Andrews saved lives, but was no socialist

27 September 2023
Mick Armstrong

Dan Andrews, who has just resigned after nine years as Victorian premier, was probably the most controversial Labor leader since Gough Whitlam or indeed Jack Lang. Andrews was detested by the right as “Dictator Dan”, a man out to destroy all the “freedoms” so beloved by arch reactionaries and libertarians, such as the right of business owners to put profits above basic health measures.

The corporate media relentlessly campaigned against Andrews, but to little effect: he continued to crush the badly divided Victorian Liberal Party in elections.

The Murdoch press championed the cause of the far-right crazies, denouncing Andrews as the “ruthless hard man of the left”. Sky News host Peta Credlin’s response to Andrews’s resignation was: “My only regret is that he resigned and he wasn’t ... taken away in handcuffs”.

The ABC, the supposedly liberal Age and radio commentators such as Neil Mitchell were little better. They provided a platform for any and every whingeing cafe owner and petty capitalist to voice their reactionary grievances against Andrews.

The Age and others viewed Andrews as far too independent and too successful in demolishing the Liberals, the establishment’s preferred party of government. Inflaming their hostility was the fact that Andrews had gone over the heads of the capitalist press by building up a huge support base on social media.

But the right’s hatred of Andrews simply served to harden and cohere his supporters. He established an image as a strong, determined leader who brushed criticism aside and got things done with his “Big Build” program.

The right denounced Andrews as being too close to the unions, for cancelling the Commonwealth Games, for a lack of integrity (something business leaders are so famous for) and massive spending on vital infrastructure projects. But it was his COVID policies that provoked the greatest outrage.

Wide sections of the capitalist class—backed by the media, Liberal politicians and an array of small business owners—campaigned relentlessly against the lockdowns and mask mandates that hit their profits. They gave the go-ahead to violent fascist-style mobs to take to the streets demanding the overthrow of the Labor government.

But without health measures being imposed, tens of thousands of more lives would have been lost. At 873 deaths per million people, compared to 3,513 per million in the US and 3,344 in the UK, Australia has one of the lowest death tolls from COVID of any advanced capitalist country.

And the great majority of Australia’s 22,754 deaths from COVID occurred after Andrews and the other Labor premiers caved in to ruling class pressure and prematurely lifted restrictions like mask mandates.

There are plenty of justified criticisms that can be made of the Andrews government’s handling of the COVID crisis—the underfunding of the health system prior to the pandemic, the lack of contact tracers, the botched handling of hotel quarantining and the fact that government subsidies overwhelmingly favoured business while casual workers who lost their jobs or had to quarantine received totally inadequate levels of social and income support.

However, the ongoing media and ruling class campaigns denouncing lockdowns and health mandates have absolutely nothing to do with protecting the mass of the population from death and disease or safeguarding their livelihoods or mental health. It is all about ensuring that, in any future pandemic, no government will feel confident to take decisive health measures that interfere with business operations and profit making.

The likes of Andrew Bolt ranted that Andrews was a “global warming extremist” and a member of the Socialist Left faction of the ALP. But despite a veneer of social progressiveness around issues such as abortion rights, gay conversion therapy and the decriminalisation of public drunkenness, Andrews was far from heading some left-wing, pro-worker government.

There is nothing in the least radical, let alone communist, about the ALP Socialist Left or Dan Andrews. The ideological differences between the Labor factions are virtually non-existent. Labor’s so-called left and right these days are simply rival machines fighting to carve up the spoils of office.

The supposed leftist Andrews worked very closely with billionaire property developers and with toll operator Transurban, awarding them lucrative contract after lucrative contract. Labor has also long been in bed with Crown Casino and the gambling industry.

Andrews is best mates with right-wing trucking magnate Lindsay Fox, one of only ten Australians who have appeared in every Financial Review Rich List, or its predecessor, the BRW Rich 200, since it was first published in 1984.

After former Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett ravaged vital public services, Andrews privatised virtually everything left standing, including public housing, the Port of Melbourne, VicRoads, disability services and the Public Records Office.

The Andrews government presided over the running down of the healthcare system and enforced a harsh wage cap that savaged the real wages of nurses, teachers and other public sector workers.

Andrews spent big on rail and road projects but also on prisons and police numbers. His law-and-order agenda of increased police powers and tougher bail laws led to a surge in prison numbers largely for very minor offences. For all the talk of Labor’s progressive approach to Aboriginal rights, it was disproportionally young Aboriginal people that were being locked up.

The media are demanding that under new leader Jacinta Allan Labor move on from the “divisiveness” of the Andrews era—in other words, to become even more right wing. For the establishment, anything that hampers profit making is inherently outrageous and “divisive”.

The bosses and the media have been railing for years about record state debt levels, but have opposed any tax increases on their mega profits to pay down the debt, stridently opposing Labor’s minimal increases in pay roll tax and in taxes on investment properties, and the outrage of taxing super-rich private schools like Geelong Grammar or Scotch College.

Their mantra is cuts, cuts, cuts to core public services and the wages of public sector workers, and the privatisation of the remaining government assets.

After his re-election last November, Andrews attempted to reassure big business with a range of austerity measures, including slashing the public sector workforce and abandoning some infrastructure projects.

Then, in his last move before retiring, Andrews announced a further savaging of the remaining public housing stock. In an absolute bonanza for property developers, Melbourne’s high rise public housing towers, all of which are situated on prime inner-city real estate, will be knocked down.

Workers facing an ongoing and deepening cost-of-living crisis can expect no relief from Labor, either at the state or federal level. Neither new Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan nor PM Anthony Albanese is going to buck the bosses and boost social spending and workers’ wages.

Only a determined fightback by rank-and-file workers can prevent things from getting a lot worse over the next few years. To spur on that fightback, we need to build a militant socialist alternative prepared to stand up to both Labor and the bosses.

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