James C. Murphy reviews Sumeyya Ilanbey, Daniel Andrews: The Revealing Biography of Australia’s Most Powerful Premier (Allen & Unwin, 2022), 312pp.
After his father’s business literally exploded, Daniel Andrews’ family was left with next to nothing. Bob Andrews had invested everything in his Glenroy milk bar. It was left in ruins after the supermarket next door was blown up in a suspected arson. But after moving to country Victoria, the Andrews rebuilt, one day at a time. Bob would rise at 4am to load his truck with Don smallgoods, and it was then, in the wee hours, on a farm in sleepy Wangaratta, helping lug salami into his father’s truck, that Victoria’s premier learned to be hard working—excessively hard working, almost manic; relentless. This quality became important in his political life—as numbers man for the South-East grouping of the Socialist Left in Victoria; as party apparatchik and campaign manager; as minister in the Bracks and Brumby Governments; as State Opposition leader, who managed to get Labor back into government in just one term; and then as Premier since 2014.
‘Hard working’, ‘laser-focused’, ‘relentless’, ‘tireless’—these all fit the first of three motifs in this biography of Daniel Andrews by Age state political reporter, Sumeyya Ilanbey. Andrews is a man that wakes up earlier in the morning, knows the brief in more detail and checks his numbers more thoroughly than others in the room—and that is part of the reason he has come to so dominate his party, his government, his state. It is these qualities that have earned him the respect of allies and enemies alike; qualities that have ensured that major social reforms and projects have survived the political gauntlet and have been implemented. Without that tenacity, that relentless work ethic, he would not have found the stamina to guide the state through the pandemic. He could not have stood in front of the media day after day, carefully explaining his government’s response to incredulous, often petulant journalists. He could not have earned the begrudging compliance of millions of Victorians through the state’s long lockdowns.
But this relentless work ethic is just one aspect of Andrews’ political persona, according to Ilanbey. The second motif of her study is Andrews’ incredible sense of self-belief, manifested in his narcissism, his tendency to rely only on himself and to regard others as mere tools or obstacles. Indeed, we are shown the callousness with which Andrews has treated even his most loyal allies once they became in some way an annoyance or a liability. Gavin Jennings—Andrews’ factional ally and consiglieri in his first term of government (2014-18)—for instance, found himself in what is known in Labor circles as Dan Andrews’ ‘freezer’ for internally criticising the level of spending on road and rail (pp. 176-7). Jenny Mikakos, Health Minister through half the pandemic, was thrown under the bus when Andrews required a scapegoat for the Hotel Quarantine Inquiry. For her, he did not even return phone calls after having sealed her doom from the witness box (p. 239). Countless others find themselves in the ‘freezer’, for criticising the boss, for getting in the way of a factional deal, for showing just a little too much ambition or independence. Ilanbey is at times scathing about such bastardry by Andrews—perhaps excessively so, given bastardry has always been par for the course in politics. She even quotes (but ultimately does not seem to accept the conclusion) from former Andrews Minister, Martin Pakula, that such jaggedness is quite simply what’s needed to be an effective political leader—that we should not expect a premier to be ‘cuddly’ (p. 172). For Ilanbey, though, Andrews’ behaviour towards his colleagues is close to psychopathic.
