Andrews is in the third-term death zone, and the cracks are showing
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Here’s something Daniel Andrews and his ministers, squeezed by ever-tighter budgetary constraints and naturally shopworn by the wear and tear of holding office, might want to bear in mind: for Victorian governments in the modern era, the third term has been the death zone.
In the past 50 years, three premiers – Sir Rupert Hamer, John Cain and Steve Bracks – led their parties to three successive election wins. None stayed on to secure a fourth term: Hamer and Cain were forced to step down by a loss of party room support and Bracks resigned for personal reasons. Their governments all fell within two years of their successors taking over.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.Credit: Gus McCubbing
Of course, it’s still early days in the third term of the Andrews government. But the history shouldn’t be ignored: after the third win, governments have either unravelled or gone off the boil and then shuffled off to their doom. Andrews before last year’s election promised to stay for the full four years of this term if the government was re-elected.
Was he fair dinkum? A lot of his colleagues expect him to walk mid-term and hand over to his deputy, Jacinta Allan. Recent talk in the party has focused on the prospect of Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas as Allan’s deputy. Andrews, Allan and Thomas all hail from the Socialist Left faction. Lest any readers feel the need to reach for the smelling salts at the further prospect of all these radicals turning Victoria into Cuba, my suggestion is not to bother.
The Labor Party’s factional system used to be structured around ideological and philosophical differences within the party, but it is now chiefly an array of trading blocs. True, the Socialist Left is the biggest faction, but what does the socialist tag even mean these days? In the wake of the state election, seven disaffected right-wing MPs, most notably the Treasurer Tim Pallas, went in search of a new factional home. They switched to the Socialist Left, further bolstering its caucus numbers.
So far, no evidence has emerged that they had to visit a re-education camp and then face a test of the correctness of their views in order to join. In response, the Right has made a new power-sharing arrangement with a small group of left-wing unions, including the most militant of them all, the CFMEU. Today’s factions exist to transact internal power, not to reflect belief.
Treasurer Tim Pallas has switched to the Socialist Left faction.Credit: Nine
Presiding over it all is the premier. By now, it seems fitting to describe him as all-conquering. With caveats. Labor’s election win last November was remarkable in many ways for a government that was eight years old. The ALP attracted a two-party preferred vote of 55 per cent and increased its total haul of lower house seats by one, from 55 to 56 – in an 88-seat chamber.
But the result should be kept in perspective. Labor’s primary vote was 36.6 per cent, more than 6 per cent lower than in 2018. After preferences, the anti-Labor swing was 2.3 per cent. That is not a blip. And the Coalition and the Greens both boosted their net numbers in the lower house by one seat each too.
Winners are grinners, but there was an ominous element for Labor in that result. Large numbers of voters in the outer-western and northern suburbs who had been Labor supporters effectively went on a political strike, refusing to vote, just as they had six months earlier at the federal election. The Liberal vote in those previously safe Labor seats barely improved but Labor’s share of the vote dropped precipitously.
If the ALP thinks there isn’t an urgent need to pay extra-special attention to those areas and try to repair its relationship with those voters, it’s as deluded as the Liberals were in 2018 when they thought they were on a good thing by stirring up a moral panic about African gangs.
Is there sufficient dynamism within the government to be able to respond to such challenges? Every crisis will lead to a concentration of power among those in charge and that was the case for the premier and his office during the pandemic. That suited Andrews, whose political style was, and continues to be, unyielding – real alpha-male stuff.
And yet, the post-pandemic period more than likely will require a less forthright type of leadership. The years of pump priming and big spending are catching up with the state. Ahead of the May 23 budget, Victorians have been told through selective leaks that the government is in retreat on its infrastructure plans and the size of the public sector workforce. Little wonder that the premier attacked the Reserve Bank for lifting the cash rate again: his job just got harder. Selling a reduced policy program will require subtlety, not bluster.
Whether he intends to step down in this term or not, it’s incumbent on Andrews to start thinking about his obligation to leave the Labor Party in good order when he does go.
If he mucks that up, he need only look at the Liberal Party to see what can happen.
Andrews does resemble a more artful Jeff Kennett. Kennett, a two-time landslide election winner, failed to get a third term in 1999 because he couldn’t dial down his instinct to dominate.
Twenty-four years on from that defeat, the Liberals are still struggling to regroup.
Shaun Carney is a regular columnist.
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