Inside Story

What drives Daniel Andrews?

Sumeyya Ilanbey has written a tough but fair-minded account of the high-handed premier

Tim Colebatch Books 24 October 2022 3296 words

“Ilanbey’s real scoop in this biography is her compilation of a devastating dossier on how Daniel Andrews treats those who ‘disappoint’ him.” Joel Carrett/AAP Image

Daniel (aka Dan) Andrews is a political phenomenon. In recent months he has overtaken Jeff Kennett and Steve Bracks to become Victoria’s sixth longest-serving premier. If he wins next month’s state election, he will also overtake John Cain and Dick Hamer next year to become the state’s longest-serving premier since Henry Bolte. And the polls suggest that is virtually certain.

Yet Andrews’s years in power — and especially his record-breaking pandemic lockdown — has divided the state more bitterly than those of any premier since Kennett. He’s a typical political strongman: quick to decide what he wants to do, determined to carry it out, and contemptuous of anyone who gets in his way. In the homeland of Aussie Rules, he’s the standout resourceful tough guy who bursts through the pack to deliver what his fans want from him.

In his first term, the fans liked seeing him deliver the transport infrastructure Melbourne had been deprived of for so long — particularly when he got rid of all those level crossings that stopped traffic whenever a train came through. In his second, they admired him as the strong leader whose readiness to take tough decisions kept them safe during the pandemic.

But many other Victorians hate him, with a passion not seen since Kennett ruled the roost. Daniel Andrews oozes arrogance. He can’t take criticism, and contemptuously dismisses or ignores adverse reports or anyone disagreeing with him. Many of those tough decisions he made during the pandemic were foolish, even harmful ones — such as banning children from playgrounds, closing schools, or locking up thousands of residents in public housing towers without warning.

Whatever you think of his policies, he is darn good at politics. The polls put him way ahead of Liberal leader Matthew Guy as preferred premier, and a third four-year term — which he says he intends to serve out in full — seems a formality. The most recent published polls were taken in September, but even the closest found Labor ahead by a whopping 56–44 majority in two-party terms. A month-old Morgan poll released last week put the gap at 60.5–39.5.

Yet, for a leader so dominant, he is not well understood. After eight years as premier, we at last have a biography of him: albeit one he did not cooperate with and, since he hates being criticised, by an author he definitely would not have chosen.

Sumeyya Ilanbey is a trailblazer, the first Victorian political reporter in a hijab, and one of an outstanding group of journalists now covering state politics for the Age. Her account of the premier, Daniel Andrews: The Revealing Biography of Australia’s Most Powerful Premier, doesn’t let you down: it really is an inside story. Andrews refused to be interviewed but Ilanbey talked to many of his colleagues, past and present, and collected a lot of revealing stories and perspectives, even if most of them are passed on unsourced.

She pulls no punches. Daniel Andrews emerges from the book as a highly successful, hard-working, utterly determined, socially progressive despot — with little respect for people who get in his way or for the democratic infrastructure in which he has to operate.

Andrews, we learn, is a boy from the bush who developed a relentless work ethic and a talent for political infighting, which took him from stacking Labor Party branches in his youth to becoming premier at forty-two, and dominating state politics in a ruthless autocratic style unlike any Labor predecessor.

So far it hasn’t hurt him. Yet Victoria is used to premiers being nice blokes — Dick Hamer, Lindsay Thompson, John Cain, Steve Bracks, John Brumby, Ted Baillieu, Denis Napthine — or once, a nice woman, Joan Kirner. Andrews clearly doesn’t fit in either group. From Ilanbey’s portrait, he belongs squarely in Victoria’s minority of authoritarian leaders: Henry Bolte, Kennett, and himself.

All three have been lucky to rule against weak opposition. The Bolte government ran Victoria for seventeen years, but Bolte was realistic enough to tell his last biographer, Tom Prior, “I don’t think I ever won an election. Labor lost them.” Kennett and the Murdoch media left Labor winded for years by getting Victorians to blame the 1990s recession on the Cain–Kirner government when it was clearly the result of an awful policy overkill by treasurer Paul Keating and the Reserve Bank.

