A little over a year, ago tributes flowed thick and fast for Bob Hawke following his passing at age 89. One of Australia’s most popular post-war leaders, Hawke’s popularity peaked at 75% in 1984 off the back of Medicare, The Accord, opposition to the Franklin Dam, and a buoyant performance following the America’s Cup.
While Keating may take the title of Labor’s policy heavy lifter and moderniser, Whitlam the most impactful reformer, and Gillard one of Labor’s most effective and adroit post-war leaders, Hawke was certainly the most popular.
Hawke was a consensus leader, but his popularity wasn’t built out of slavishly following the polls. Despite his affable nature and relatable vernacular, Hawke’s success lay in the fact that he was a conviction politician. He staked out a position and sought to win support for it, and wasn’t buffeted by polling or media pressure.
Enter Daniel Andrews. Admittedly the media landscape has changed significantly in Australia since the 1980s, becoming much more polarised, partisan, and sprinkled with ‘celebrity’ columnists who like to extend their opinions beyond their provincial spheres of knowledge, but Andrews, like Hawke, is inclined to stick to his policy guns. And guess what? The public see it, respect him for it, and have duly rewarded him for it.
The first baptism of fire for Andrews followed his win in the 2014 election. Just prior to the election, the Napthine Government signed the Victorian taxpayer up for a $5.3 billion contract for the East-West Link but after winning the election, Andrews refused to honour the contract despite a dump truck of political and media pressure being applied.
Andrews has never been afraid to advance a political line and stick to it, even where they’re potentially divisive. Support for same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion, and opposition to Reclaim Australia rallies for example. But it’s under a mountain of concrete and infrastructure reform projects that his political opponents have been buried. The city and buildings under construction, evident everywhere for all to see, are tangible reminders of his political convictions, politics made concrete.
Andrews has almost single-handedly broken the back of the economic rationalist grip on Australian politics and media, which flowed abundantly following the denouement of the Soviet Union in 1991. The idea that the state had a role to play, let alone a central one, in economic life, was economically non compis mentis for two decades. Now it’s almost the Australian political model. What Andrews has shown is that state expenditure through infrastructure projects – and Andrews has over $100 billion worth slated and in the pipeline – is extremely popular with voters.
And on par with his bold vision and conviction, is his messaging, which is straight up and down, letting people know there are going to be disruptions but selling the big vision. People get it. Daniel Andrews says what he means and does what he says, whether that’s the metro tunnel, level crossings, fast rail to Geelong, road upgrades. That approach saw the Andrews Government absolutely brain Matthew Guy and the Liberals in 2018.
The two most recent Andrews media pile-ons have centred around his response to the coronavirus, with criticism that he’s bringing the city’s economy to a grinding halt, but once again, ‘Dictator Dan’ is sticking to his plans which is that the science – not political and media theatre – that will inform his policy direction. The other fresh assault is laying into Andrews for his economic plans with the Chinese government. One suspects that Andrews will stay the course here as well and that the proof will be in the economic pudding.
Andrews has survived a maelstrom of media opposition to his political convictions and economic plans and has shown that he’s prepared to take some bark off him and to spend some political capital on his way to his economic and political Shangri-La. And in doing so he might also be exposing the limited reach the media has, or believes it has, when it comes to shaping opinions. The age of Labor leaders forelock tugging before media barons may be a thing of the past as social media starts to gobble traditional media revenue models. Andrews is certainly not afraid to test those waters.
But what other Labor leaders will, or should be taking note of, is that the political capital Andrews has spent in pursuing his policy ambitions is not money down the drain but more like an investment that’s growing his popularity. To many voters, too many Labor leaders shape as wooden, ciphers, and the public smells it.
Moreover the world in the age of Trump is showing how conviction politics is resonating with voters, even outside some quite astounding content. In fact if we look back we can see that conviction politics has always been successful. Stage managed politicians that are focus-group driven very quickly become wooden insiders, inauthentic, and nothing is more objectionable to the voting public.
In America, Bill Clinton was a Washington outsider from Arkansas when he contested and won the Democratic Primary, Obama was the same when he swept a popular wave in 2008. Hillary Clinton by the time she contested was an insider. Trump is an outsider.
In Australia, politicians that are seen as insiders, opportunists, or lacking authenticity and conviction aren’t well treated. Beazley, Crean, and Shorten fit into those categories while the most successful Labor leaders cut their own path to glory.
What kind of Labor leader Albanese will be it’s hard to tell above the noise of COVID, but he could find a worse political model than Daniel Andrews.