Daniel (Dan) Andrews is a man who divides opinion. Victoria’s 48th Premier is either a staunch progressive reformer, or an authoritarian with scant respect for democratic norms and transparency. According to Sumeyya Illanbey, Andrews is both of these things. His successes as a progressive reformer are because he is a political hardman. No one knows how to play factional politics like Dan Andrews. Nor is loyalty his strong suite, just ask former Health Minister Jenny Mikakos, who was scapegoated by Andrews for the botched hotel quarantine program. Mikakos was contradicted by her own boss before an anti-corruption hearing, with Andrews stating that she was directly responsible for the program. After throwing Mikakos under the bus, Andrews allegedly refused to answer her phone calls. Ouch. To make matters worse, Mikakos was a loyal Andrews supporter and a member of his own faction.
It his attitude towards transparency, however, that truly illuminates the contradictions of Dan Andrews. Victorians will remember being locked down for most of 2020. During that time, Andrews assiduously held a press conference every day for four months, answering every journalist’s question until there were none left. Superficially, this seemed like transparency personified: here is a premier, who despite the enormous demands on his time, prioritises communicating with the public. In reality, Andrews uses these press conferences to overwhelm journalists and to outpace them with his stamina. Huge swathes of documents were regularly released on a single day, making it impossible for anyone to scrutinise them. By the time anyone had read them, it was too late. The political cycle had moved on. Next question please. Case in point is the inquiry into the aforementioned hotel quarantine program. What has come of it? Absolutely nothing. No one cares anymore.
Illanbey’s book is packed with interesting titbits and lots of interviews with former and current MPs, which paints an interesting insider account of how Andrews is perceived by his colleagues. Beyond this, I do not really have many positive things to say about it. Despite claiming that Andrews is both progressive reformer and political autocrat, Illanbey focusses almost exclusively on the Premier’s factional-political gameplaying. I was intrigued to read Illanbey’s book because the blurb referred to “social reforms of a scale unseen in the state since the era of John Cain.” And yet those reforms get only a passing mention.
To be perfectly frank, Illanbey’s book encapsulates why so many people are turning off the media and politics. Discussion of substantive policy reforms are scant. Politics and personality are elevated over policy. Ironically, Illanbey repeatedly claims throughout the book that the electorate only cares about issues which affect them. Perhaps she should heed her own analysis? One could read this book and come away hardly more informed about the Victorian government than they were before. You would, however, know a lot more about Labor’s internal factions. But so what? By Illanbey’s own reckoning, people simply do not care about this.
The worst part of this book is its “analysis”. I use the word “analysis” very reluctantly. We are subjected to trite, patronising truisms: “democracy works when there are checks and balances”. Uh, duh. How much does The Age pay journalists for these scintillating insights? Most egregiously, Illanbey abdicates any criticality of her own and simply recycles oft-made criticisms that are as banal as they are baseless. It is assumed that more government debt is almost always bad. It is assumed that because the Suburban Rail Loop wasn’t conceived by the public service, it must be bad – technocracy, anyone? There is an intellectually crippling tendency by the commentariat to obsequiously try and find a “middle ground” on every political issue, as if both sides were equally wedded to facts and sincere in their desire to help people. This faux objectivism creates false equivalences and is the antithesis of the critical, reflective work that journalists should do. Illanbey exhibits it perfectly.
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