Ilanbey’s focus is naturally on explaining Daniel Andrews, and she does it very well, highlighting the diverse and contrasting aspects of his personality: he presents himself as the daggy dad who likes nothing better than relaxing at home with his wife and kids, yet is nonetheless a workaholic control freak. But it’s also important to note how much the poor quality of his opposition (including Murdoch’s Herald Sun) has contributed to his success.

Since 1996, Victorians have voted in fifteen federal or state elections, and have preferred the Liberals in just one of them. Why? The party has been controlled by ultraconservatives who have used that control to narrow the broad church Menzies created to a small congregation of what seem like cranks and fogeys who react against anything more modern than the world they grew up in. Victorians have moved into the 2020s, but the Victorian Liberals stay put, digging deeper trenches and waiting for the voters to come back to them. It could be a long wait.

Their one win was at the 2010 state election, after a succession of mistakes by the Brumby government allowed the lofty small-l liberal Ted Baillieu to break through on a platform of integrity in government. But his government floundered among sabotage from within; Baillieu quit and Denis Napthine took over; and that instability helped Andrews to lead Labor back into power in 2014. Since then the Liberals have obliged him by stepping up factional warfare and, with their Murdoch partner, running crude, simplistic campaigns that appeal to their narrowing base more than the mainstream. Andrews has had a dream run.

Daniel Andrews grew up as a bright boy in a working-class family that experienced a ghastly bit of bad luck and responded by moving to the country and working long hours to get back on top. It’s fair to assume that some of his hyperdetermination and mania for control comes from that upbringing.

Like so many male politicians, Daniel was a firstborn son (that probably explains a bit too). He was born on 6 July 1972 in Melbourne, where his parents, Bob and Jan Andrews, owned and ran a milk bar on Pascoe Vale Road. One night when Daniel was ten, an arsonist blew up the supermarket next door, taking out the Andrews’s shop with it. It was underinsured, and they were suddenly left with next to nothing.

The family made a fresh start by moving to Wangaratta, where his parents bought a house on a two-hectare block on the outskirts of town. Bob began rising at 4am every day to deliver Don smallgoods throughout the region, while Jan got the kids off to school before going to work as a teller at the Commonwealth Bank. They were churchgoing Catholics, and Daniel was schooled in the faith: mass every Sunday, school under the Marist Brothers at Galen College.

His parents’ influence perhaps deserves more attention than it gets in Ilanbey’s story. Bob Andrews was clearly a man of ability and determination. As his business grew, he took on employees, became president of the footy club, and bought “Old Kentucky,” a nearby beef cattle stud around a century-old four-bedroom country home with wide verandas. One night at a meeting of the local Victorian Farmers Federation branch, the Labor leader’s dad stunned his mates by confiding, “I’ve always voted for the National Party.”

His son Daniel inherited Bob’s determination to achieve things. “Dan’s life started just out of Wangaratta on the family farm,” his website tells us. “His mum and dad — Jan and Bob — taught him life lessons that stay with him today: hard work, the importance of making a contribution, and that when you make a promise, you keep it.”

But Daniel didn’t inherit his father’s politics. School done, he headed to Monash to study arts — living at Mannix College like a good Catholic son, but joining the Labor Party, where he became deeply involved in the Young Socialist Left. His organising talents caught the attention of local left MP Alan Griffin, who took him on as a casual electorate officer.

Ilanbey tells us that Andrews developed quickly as a factional warrior: “He became known as Alan Griffin’s ‘numbers man,’ the main go-to guy for the Socialist Left’s branch-stacking operation in the south-eastern suburbs, a meticulous and detailed young operative whom Griffin trusted wholeheartedly.” Apart from student jobs selling hotdogs and driving trucks, it was his first real job.

His career since has been entirely inside Labor. At twenty-three, branch stacker in an electorate office. At twenty-six, assistant state secretary. At thirty, the new MP for Mulgrave and assistant minister for health. At thirty-four, gaming, consumer affairs and multicultural affairs minister. At thirty-five, health minister. At thirty-eight, Labor leader and opposition leader. At forty-two, premier. He is now fifty.

From a young age, he clearly stood out from the pack in the eyes of those who mattered. We can debate whether he’s a good premier, but he’s certainly a highly successful one. Other than having weak opposition, what makes him such a hit with Victorian voters?

