Renewal or decline? These are the competing narratives that now surround Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government, with five senior ministers exiting cabinet as a preliminary to leaving parliament at November’s state election.
The resignations of this quintet – deputy premier James Merlino, Lisa Neville, Martin Foley, Martin Pakula, and Richard Wynne – is the equivalent of the loss of one quarter of the cabinet.
Another seven ministers have either voluntarily resigned from cabinet or been pushed out during the course of this term of government. This is indisputably a high ministerial turnover.
Yet in another way, this rush to the door is unremarkable. The Andrews administration is already the second longest serving Labor government in Victorian history and at November’s poll will be asking the electorate to extend its tenure to 12 years.
If Andrews were to remain premier until the end of 2026 (which seems more unlikely given the events of the past week) only the post-Second World War Liberal behemoth Henry Bolte would have survived longer in office.
That kind of longevity brings wear and tear.
A taxing profession
Though there is public cynicism about politicians, theirs is a taxing profession.
The five cabinet members who are departing politics in November have a combined total of nearly one hundred years of experience in parliament.
Ministerial responsibilities are particularly demanding and during the COVID-19 pandemic became even more onerous.
There is then an argument that turnover in the composition of cabinet is a good thing. It does bring opportunity for rejuvenation.
Rejuvenation depends, of course, on whether there are still existing reserves of talent on the backbench of Andrews’ ageing government to cover the departures.
Goodbye James Merlino, hello Jacinta Allan
Of all the changes to the composition of the Andrews government in the wake of last week’s ministerial resignations, the most significant was Jacinta Allan’s replacement of Merlino as deputy premier.
There are two types of deputy: the loyal lieutenant and the leader in waiting. Merlino was the former – he did not covet the premiership himself.
From all accounts, he also had the necessary skill set to provide an effective foil to Andrews. Andrews is a dominating force within his own government and is not shy of treading on toes.
By way of contrast, as demonstrated when he was acting premier for an extended period during 2021, Merlino was more consultative in style and had a calming influence.
Andrews and Merlino were from different factions and there was an expectation that faction chiefs would insist on the preservation of that arrangement.
However, in a dramatic assertion of his authority, Andrews pre-empted the factions and his parliamentary colleagues by publicly anointing Allan (who, like the premier, is a member of the Socialist Left faction) as Merlino’s replacement.
Presented with a fait accompli, the Labor Caucus dutifully assented to Allan’s elevation.
Andrews’ nomination of Allan as deputy premier is full of meaning. He will have done so in the knowledge (and expectation) she will be a different mould of deputy than was Merlino; she will be more than a loyal lieutenant.
Instead, Allan is now recognised as the heir apparent to Andrews. This was, in short, a succession plan; Andrews is trying to create the conditions for a Labor dynasty that outlasts him.
Speculation grows about Daniel Andrews’ own future
Indeed, one of the by-products of the spate of departures from the government and the installation of Allan as deputy premier is that speculation will inevitably grow about Andrews’ own future.
This is likely to be a talking point in November’s election campaign.
Having towered over the Victorian political landscape since his election as premier in November 2014, managing expectations about Andrews’ future exit will be a challenge but also an opportunity for the government.
Looking ahead to November’s election, of all the things that will threaten Labor’s continuing grip on office probably the most dangerous will be an “it’s time” factor.
That is electorate fatigue with a government that will be asking for more than a decade in office. Unquestionably, Andrews will be the focal point of that problem for Labor.
Front and centre in everything the government does, and his prominence especially heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic when he became a figure of national curiosity, there is a risk Andrews will have worn out his welcome with a public that may hanker for life after Dan.
Remaking an ageing government
Jacinta Allan’s heir apparent status and an understanding that Andrews is likely to depart some time during a third term may actually become a means for Labor to mitigate the “it’s time” effect.
The recognition that Allan is in line to become Victoria’s second woman premier (behind Joan Kirner) can also further burnish the government’s handsome record of promoting women to senior leadership roles.
The hardest thing for an ageing government is to remake itself.
On balance, last week’s developments in Spring Street represent the first step towards Victorian Labor performing that elusive feat.