael O’Brien. The electorate’s faith in new Opposition Leader Matthew Guy remains to be seen, but in recent weeks the Coalition has been given hope by internal polling which shows a small dip in the public’s view of Andrews. They believe voters are worn down by seemingly endless lockdowns and rising case numbers, and that Andrew’s popularity has peaked.
There is a growing belief at Liberal headquarters that the Coalition would be better to go to the election with Andrews in charge than any of his colleagues. They believe voters haven’t turned off the government, but they are growing weary of the man leading it.
“Whoever follows Dan will be met with a sigh of relief, a fresh start,” one senior Liberal MP said. “This guy has many haters internally and if his public popularity wanes, there is a risk he goes.”
Few political leaders have evaded the consequences of crises more skilfully and with such unwavering popular support than Daniel Andrews. That is likely to remain the case until he is no longer shielded by public support, and key to that will be the Victoria that emerges on the other side of the pandemic.
It may be too early to make predictions on the nature of post-COVID politics, but with an election more than a year away campaign strategists – on both sides – are bracing for a significant shift of the political dial.
The Morning Edition newsletter is our guide to the day’s most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in Politics
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article