Full disclosure: I’ve never been a huge fan of Victoria’s Premier, Dan Andrews. I always felt his leadership style a bit too autocratic for my taste, and I had major concerns with many of the “nanny state” type laws that sought to impose an ideological agenda at the expense of free thought and expression—rather than a society that respected the right to diverse views instead of only the “right” way of thinking.
Lord of his Domain
Perhaps my biggest issue, though, was the decision to sign an agreement with China. Aside from the question of whether economic concerns outweigh the moral aspect of dealing with a regime that tramples human rights and poses perhaps the greatest threat to a free world since Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, a State Government has no business entering agreements with a foreign nation, especially when it undermines the Federal Government’s efforts to protect the national interest.
To me, it was just another sign of a deep-seated arrogance that came from a belief that his opinions were the only ones that mattered, a one-man government where, in the end, would make whatever decision it thought right and refuse to change it regardless of external opinion. In the end, he answered to no one bar himself.
Servants of the People
No doubt some may think I am being a bit harsh, and it’s not like he’s the first Premier to run his state like his own private little fiefdom (remember Joh). I wouldn't even be bothering to write about it—people would already have their own opinion about him and me writing about it is unlikely to change their minds—if it weren’t for the fact that it showed just how remarkable the response of our leaders has been.
Whatever you may think of their politics, and what they may have gotten wrong or should have done differently, as a whole our governments have put the country first, instead of their own party’s interest or personal ambition or gain. In the first, critical, months we saw the formation of a National Cabinet that cut across party lines, and an Opposition that focussed on ensuring the government’s policies were the best possible versions of themselves, rather than reflexively obstructing and delaying support measures struggling Australians needed yesterday.
As you would expect there have been moments where politicians have reverted to type, and we’ve seen examples where states have gone their own way or against the federal government’s wishes, and times when the temptation to score political points has proven impossible to resist. But, you can’t expect people to suddenly become saints, let alone politicians, and behaviour that was once what we had come to expect from politicians has become the exception rather than the rule.
Now that we’ve come to terms with the post-COVID world and, if not out of the woods yet, are not wandering lost in the dark without a map, that initial sense of urgency and solidarity is starting to fade a little and we are seeing the return of some of those political games. But, there is still a feeling that we are all in this together, and until this crisis is over anything other than making sure we survive this is way down the list of priorities.
Leopards and Changeable Spots
Putting my earlier criticisms aside, I was more than willing to give credit where credit was due, and in that critical beginning stage, I think Dan Andrews did a pretty good job. And, like that other consummate politician Scott Morrison, he showed that he was capable of adapting to a suddenly transformed world, and change into the leader that was needed for the situation.
There are plenty of leaders who are simply incapable of turning their back on the way they have always done things, and when faced with a situation that calls for it are found wanting (Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest wartime leader in history, may have won the war but lost his way in the peace).
Cometh the Moment, Cometh the Dan
But Andrews seemed like a completely different person. He emphasised the need for consultation and collaboration and made himself completely accessible to the press. Every day he fronted a press conference and stayed as long as there were still questions, very different than the traditional get out of there as quick as you can kind we were used to. And, he was far more patient with some of the stupid questions than I would have been!
But, a combination of scandals, such as the hotel quarantine fiasco, and the growing lockdown fatigue and its impact on mental health, have started to expose the cracks. His approval numbers are still seemingly unbeatable, but there is a feeling in the air that sentiment is beginning to turn against him.
His refusal to take any time off or miss a single press conference had been seen as something to admire, proof of an unimpeachable work ethic. But, as weeks have turned into months it is starting to look more like a stubborn refusal to delegate and a cause for concern. No other job would allow someone to work day after day, and it is clearly taking a toll. He looks exhausted and is finding it harder and harder to conceal his impatience with journalists—though sometimes you can hardly blame him. It’s not unreasonable to question whether it is affected his decision-making ability and whether refusing to take time off is really serving the state, or is a sign of a stubborn refusal to have his decisions questioned.
Smoke and Mirrors
There is also a growing feeling that press conferences are not quite the roof of a new age of transparency they might appear, but are a very clever way of projecting an illusion of openness and accountability while ensuring that the press are focussed on what the government wants and allowing them to avoid talking about problematic subjects by labelling them out of scope of the briefing’s purpose to inform the public about the virus.
A Tale of Two Cities
Over the next few weeks, Premier Andrews will have to make a choice—go back to centralised decision making based on internal opinions and data, championing its conclusions against any external dissent or factors. Often this means confusing having the courage to see things through with an inability to adapt to new information or an unwillingness to accept a better way offered by someone else.
Or, he can take a moment to listen to what other experts are saying, here and around the world, and to the public who have been so willing to do the right thing throughout this but want to know that they are being heard. It may be that little changes, that the current roadmap is our best bet. Or maybe there is room to change some of the things that were right according to the data we had at the time, but we now know more.
Whatever happens, Dan, like all our leaders, need to remember that it won’t be the leaders of yesterday that get us through this or even the ones of today. It will be the leaders who are willing to put aside their own preconceptions and adapt, and be flexible enough to be whatever leader each day needs.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army’s magazine,War Cry. He is also a cricket tragic, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html