Daniel Andrews is no left winger

Going by the coverage in the Murdoch press, you’d think Victoria under Daniel “Red Dan” Andrews is socialism in one state. On the left too, Andrews is regarded as an outlier among recent Labor leaders. In a 2016 Guardian article, Gay Alcorn claimed, “Daniel Andrews’ government is unashamedly left wing at a time when Australians are more familiar with Labor governments run by the party’s right”.

The reality, though, is that the Victorian government under Daniel Andrews continues the right wing trend of Labor in power over the past few decades. Don’t be fooled by the soft cuddly “progressive” exterior: Andrews is just as committed to neoliberal, pro-business politics as his predecessors. 

The myth of “Red Dan” is largely a product of the media. The likes of Andrew Bolt make much of Andrews’ allegiance to Labor’s so-called Socialist Left faction. These days, however, Labor’s factions have few ideological differences; they are concerned with preselection battles and internal power brokering. 

That former prime minister Julia Gillard cut her teeth in the Socialist Left in the early ’90s tells you a lot about how left wing the faction is. It also tells you something that Andrews’ most loyal ally in parliament is deputy premier James Merlino, who is aligned with the most hard right section of the union movement, the SDA.

Part of the myth comes from the 2014 state election campaign and the way the union movement was mobilised by Victorian Trades Hall Council as a doorknocking army for Labor. 

As Labor strategist Nick Reece recounted in the days following Andrews’ upset victory (it was the first time since 1955 that a Victorian government had been voted out after only one term):  

“If an undecided voter’s top issue was health, they would be contacted by a nurse or paramedic; if it was education it would be a teacher; and so on … The provisional statewide swing to Labor was about 2.5 per cent. In the six seats the union campaign targeted, the swing was about 4.25 per cent. It is these margins that decide the fate of governments.”

The other side of this equation was that the main thrust of the Coalition’s attack on Labor during the campaign was around Andrews’ links to the CFMEU. Day after day the Herald Sun screamed blue murder, arguing that, if Andrews came to power, he would hand over the keys of the city to union thugs and their bikie mates.

Together, these two things created the appearance of a government of and for the Victorian union movement. Contrary to the expectations of the Liberals and the Murdoch scribes, this proved to be an election-winning pitch. Unfortunately for Victorian workers, the perception bears little resemblance to reality.

In power

Following the election, Victorian Trades Hall was thanked for its efforts with $10 million for refurbishment. And public sector workers – including the paramedics, teachers, nurses and firefighters who played such a big part in their election campaign – were rewarded with slightly above trend wage rises in EBA negotiations. 

All this, predictably, enraged the right. The furore over Andrews’ dispute with the Country Fire Authority is a case in point. But, contrary to what the media would have us believe, neither with the CFA, nor in any other dispute since his election, has Andrews been anything more than a lukewarm ally of the unions.

Public sector workers in Victoria getting above inflation wage rises seems like an outlier only because workers are getting a terrible deal elsewhere. And it’s not like Andrews has done anything much to help workers outside the public sector.

The big picture is that wages growth in Victoria was just 2.3 percent in the year to April. This was marginally higher than the rest of Australia, but only just above the rate at which inflation is raising the cost of living. For the vast majority of workers in Victoria, wages are little better under the Andrews government than they would have been under the Coalition.

What about social policy? Small-l liberal commentators such as Alcorn have heaped praise on Andrews for a string of initiatives in the cheap and easy progressive basket: cracking down on “puppy farms”, an Australian-first medical cannabis program, “respectful relationships” training in schools, standing up to the federal government on Safe Schools and refugees, an LGBTI “pride centre” and gender-diverse health services, a safe injecting room trial and more rights for renters.

This is hardly radical stuff – that it can seem so is, again, more to do with the dire state of politics. And all this needs to be weighed against Andrews’ main “legacy building” contribution in the social policy sphere: a massive boost in funding and new powers for police, the tightening of sentencing laws and construction of new prisons.

Andrews hasn’t got on board with the law and order agenda just out of fear of attacks from the right. He has actively helped shape that agenda. Between 2014 and 2017, Victoria’s prison population increased by 17 percent. Spending on “public order and safety” has increased at the highest rate of any policy area, while areas such as housing and education have lagged behind.

All this has opened space for the hysterical, racist campaign by the Coalition and the Murdoch press about the supposed scourge of “African gang” violence. In some suburbs of Melbourne, the far right has formed vigilante groups to roam the streets at night.

To claim in this context, as Alcorn does, that Victoria is the “progress state”, is a joke. Victoria is a state where migrants live in fear of racist attacks, where the poorest and most marginalised are being locked away at a record rate and where those who might want to protest against this face ever more restrictive and heavy-handed policing. 

But we get “respectful relationships” training in schools, and we can put blue tack on the walls of our rental properties. 

On broader macro-economic questions, the Andrews government has barely shifted gear from the neoliberalism of its predecessors. It’s done nothing to turn back the clock on the disastrous waves of privatisation carried out in the early 1990s by Jeff Kennett and incrementally built on by governments of both stripes since.

If anything, the ALP has accelerated the privatisation trend. In 2016, it privatised the Port of Melbourne, adding $9.7 billion to the state’s coffers. In an interview, Andrews commented, “Only a lazy balance sheet has an asset worth that much money; all that value locked up”.

The privatisation drive didn’t stop there. Public housing, state-run homes for people with cognitive disabilities and now Land Use Victoria are being targeted.

The Andrews Labor government is firmly in the mould of the “third way” politics pioneered by British Labour Party leader Tony Blair in the late 1990s. 

It is a government defined by its commitment to pro-business, neoliberal economic policy and massive boosts to police and prisons, with a few crumbs thrown to public sector workers and some relatively minor, but massively promoted, socially progressive titbits thrown in. 

Were Daniel Andrews to wake up tomorrow in the British Labour Party, he would be much more at home with the Blairite faction than he would be with Jeremy Corbyn.