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Daniel Andrews and the little virus that could

Interrogating Daniel Andrews' rise and role during the pandemic.

Art by Shrawani Bhattarai.

Daniel Andrews, as a constructed personality, is twofold. In one corner, managed by more liberal media such as the Herald, is Sad Andrews, a well meaning public servant who, despite his mistakes and misjudgements, bears the tribulations of Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 as Atlas does the sky. In the other corner, managed by more reactionary media such as Sky News, is Chairman Dan, the would-be architect of the eradication of all liberties, whether social or economic, and the death of small businesses everywhere. This fight is, of course sensationalised, but is not without a level of truth on either side. One side sees him forego ADF support in an attempt to create jobs, the other sees him send five hundred cops to public housing towers with no solid evidence of the virus. But Andrews is, like all politicians, nothing if not his record; particularly his time under Alan Griffin of the “Griffin Left” of the Victorian ALP in the 90s, which reveals much about why he is the way that he is today. 

Alan Griffin was elected to the house in 1996 as the member for Bruce after the abolition of his former electorate Corinella. This flipped the seat from the Liberals for the first time since 1955. It was aided by the influx of new Labor voters from former Corinella, and was a thin silver lining in what was a thorough rinsing of Paul Keating by John Howard, their two seat counts mirrored at 94 for the Coalition, 49 for Labor. Andrews entered the Victorian ALP in this tumultuous time. Freshly graduated from Mannix College (of Monash University) with a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics and classics, he immediately became an electorate officer to Griffin, now Leader of the Opposition, serving as his Parliamentary Secretary. Much of his work here was engaging in factional disputes over ballots, preselections and power. His reputation quickly began to loom large; Good Weekend (of the Sydney Morning Herald), quotes a ‘long-term Labor player’ as saying, “Daniel was the first one to go to war in every internal battle. He was the first one […] saying, ‘Let’s kill that person.’” Additionally, Geoff Lazarus, a Greens member, even goes as far as to say that Andrews had a reputation as a branch stacker for the left; Andrews denies this, but grants that “[f]rom time to time there will be acts of bastardry.” Earlier this year, he was forced to sack his self-described “good friend” Adem Somyurek after demeaning comments about Gabrielle Wilson and accusations of industrial-scale branch stacking in the Victorian ALP. 

In 1999, he began working at the party’s head office as a State Organiser, becoming Assistant State Secretary in 2000. From 2002 he grew like a pre-teen on HGH; elected the state member for Mulgrave, he was immediately made the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, became the Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Consumer Affairs and Gaming in 2006, Health Minister in 2007 then Leader of the Opposition in 2010. Interestingly, his first experience with a pandemic was handling swine flu as Health Minister in 2009. Whilst he only spent four years as Opposition Leader, he was not always Dan The Man; in 2012, focus groups described him as “the guy who looks like an accountant and hunches” and up to his fairly scraped-by victory in 2014 he consistently struggled with polls. Per Newspoll numbers, the day before the election he was working a 38% approval and 43% disapproval rating, very discordant with his pre/early-COVID numbers. To overcome his stagnating reputation, he revealed something which may shock and discredit you: he’s not wearing a tie at all. That is to say, for the campaign makeover he cast Dorky Dan to the wind like rags and became Debonair Dan, who wears his top button undone and is actually totally different and way cooler I promise.  

Of course, it’s not uncommon nor is it scandalous for a politician to be focus group’d, but it does certainly conflict with his earnest, working class aesthetic. He’s an oxymoron when understood with regards to his identity and politics, unless of course you understand that he adopts whichever politics, framing or image which he thinks will make him most powerful, within reason. Of course, he’d never go renegade and become a reactionary because he does have vaguely left-wing convictions but, to return to his Good Weekend profile, Paul Keating describes what Andrews sought from him in 2012: “About the getting of power and the use of it […] He had a hunger for power… and the leadership gene.” Asking Paul Keating about using and keeping power is like asking Louis XVI how to keep having a head but the point stands that Andrews is, above all else, interested in power, and the means through which he seeks it reaches back to what he learned in his earliest days. 

Essentially, Dandrews is a bully. In party factions, secrets are held close and thinly veiled insults are common. In parliament, Andrews is smug and guarded, with a penchant for personal attacks; this is one thing when dealing with the Victorian Liberals, a shady bunch – as evidenced by Michael Sukkar’s recent branch stacking allegations – and particularly Michael O’Brien, but as a consequence of this he very rarely tells people what they want to hear. Successful freedom-of-information requests were at their lowest point in five years earlier this year, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, and Andrews has drawn the ire of the public recently due to his lack of transparency, and outright lies, regarding the failures of his hotel quarantine procedure and enforcement of subsequent lockdowns. He is still yet to provide a real justification for sending five hundred police officers, rather than health workers, to public housing towers with no evidence of an outbreak, whilst failing to even test their residents in a comprehensive way for weeks. Andrews desperately needs someone to blame for this crisis, but all that he grasps turns to dust. He tried to blame the security workers, with accusations that they socialised in an unsafe manner, but as it happens the first case in the Rydges Hotel, the patient zero of the outbreak, was a night manager and far more credible reports have surfaced that posit the security workers weren’t properly trained, staffed or supplied with PPE for their work. He tried to blame the ADF, asserting that no support was offered or even available; official documents since released show this to be a lie. He even tried to blame the police, stating he introduced the curfew to help police prevent gatherings, but the commissioner was never briefed on it before it began. In factions, one can avoid accountability through being subsumed into a group identity; as Premier, Andrews holds the same distaste for being held to his actions but has no such place to hide. 

As the Victorian second wave comes under control, calls for a royal commission into Labor’s handling of the outbreak continue. On 27 August, Andrews accepted major concessions to his attempt to extend his powers to call a state of emergency and per Essential Poll numbers on 8 September only 50% of Victorians consider the state’s response to COVID-19 as ‘good’, down from 75% on June 15. Daniel Andrews’ imperiousness is gone with the wind, replaced by a masked but unmistakable desperation as he scrambles to recover what he lost in this second wave. He has, at least for a time, stopped blaming the virus on individual workers and will appear in front of the Judicial Inquiry into the Hotel Quarantine program in Victoria. As that royal commission has shown, the second wave is far from his doing alone, rather the fault of many different departments, but his former strategy to be the calming presence in the storm is now untenable when so many are so mad at him. Andrews has never been one to obsess over his legacy, but his legacy has, in a matter of some few months, devolved from that of a socially progressive leader who brought an infrastructure boom and economic prosperity to the state to the man who brought the pandemic to Melbourne and blamed it on anyone and everyone but himself. 

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