Are 5 senior ministers leaving Victoria’s Andrew’s government a sign of renewal – or deterioration?

Renewal or disapproval? These are the competitive narratives that now surround Daniel Andrews’ Victorian Labor government, with five senior ministers leaving the cabinet as a provisional departure from parliament in November’s state election.

The resignations of this quintet – Deputy Prime Minister James Merlino, Lisa Neville, Martin Foley, Martin Pakula and Richard Wynne – are the equivalent of losing one quarter of the cabinet.

Another seven ministers either resigned voluntarily from the cabinet or were ousted during this term of office. This is undeniably a high ministerial turnover.

But in another way, this rush to the door is imperceptible. The Andrews administration is already the second longest-serving Labor government in Victorian history and will ask voters in November to extend its term to 12 years.

If Andrews had remained prime minister until the end of 2026 (which seems more unlikely given the events of the past week), only post-World War II liberal behemoth Henry Bolte would have survived longer in office.

That kind of longevity brings wear and tear.



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Are 5 senior ministers leaving Victoria's Andrew's government a sign of renewal - or deterioration?
Martin Pakula is among those leaving.
AAP Image / Con Chronis

A taxing profession

Although there is public cynicism about politicians, theirs is a tax profession.

The five cabinet members who will leave politics in November have a total of almost a hundred years of experience in parliament.

Ministerial responsibilities are particularly demanding and became even more cumbersome during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is then an argument that turnover in the composition of cabinet is a good thing. It does bring opportunity for rejuvenation.

Rejuvenation, of course, depends on whether there are still existing reserves of talent on the back seat of Andrews’ aging government to cover the room.

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 important was Jacinta Allan’s replacement of Merlino as deputy prime minister.

There are two types of deputies: the loyal lieutenant and the leader on guard. Merlino was the former – he did not want the premiership himself.

In all respects he also had the necessary skills to provide an effective foil to Andrews. Andrews is a dominant force within his own government and is not ashamed to step on toes.

In contrast, as demonstrated when he observed for a long period during 2021, Merlino was more consultative in style and had a calming effect.

Are 5 senior ministers leaving Victoria's Andrew's government a sign of renewal - or deterioration?
Merlino was advisory in style and had a calming influence.
AAP Image / Joel Carrett

Andrews and Merlino were from different factions and there was an expectation that faction leaders would insist on maintaining that arrangement.

In a dramatic assertion of his authority, however, Andrews put the factions and his parliamentary colleagues first by anointing Allan (who, like the prime minister, is a member of the Socialist Left faction) in public as Merlino’s replacement.

Presented with an accomplished fact, the Labor Caucus dutifully agreed to Allan’s upliftment.

Andrews’ nomination of Allan as deputy premier is full of meaning. He would have done it in the knowledge (and expectation) that she would be a different form of deputy than Merlino was; she will be more than a loyal lieutenant.

Instead, Allan is now recognized as Andrews’ heir. It was briefly a succession plan; Andrews tries to create the conditions for a Labor dynasty that survives him.

Are 5 senior ministers leaving Victoria's Andrew's government a sign of renewal - or deterioration?
The resignations of Lisa Neville, James Merlino, Martin Foley, Martin Pakula and Richard Wynne are the equivalent of losing one quarter of Andrews’ cabinet.
AAP Image / Con Chronis

Speculation grows about Daniel Andrews’ own future

Indeed, one of the by-products of the spate of government deviations and the appointment of Allan as deputy prime minister is that speculation will inevitably grow about Andrews’ own future.

This is likely to be a point of discussion in November’s election campaign.

Having reigned supreme over the Victorian political landscape since his election as Prime Minister in November 2014, managing expectations about Andrews’ future retirement will be a challenge but also an opportunity for the government.

If we look ahead to November’s election, of all the things that will threaten Labor’s continued grip on office, the most dangerous will probably be a “it’s time” factor.

It is voters fatigue with a government that will ask for more than a decade in office. Undoubtedly, Andrews will be the focal point of that problem for Labor.

At the forefront of everything the government does, and its prominence increased especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when it became a figure of national curiosity, there is a risk that Andrews would have exhausted his welcome to a public that might after life yearns for Dan.

Are 5 senior ministers leaving Victoria's Andrew's government a sign of renewal - or deterioration?
Of all the recent changes, the most important was Jacinta Allan’s replacement of Merlino as deputy premier.
AAP Image / James Ross

Recreating an aging government

Jacinta Allan’s apparent heir status and an understanding that Andrews is likely to leave for a time during a third term could actually become a way for Labor to mitigate the “it’s time” effect.

The recognition that Allan is in the running to become Victoria’s second women prime minister (behind Joan Kirner) could also further erode the government’s attractive record of promoting women to senior leadership roles.

The hardest thing for an aging government is to recreate itself.

Overall, last week’s developments in Spring Street represent the first step towards Victorian Labor performing that elusive feat.



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