Ilanbey keeps coming back to his punishing work ethic, his political instincts that anticipate so well how developments will play out, his readiness to back his judgement and take a risk — although he can be extraordinarily stubborn about backing down when he gets it wrong — and the systematic way he analyses the game. He is capable of being warm and supportive to colleagues in trouble, but it doesn’t happen very often. They are more likely to find themselves in trouble with him, and being cast into “the freezer” — a state of being coldly and completely ignored — from which some never escape.

Political biographies sometimes market themselves through their scoops. But Sumeyya Ilanbey’s real scoop in this biography is her compilation of a devastating dossier on how Daniel Andrews treats those who “disappoint” him — particularly, as several colleagues told her, if they are close to him. He cannot take criticism. Once he has made a decision, he cannot tolerate disagreement with it. That inability to listen probably explains why his second term has seen so many bad decisions.

One telling example. Gavin Jennings was an older leftie, and already a minister, when Andrews entered parliament. Ilanbey describes him as “Andrews’s closest confidant in government… to whom he would turn to fix his problems and sort out his political headaches”:

Labor MPs often described Jennings as Andrews’s conscience, and as one who would do the premier’s dirty political work… It was Jennings who would talk to colleagues on behalf of the premier; it was Jennings who was asked to fix any political mess the premier found himself in.

But as Andrews grew into his leadership, he began to grow tired of Jennings, who saw his role as playing devil’s advocate, questioning policies and the government’s intentions. Andrews did not like this, and came to view Jennings as an agitator and a hindrance to his agenda. Where Jennings saw his role as improving a policy by focusing on its deficiencies, Andrews saw it as a nuisance. The relationship was slowly becoming toxic.

According to multiple sources, [Jennings] started questioning Andrews on the billions being poured into the government’s mammoth transport infrastructure agenda. Andrews’s once-close relationship with his mentor had disintegrated.

Many in the Labor Party point to the deterioration of Jennings and Andrews’s friendship as evidence of the premier’s crash and burn style; and of his contempt [for] those around him. If that friendship broke down, they said, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In March 2020, as Covid-19 broke out across Melbourne, Jennings quietly quit politics. Andrews seized the opportunity to announce that to handle the crisis better, he would create a crisis council of cabinet, comprising himself and eight senior ministers, as a top-level executive body.

A few months later he sacked one of them, health minister Jenny Mikakos, making her the scapegoat for Covid getting into the community from quarantine hotels. That December the widely respected attorney-general Jill Hennessy quit cabinet to “spend more time with her family.” In June this year, deputy premier James Merlino, health minister Martin Foley, police minister Lisa Neville, industry minister Martin Pakula and planning minister Richard Wynne all announced that they too would quit politics at this election.

That’s some turnover. The only members left from the nine-member Covid crisis council are Andrews himself, his new deputy and heir apparent (but not anytime soon) Jacinta Allan, and veteran treasurer Tim Pallas.

The upheaval could be seen as recognition of the need to bring fresh blood into the senior portfolios — after all, most of those retiring had been ministers for twelve years. Or it could be seen as a sign that the Andrews cabinet is not the happiest place to work. In eight years, sixteen of the twenty-two members of his original ministry have either quit or been sacked.

Throughout the Victorian bureaucracy, it has been a similar story. Political loyalty — to Andrews — seems to be a prerequisite for running a department or agency. After the revelation that thirty-three Victorians in the last year died after their calls to triple-zero went unanswered, the Age reported that the former chairman of the service, Roger Leeming, warned ministers and officials back in 2016 that it was critically underfunded, and was rewarded by being told to quit. Two former Labor staffers were then appointed to the board.

These things have serious consequences. Before the pandemic, the government received repeated warnings from below that Victoria’s public health services were severely underresourced. The advice was unwelcome, so it was ignored — until Covid arrived, when it was too late. The ineptness of Victoria’s pandemic response reflected the reality that it didn’t have experts trained to handle it.

Andrews’s response was to double down on a futile crusade to eliminate Covid. His government imposed the most severe lockdowns in Australia, and the longest ones. Mildura and Mallacoota, more than 500 kilometres from the capital, were locked down because there were Covid cases in Melbourne. Schools were closed and the premier closed his ears to expert advice on what having no school would mean for the mental health and educational development of children.

