September 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Playing for par

By John van Tiggelen
Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews keeps his head down

It’s tempting to surmise that Daniel Andrews acquired his hunched appearance by keeping his head down so much. The polls rate him a clear favourite to lead Labor to victory in Victoria’s November election, yet he has about as much brand power as, say, the deputy prime minister, Warren Truss. Andrews’ name rings so few bells that, four months out from the election, his party decided it was safe to amend it. “Hi, I’m Dan Andrews,” is how he introduces himself in a political advertisement that debuted on commercial television on the night of 12 August. “Dan” is more “matey”, evidently. After all, Bob Hawke knew better than to stick with Robert.

On the afternoon of 12 August, though, there was no inkling of the impending “Dan the Man” rebrand. During an hour-long interview conducted in his office, the Opposition leader remained the Daniel we’ve come not to know by adhering mercilessly to the message that an Andrews government would work hard, “not waste one day”, and seek to “deliver fairer outcomes, more equitable outcomes” for Victorians.

Andrews’ office is located above a boutique grocer opposite Parliament House. There’s a near-obligatory Sherrin on a shelf but his passion is golf. Andrews once told a journalist he coveted the job of Golf Australia’s chief executive. Meanwhile, his website discloses that “if Daniel wasn’t an MP, he’d be an impoverished professional golfer” and that among the “four people Daniel would like to have dinner with” is “superstar women’s golfer Yani Tseng”.

If these personal tidbits are intended to help reveal a looser side to the man, Andrews is hardly the only politician to have been poorly advised. The belaboured banter makes him sound more earnest, not less. And although there are glimpses of wry humour during the interview, his recorded words belie them. In front of his seasoned media caddie, he is stiff as a plank.

By others’ accounts, Andrews is a rounded, gutsy sort of a chap. Of Irish spud-farming stock, he grew up a grocer’s son in Melbourne. When he was ten, the family fell on hard times and moved to Wangaratta, in north-eastern Victoria, adjacent to a golf course where young Daniel developed a passion for belting balls into the middle distance. He attended a local Catholic college and then Monash University, where he studied economics, met his wife and set his sights on a political career. After working for a local MP, he became a state party organiser and, in 2002, the member for Mulgrave. Six years later, as John Brumby’s health minister, he stared down fellow Catholics who opposed his push to legalise abortion, reportedly telling them he did “not intend to be a Catholic health minister. It was my intention to be the Victorian health minister.”

Even so, Andrews, though a consummate party operator, hardly appeared to be leadership material. Then came Labor’s narrow election loss in 2010. A rout of MPs aligned with the Labor Right, coupled with an ongoing rift within the Right’s ranks, stranded the main contenders and instead saw Andrews, the Left’s choice, installed as Brumby’s successor. His charmed run continued as a rogue Liberal MP, Geoff Shaw, went on to play havoc with the Coalition government’s one-seat majority. Ted Baillieu duly resigned as premier, leaving the pleasantly ineffectual Denis Napthine in charge.

Watching this turmoil from the other side, Andrews knew better than to court attention. He just needed a par round, as it were. Andrews’ priorities were to maintain party unity, a backroom skill at which he excelled, and to be seen to be listening. He created shadow portfolios “for the Suburbs” and “for the Cost of Living”. His team even includes a “Shadow Minister for a Fairer Victoria”.

State governments, enthuses Andrews, can and must “deliver improvements” to people’s lives. His main policy targets are health care and transport – he’s pledged more beds, all-night trains, fewer level crossings and better roads – but there are rather low-hanging fruit, too, such as a promised “crack down on puppy farms” and the vow “to cap [local] council rates at CPI” by law. And some fights he’d rather not have. Unlike his federal counterpart Bill Shorten, for instance, he is resisting internal ALP reform, claiming to be “perfectly happy” with the way candidates are preselected. Nor will he countenance moves to limit the disproportionate impact that poker machines have on families in the poorest postcodes. To the contrary, he has sided with the gambling industry in its campaign against the Napthine government’s recent 4.2% tax increase on pokies revenue in the most profitable venues, describing it as an “unfair tax” that will cost jobs.

“You can’t pretend that you’ve got an answer for every problem,” he says. “Golf and politics are not dissimilar. You’ll never beat golf. You can only do your best … and you only need to get one good shot to bring you back.”

Of the policies he is taking to the November election, Andrews is particularly proud of his commitment to hold a royal commission into family violence. He announced it at the ALP state conference in May after meeting with Rosie Batty, whose son was killed by his father in horrific circumstances.

“It will be a blueprint for reform,” says Andrews. “I know enough to know that the system is broken and that it’s time it was fixed. You’re running an 18th-century court system in the 21st century [and] you’ve got a police force that’s not properly resourced … Women and children should be at their safest when they’re in their home, and all too often they aren’t.

“Yes, there will be a big price tag, but ultimately I say that Victoria’s women and children are worth it.”

It’s a lofty point, albeit one that could equally drive the case for, say, gambling reform. His handler likes it. Andrews doesn’t blink, and takes another swing: “My dear departed grandfather, a train driver, a unionist all his life, a very Catholic man, would say: ‘Young Danny’ – he’s the only one that called me Danny – ‘Young Danny, you’re a long time dead.’ And it’s true. Your time in politics is but a moment, and there’s not a moment to waste.” 

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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