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A fall or a stumble? Daniel Andrews takes a hit from the second surge – The Age

Daniel Andrews looked set to become Australia’s Jacinda Ardern but then Victoria’s COVID-19 numbers exploded, turning him into a national whipping boy and giving his state instant pariah status.

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But when it comes to the big calls, the Premier is the great decider. He is a powerful personality and is highly confident in putting forward his views to his colleagues.
The government is tightly run from the top and few, if any, of his senior colleagues push back against him when he sets the policy direction. And why would they when the government has enjoyed so much electoral success?
Almost all of Labors history of being in office in Victoria spans the past 40 years and no other ALP premier in that time has so completely embodied his government – as its public face and in its internal workings as Daniel Andrews does his administration.
In the previous Labor government, a core of MPs who had driven the ALPs revival in opposition – Steve Bracks, John Brumby, John Thwaites and Rob Hulls were prominent, influential figures throughout its long run in office. This government is much more of a one-man show.
Until now, Andrews way of doing things has benefited him and his party. Having taken over in 2010, he is one of the ALPs longest serving leaders and has notched up two election wins in two attempts. The most recent win, in 2018, was a landslide.
That win came about in large part because of Andrews style and his judgment of what worked with Victorian electors. His view was that they wanted things done.
Scandals, controversies and missteps such as his billion-dollar decision to break the Napthine governments East-West Link contract mattered less to voters than seeing their new government getting on with the job by building infrastructure and generating jobs.
The operating principle of the Andrews government has been: push on, dont be distracted, dont get caught up in prolonged periods of reflection, move quickly, show you can deliver and if you create your own momentum, people will come with you.
It is easy to be wise after the event, especially from the sidelines, but this ethos could well have created the conditions that led to the awful choice of private security firms to look after quarantined travellers.
By handing over responsibility for quarantine to private companies rather than public sector agencies the police, the defence forces or the Department of Corrections the program could be about jobs. Also, it was quick. Recruitment, training, back-up and quality assurance were, it seems, taken on by the providers. It was done, and the government could keep moving.
This fits with the framing of many of the governments policies from its earliest time in office: that they are primarily about the creation of jobs. The governments climate change and renewables policies, for example, have been framed as job creation schemes ahead of saving the planet and the environment.
It has all been part of a winning strategy, just as the Premiers performances in daily press conferences were working so well for him until the apparent quarantine breaches and lax adherence to social distancing guidelines in the community combined to change things so dramatically.
How much has this episode hurt Andrews and his government? Theres little evidence that it has caused a calamitous collapse in public support, but it has damaged him and moved supporters especially some who run businesses out of his column permanently. The calculus is simple: they believed him, and he has let them down.
The political pain could well return when Jennifer Coate, the former judge appointed to inquire into the quarantine breakdown, produces her findings. Perhaps more than ever before during his time as Premier, Andrews has had to at least slow down his relentless push forward to offer an apology to Victorians for the quarantine cock-up and its consequences.
It is a feature of modern politics that prime ministers and premiers who find themselves in serious bother push off their problems to an external inquiry, often in the hope that the heat goes out of the issue and the findings are so convoluted and confusing that the leaders will be able to enjoy plausible deniability in the future.
The heat on Andrews might fall away if, say, a second wave hits another state, and Victoria would no longer be the outlier. Even so, the Premier has found that the push-off, Im-moving-on routine in these circumstances was not sustainable.
He has acknowledged his responsibility and apologised for the situation. He told the ABC: “Im the leader of the state, Im the leader of the government and Im ultimately responsible for what goes on in this pandemic response and in all things.” Asked exactly what went wrong, however, he defers to the Coate inquiry, claiming that he cannot sit in judgment of himself.
Hotel quarantine breaches at the Rydges in Carlton (pictured) and the Stamford Plaza in the CBD have been identified as sources of outbreaks. Credit:Penny Stephens
Of course, he can sit in judgment of himself and he should. But he is not built like that. Whether this element of his political personality will continue to work in these ever more complicated times, where fear, optimism and discomfort fight each other for prime position in the public mind remains to be seen.
Andrews has, to some degree, led with his chin during the pandemic. He began by effectively winning the attention of the public and the media by issuing pithy directives and painting frightening pictures of what could happen if he was ignored. The Chairman Dan soubriquet began as an epithet cooked up by his political and media detractors but then took on a quality of grudging admiration, an acknowledgement of his success, among others.
But once there is a stumble, the hard man who does not take a backward step or show a softer, more humble side, can look isolated and diminished.
The pandemic will be with us for a long time, vaccine or not. The governments messaging, marrying the “staying apart keeps us together” ad campaign with the states political leader admonishing Victorians if they step out of line is unlikely to produce the changes in behaviour that we will need to embrace if we are going to reopen yet again after this lockdown.
Coercion will work for a while and clearly it did until recently but the world is looking for inspiration right now and that should be where the governments communications should head.
The focus on the quarantine cock-up will make it harder to grow and embed any behaviour change message within the wider community, especially among the young adults and social groups who were not adhering closely enough to the social distancing guidelines.
Andrews willingly carries the messaging burden and he could use this opportunity to readjust. It is a lot of work and a lot of sustained exposure for one individual, no matter how popular he is, and no matter how much certitude he carries about his own capacities.
In this, he is reminiscent of another Victorian premier who for a time enjoyed great popularity inside and outside the state, Jeff Kennett. Like Andrews, Kennett was not plagued by self-doubt, liked to have ministers who agreed with him and was the embodiment of the government he headed. Kennett also liked big projects and big positions, boldly stated, and won two elections, one of them in a landslide. His style worked until, at the end of his second term, it did not.
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Shaun Carney is a regular columnist. He is the author of books on industrial relations and the life of Peter Costello, and has been commended by the Walkley Award judges for his political columns.

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