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Good riddance to ‘Dictator Dan’

Daniel Andrews, Victoria’s outgoing premier, was an unhinged Covid authoritarian.

Nick Cater
Columnist

Topics Covid-19 Politics World

If the boffins in the Wuhan lab engineered Covid-19 to suit a particular kind of leader, Daniel Andrews would have been the one they had in mind. The retiring Labor Party premier of Victoria, Australia played the politics of fear with panache. During the pandemic, he locked down the state’s 6.5million citizens until their noses bled, and then waited for them to thank him.

To describe Andrews as Teflon-coated is to overstate the durability of thermoplastic-polymer-layered pans. It also understates his mastery of his craft. Indeed, Andrews is, beyond doubt, the most skilful Australian political operator of the modern age.

Andrews held the position of Victoria’s premier for almost 10 years. And his surprise decision to step down this week came only 10 months after he won a second successive landslide win, claiming 56 of the 88 lower-house seats in Victoria’s state parliament, against a demoralised and dishevelled conservative opposition.

When Covid struck Australia, Andrews quickly earned the moniker of ‘Dictator Dan’. Alfred Hitchcock could have learned a thing or two about how to unsettle an audience by tuning into Andrews’ daily Covid press conferences. ‘I know this is scary’, he said as he announced the second stage of Victoria’s lockdown measures in March 2020. ‘But if we don’t slow this thing down… we’ll have people waiting in line for machines to help them breathe.’

Andrews then grabbed a lazily written provision in Victoria’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act to declare a state of emergency. He said it would be in place for four weeks. It actually remained in place for 903 days, allowing him to rule with unchallenged authority.

The Victorian police force was transformed overnight from the keepers of law and order to the enforcers of the premier’s diktats. While some police officers resigned in disgust, most merely followed orders. Others appeared even to relish the additional power.

With a night curfew in force in 2020, police harassed peaceful citizens for crossing the threshold of their property to put out the bins. ‘Incitement to protest’ became a serious offence and the police resorted to monitoring Facebook for those planning anti-lockdown events. Back in the autumn of 2020, this led to the notorious arrest of a pregnant woman wearing her pyjamas in her own home.
As the anti-lockdown protests grew in 2021, police responded by deploying some of the most potent sub-lethal weaponry in the world. In Melbourne, the Pepperball VKS semiautomatic rifle was fired at retreating protesters’ backs. The domestic news was accompanied by a soundtrack of yells, jeers and the crack-crack-crack of rifle fire.

Andrews put Melbourne into a total of six lockdowns. At 262 days, this set the record for the longest in the world. These lockdowns were also more draconian than those in any other liberal democracy.

When Victoria as a whole finally emerged from lockdown, it had the largest per-capita state debt not just in Australia, but also of any similar state in the world. It also had the highest number and share of Covid deaths in Australia.

Andrews’ Victoria served as the crash-test dummy for lockdowns. The results strongly suggest that they are expensive and don’t save lives. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this important lesson will be learned. Last week, Australia’s Labor federal government announced an inquiry into pandemic management. The terms of reference expressly rule out any examination of the lockdowns imposed by state premiers like Andrews. Fortunately for Andrews, there doesn’t seem to be a large public appetite for taking him to task over lockdown.

So how did Andrews remain in power for so long? For one thing, he was a master of social media, his principal channel of communication. He has a million followers on Facebook and more than 442,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter). According to data released last year under a Freedom of Information request, Andrews’ state government employs 286 ministerial advisers and media managers. Some 90 of them report directly to the premier.

What Andrews perhaps did best, though, was placating voters from across the political spectrum. He has straddled the divide between the educated, inner-metropolitan elites and suburban and regional Australia better than any of his contemporaries. He secured left- and green-leaning voters by implementing radical, wokeish policies, without frightening away blue-collar conservatives.

For instance, Andrews was the first premier to introduce legislation that banned so-called LGBT conversion therapy, back in 2019. This was actually a Trojan horse for gender activism of the most insidious kind. The ban made pushing back against a teenager’s wish to transition a criminal act in Victoria. And so a Victorian minor will still need the approval of a responsible adult to get a tattoo, but not to change his or her gender.

Under Andrews, Victoria pursued a whole host of green, woke causes. It was the first state to legalise euthanasia in 2017. It has been zealous in the pursuit of renewable energy, too. Andrews made drilling for unconventional gas illegal in 2016 and banned gas connections to new homes in 2023.

Andrews had the intuition to understand that politics is downstream from culture. He also knew that Victorians are the most woke constituency in Australia – they are as different from Queenslanders and Western Australians as Californians are from Texans.

Unlike other ‘progressive’ leaders, however, Andrews has retained the common touch. While the state Labor governments in Queensland and Western Australia have infuriated recreational fishers with environmental regulations and quotas, Andrews recognised the size and influence of his state’s outdoor-recreation vote by despatching numerous small grants to make boating easier.

Andrews deserves credit for weakening and dividing his state’s conservative opposition. He managed to drag Victoria’s Liberal-National coalition to the left. The coalition has offered token resistance, at best, to the radical legislation passed under its nose.

Such is the cult of Andrews that the transition to a new leader won’t be easy. On top of uncontrolled, rising debt, Andrews leaves behind the stink of withdrawing as the host of the 2026 Commonwealth Games, burdening taxpayers with a $380million cancellation fee.

Conventional political wisdom would tell you that Labor’s third term, which ends in 2026, will be its last for a while. After Andrews, however, the old laws of politics no longer apply. Barring injections of charisma, wit and principle into Labor’s opponents, Andrews’ most important legacy may be turning Victoria into a one-party state.

Nick Cater is executive director of Menzies Research Centre and a columnist with the Australian.

Picture by; Getty.

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Topics Covid-19 Politics World

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