One could go on, but Chip Le Grand’s book Lockdown and a fine report published last week by the Paul Ramsay Foundation say it better than I could. The bottom line is clear. So far, 877 of every million Victorians have died of Covid, as against a toll of 506 deaths per million in the rest of Australia. Victoria’s death rate has been 73 per cent higher than in the other states. It is ludicrous to argue that Andrews’s hard line kept Victorians safe.

The Andrews who emerges from Ilanbey’s book is a complex man, with real achievements to offset those failures. His first term was more impressive than the second. The government doubled investment in Melbourne’s transport infrastructure, wisely focusing on removing the level crossings that caused daily traffic jams in most suburbs of Melbourne, but also pushing ahead with a short but expensive underground line (Metro 1) from North Melbourne through the city to South Yarra.

Andrews stayed in the background but lent his support as Jill Hennessy and Gavin Jennings shepherded Australia’s first assisted dying legislation through parliament. A pioneering royal commission was held into domestic violence — albeit one that focused on looking after its victims rather than stopping it from happening. He and his government were rewarded with an electoral landslide in 2018, one of Labor’s three best in Victoria.

The second term has been less impressive. Covid saw two years of grossly excessive restrictions followed by a year of “let it rip”: in both stages, Victoria’s death toll was the worst in Australia. An official inquiry by former justice Jennifer Coate into how Covid escaped from quarantine hotels was derailed by dissembling — or worse — by the premier and senior officials, who all seemed unable to remember who had decided to put private security firms in charge.

Now we have the so-called Suburban Rail Loop: in reality a twenty-seven-kilometre underground line in an arc between Cheltenham in the south and Box Hill in the east. Tunnels are very expensive, and the government estimates that this one will cost more than $30 billion — an amount that, even with an ill-advised $2.2 billion donation from us taxpayers via the Albanese government, will use up funds that would otherwise have built better projects like the Metro 2 line to Fishermans Bend.

The project stinks of the worst kind of political cynicism. There is no demand for it. The idea did not come from rail experts but from Andrews’s political staff. The line would run almost entirely through marginal Labor seats. The government committed without submitting the plan to Infrastructure Victoria, supposedly its adviser on infrastructure priorities, and without waiting for a business plan. When the latter finally appeared, it claimed the project would have a positive benefit–cost ratio — but it got that figure only by breaking the Victorian Treasury’s rules for such analysis. The auditor-general has since found that applying those rules, it is likely to cost Victorians twice as much as the benefit they get from it.

With scores of examples, Ilanbey shows us a leader whose decision-making has become warped by a self-indulgent culture of cronyism, surrounding himself with yes-men and yes-women, making snap decisions and ignoring warnings about their consequences. She depicts Andrews as a narcissist who thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and ignores any questioning of his decisions. He decides issues on political grounds and treats their merits as secondary. His decision made, to question its logic is to challenge his authority. It’s then a matter of who’s running the state.

The long-term consequences for Victoria could be serious. The Labor governments of Steve Bracks and John Brumby (1999–2010) were fiscally cautious to a fault. So was Andrews at first, but he quickly warmed up. In the past five years, Victoria has gone from repaying debt to running up $29 billion a year of net new borrowing. The state has lost its AAA credit rating and the Liberals are right when they warn that within four years, on current projections, Victoria’s net debt will exceed that of New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania combined.

Crossing the entrance hall of Victoria’s lovely old Parliament House, you pass a mosaic with a line from the Book of Proverbs: “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.”

That beautiful, poetically worded Jewish folk wisdom still resonates. But that’s not how Victoria’s government now operates. Rather, its people have one counsellor with a multitude of staffers.

It can’t have been easy to write a book like this about someone so powerful and hostile to criticism. Sumeyya Ilanbey has been courageous, persistent and thorough in interviewing so many of Andrews’s colleagues, asking the tough questions and collating their answers into this coherent, convincing, fair-minded but always hard-headed account of what drives him and how he runs Victoria. This book justifies her sources’ trust in her. She deserves our thanks. •

Daniel Andrews: The Revealing Biography of Australia’s Most Powerful Premier
By Sumeyya Ilanbey | Allen & Unwin | $32.99 | 312 pages