The parallels between Dan and Jeff cannot be ignored
Ah, the historical parallels. After keeping a watching brief on Victorian politics as a way of making a living for more years than it’s healthy to record here, it’s events such as the exit of four senior ministers from the Andrews government that makes it so worthwhile. In June 1999, Jeff Kennett, nearing the end of his second term as premier and sitting atop a landslide parliamentary majority and a consistent lead in the opinion polls, announced that six of his ministers – a third of the cabinet – would be leaving at the forthcoming election.
So too would a veteran former minister, Ian Smith, plus the Speaker and five other MPs. The similarities between that episode and this latest exodus are not total. Like Andrews, Kennett presented his mid-year frontbench clearance as, above all, a renewal exercise. But unlike Andrews, Kennett did not let himself get sentimental, even for a moment. He alone made the announcement on behalf of his ministers and then insisted they not give any interviews before the election, which was held three months later. As was that government’s ultimately self-defeating way, the ministers complied with the order. The Kennett government went on to lose office.
The high-handedness of it all was remarkable, even allowing for the presidential character of the Kennett regime. As Tony Parkinson noted in his biography of Kennett, Jeff – the Rise and Fall of a Political Phenomenon, the affair seemed “too well stage-managed. No valedictory speeches in parliament; not even an opportunity for these senior ministers to reflect on their achievements.”
That contrasts with the looseness of Friday’s extended media conference in which Andrews and his soon-to-be ex-deputy Premier James Merlino waxed lyrical about their years of working together and their families, and the Premier offered up the exiting ministers as interview subjects.
But Andrews still managed to come up with his own, special Jeff-esque twist on his managerial prerogative by telling the caucus that it had to endorse his favoured successor, Jacinta Allan, as his new deputy.
Of course, the linguistic niceties were observed. He portrayed himself as merely the servant of the Labor party room. It would decide on the deputy’s post and which backbenchers would become ministers to replace the retirees; his responsibility would be to simply choose their portfolios.
Premier Daniel Andrews shakes hands with outgoing deputy premier James Merlino. His preferred deputy, Jacinta Allan, is pictured centre.Credit:Justin McManus
The language was respectful and outwardly deferential. He wasn’t putting Allan forward as Merlino’s replacement on his own – no, not at all. The co-ordinating ministers, seemingly higher life forms on the front bench, were backing her just like him. And Tim Pallas, newly elevated to the roles of the government’s doyen and its most senior right-winger, stepped forward to sprinkle his faction’s fairy dust on Andrew’s chosen successor too.
Essentially, this was performative stuff. The party colleagues were given no choice. By putting forward the recommendation, Andrews was issuing a directive. A caucus that defies a premier five months out from an election and hands him a deputy that he clearly doesn’t want – in this case, it would have been the right’s Ben Carroll – is consciously blowing up a government.
So, on the question of whether the Dan Andrews movie is a faithful reboot of the late 20th century Jeff Kennett blockbuster, the answer is probably “not the same, but retains some key elements of the original and the new one isn’t over yet”.
Then premier Jeff Kennett calls the election in 1999.Credit:Erin Jonasson
Both lead characters projected authority through the force of their public personalities. They both secured big electoral endorsements from their fellow Victorians. And along the way they both managed to be either liked with something approaching devotion by some Victorians while being utterly loathed by other citizens in substantial numbers too. Like all big action flicks featuring tough leading men, you either love or hate that stuff.
The manner of Allan’s installation as the frontrunner to replace Andrews once he decides to go – or is forced out of the job because of the judgement of the voters or ill-health or internal Labor chicanery – represents a serious new development in the way the state ALP conducts business.
Leadership appointments don’t just grow out of the ground after a sun shower. They are the product of party machinery that occasionally runs smoothly, but often grinds away uncomfortably after all manner of human interventions based on comity or revenge or any other emotion you can name.
Even so, there’s generally a coyness to it. In this case, for the first time I’ve observed it, a leader is deciding on his deputy while trying to anoint, as much as he can, his successor, and doing so publicly.
That is a revolutionary assertion by the Premier of his internal authority. But it is not an instantaneous eruption. These things take time to organise. This will have been in the works for weeks, with a view to securing a deal within the party that avoids the need for a ballot not just for the deputy’s position but for the front bench vacancies.
Replacing Merlino, who hails from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association grouping that is dominant on the party’s right, with Allan, who is from the left, has inevitably meant there must be factional trade-offs in the ministerial appointments. It could go some way to explaining cheerful Pallas’ embrace of the choice of Allan as deputy.
In his media conference, Andrews dismissed the significance of the factional alignment of the ALP’s leading figures.
He was correct when he said it didn’t matter to the public, which just wanted government to get on with things and to deliver on its policies. The Labor Party has done pretty well electorally in the 11-plus years that Andrews, a left-winger since his student days, has led the party. His opponents in the Liberal Party and in sections of the media have obsessed about his membership of the Socialist Left to little avail.
But when he says “left, right – that’s not what it’s about”, well, just about all the time that is what it’s about inside the ALP. The Kennett experience in 1999 showed that no government is unassailable. The mistake Kennett made was to make a show of his high-handedness. It will be interesting to learn in the months to come what voters conclude was on show – and whether they liked what they saw – when four more ministers in the Andrews government decided that for various reasons they needed to leave.
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