In a position of power, this narcissistic streak manifests as a tendency to centralisation, or, as Ilanbey and those she quotes put it, ‘autocracy’ —the third face of Daniel Andrews in this portrait. ‘His is a command-and-control leadership,’ she writes, ‘In the Andrews government, Daniel Andrews runs everything.’ (p. 167). Danism, then, is synonymous with Bonapartism: it is the practice of statecraft aimed at retaining and enhancing the power of the leader. One anonymous Labor source even suggests that Victoria is not a democracy but an elective monarchy (p. 135). Dan apparently is the state. In this regard Ilanbey largely accepts the ‘Dictator Dan’ label coined by former-Liberal MP Tim Smith. She illustrates the point, with instances of Andrews over-ruling Jane Garrett in her negotiations with the militant United Firefighters Union; devising policies—like Victoria’s ill-fated attempt to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, or the gargantuan Suburban Rail Loop—without consulting ministers or departments; directing all the state’s departmental secretaries to report to him on coronavirus matters; appearing for his ‘Daily Dan’ press conferences through lockdown, not as a form of accountability but as a feat of propaganda, image-control and power-projection. She compares this autocratic streak to the same in Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett—and indeed, the two share elements of style—but perhaps the better comparison would be Henry Bolte, the last ‘Boss’ premier of Victoria, dubbed the ‘salt and pepper premier’ because he was on everything: every decision, every appointment. Like Bolte, Andrews has organised his party, his cabinet, and the machinery of government, so all—factional warlords, ministers, department secretaries—work towards him, or do not work at all. Like Bolte, he eschews collective, cabinet government and observes checks and balances only when they do not stand in his way. Probably where Ilanbey gets it wrong is to suggest there is anything unprecedented about the Andrews Premiership in this regard. Domineering premiers have been relatively normal, across the country and through history, especially since World War Two. For Victoria, Andrews is just another Bolte or Kennett: all bullish ‘doers’, all aggressive and autocratic, but, critically, all endorsed at the ballot box, at least for a time.
Ilanbey ends her portrait of Andrews with the suggestion that time may have caught up with him. Writing a few months ahead of the 2022 state election, she describes a state seething with anger about lockdowns and vaccination mandates; of widespread dislike, shading into violent hatred, of Victoria’s arrogant and hubristic premier. Looking ahead to that year’s elections, she gives the impression that it might go either way; that Andrews had become an electoral dead-weight, that the state was intensely divided on his leadership. In this judgment, Ilanbey fell into a similar trap as the rest of her Spring Street press gallery colleagues at the time, of mistaking the angriest voices for majority sentiment. Perhaps this is unfair; a case of 20:20 hindsight, but it must be said that the same book published in January 2023, instead of August 2022, would have undoubtedly ended, not on a mediation on Andrews’ arrogance and fading popularity, but instead with a consideration of what this man would need to do to lose the support of a large majority of Victorians. Yes, he has enjoyed remarkable policy successes—important reforms on assisted dying, indigenous reconciliation, homelessness, domestic violence and more, on top of a massive slate of infrastructure projects delivered—and he has been gifted a divided and apparently out-of-touch state opposition, but his political weaknesses seem to be legion. He has run up genuinely vast public debts, was the face of the most oppressive public health measures in living memory, oversaw the most lethal policy failure in decades in hotel quarantine, has been caught up in three anti-corruption investigations, and led his party through massive parliamentary expense and branch-staking scandals. Daniel Andrews would seem to be able to shoot a man on Fifth (or Collins Street?) and still win thumping majorities. How?
Ilanbey does cover Andrews’ remarkable Teflon qualities at points of her study. ‘Push on and push through’ is Andrews’ mantra, cited liberally throughout the book. But the biography struggles with the question of why Victorians seem to reward, or at least overlook his bad behaviour—the way he treats colleagues, his disregard for checks and balances, his avoidance of transparency, his tendency to scapegoat when in hot water. Ilanbey considers a variety of explanations at different times. The best, in my mind, comes from Niki Savva, quoted musing that ‘voters will forgive many things, including lying, even whiffs of corruption. They will not forgive incompetence or neglect’ (p. 143). Looking at the 2022 election result, this appears to be about right. So long as he keeps his infrastructure ‘Big Build’ a’ buildin’, keeps the progressive social reforms flowing, keeps the cops out on the beat—in greater numbers per capita than any other state—and keeps the state involved in actively helping its citizens with their troubles—their power bills, their access to child care, their rights as renters, or as employees whose wages have been stolen; the list goes on—Andrews will be forgiven his excesses and vices. Or, to mangle a Franklin Roosevelt quote—about a literal dictator—it seems Victorians do not mind Daniel Andrews being a son of a bitch, so long as he is our son of a bitch.