Victoria’s election result dispelled the myth of Daniel Andrews’ supposed unpopularity

Media and the Liberal party were enthralled by the ‘toxic Dan’ narrative in the face of evidence to the contrary

There is a bias all journalists share. It is baked into the profession, inseparable from craft skills, such as news sense. It is not ideological or party political. Rather, it skews the judgment towards whatever interpretation of the evidence makes for the best, most exciting story.

This, surely, is one of the reasons that so much of the media reporting of the Victorian election campaign was off the mark – particularly in the last week, when multiple outlets were predicting a late swing to the Coalition and against Labor.

Now the results are in, and while there has been a slight shuffle in the deck of Victoria’s electorates, the main message is that Victoria has not changed much since 2018, when Labor won a landslide victory and the Liberal party was humiliated.

That’s despite the trauma of lockdowns, the government involvement in several Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission inquiries and the rising levels of debt.

But “nothing changes” does not a headline make. So, while there was a lot of good reporting during the election – important investigative stories, close grained seat by seat reporting and courageous experiments such as The Age’s citizens agenda – we also saw considerable coverage that was simply wrong, and oddly disassociated from what reporters on the ground were hearing and seeing.

The media were not the only ones to blame. The Liberal party, too, ran a campaign that rested on false assumptions, although the facts were reasonably clear.

The first is the myth of premier Daniel Andrews’ unpopularity – despite the fact that he has had consistently high popularity ratings. One of the main messages coming from the Liberals was that voting for them was the only way to get rid of him. Yet the evidence and the public opinion polls have consistently suggested that Andrews has in fact united the majority of Victorians, not only through the traumas of the Covid pandemic but also in support of his ambitious infrastructure projects, and their remodelling of Australia’s fastest growing city.

You wouldn’t want to overstate his unifying effect, given the primary vote was down – 37.1% compared to 42.9% in 2018 – but the lost votes went not to the Liberal party but to independents and minor parties. The preferences returned to Labor. This was hardly a vote for change.

True, Labor suffered big swings in the outer suburbs – a reflection, I suspect, of anger about lack of services and general neglect rather than as many in the media suggested, anger over pandemic management. We saw the same factors at play in the country, where the National party retained its seats and won back others from independents who were seen as too close to the government.

But as for “toxic Dan” as one headline put it, who was supposedly a drag on the Labor vote, the polls have never showed that he was on the nose, nor that voters were waiting for him with that culturally bereft cliche of political reporting, the baseball bat. And yet much of the media and political class had trouble believing that it was so.

Once a narrative takes hold, it is hard to shift.

So in what way is Victoria different? What are we missing, and what is the Liberal party apparently missing? We can look to history and in particular the last three elections for evidence.

Victorians largely support immigration and reject the politics of race, which Matthew Guy tried to use so disastrously in 2018 with his African gangs law and order campaign.

Second, more than in other states, Victorians expect their governments to be active, to step up to solve social problems. Henry Bolte and Jeff Kennett were active Liberal premiers. Daniel Andrews is an activist from Labor. So Victorians largely like the idea of the Suburban Rail Loop. Polls have consistently shown this to be the case. Melburnians have largely signed on to the Andrews view that the value it will deliver will put the bean counters and the naysayers on the wrong side of history. The debt it racks up is good debt, he says, because it is an investment.

Victorians mostly adopt the idea of the social contract. They are more likely to believe in collective effort. During the Covid lockdowns, in his daily media conference the premier spoke largely over the heads of hectoring reporters and made a deal with the public. Tolerate restrictions until most of us are vaccinated, and then different approaches will be taken.

He has stuck to that deal – arguably too rigidly, given he has continued to wind back public health measures even as Covid continues to kill and injure.

But it has added to his image as someone who gets things done, and does what he says he will do.

The surveys tell us that Victorians are concerned about political integrity. So why didn’t the Ibac investigations count against Andrews? Perhaps the voters saw a distinction, which the media has largely failed to draw, between being questioned by Ibac and being directly implicated in allegations of corruption.

Or perhaps they just believe that the Liberal party is no better.

So this is the state of Victoria – wellspring of Australia’s two main political parties, yet increasingly misunderstood by one of them, and sections of the media.

At least since John Howard was prime minister, the Liberal party has drifted away from its Victorian small-l liberal roots and towards New South Wales, and the right. That means Labor has become the natural party of government in Victoria – in office for three-quarters of the last four decades.

I have painted a pretty picture for progressives, but there are dangers in all this. Any long-term government becomes encrusted with networks of influence and cronyism. It is hard for a successful government to continually refresh itself. Andrews is a powerful, hard-headed leader who runs a centralised and controlling style of government. Increasingly, we can expect the pathologies of the Labor party to be writ large on the culture of the state.

Given the state of the Liberal party, another Labor win in 2026 seems more than likely – whether or not Andrews is still leader. If that happens, by 2030 most Victorians under the age of 40 won’t have much memory of any other colour of government.

Power relationships and networks of influence will have hardened. The arteries will grow sclerotic. For this reason, we have to hope that the Liberal party is able to reconnect with liberalism.

Government is improved when oppositions are strong – when they present real alternative governments, including a narrative and a vision, rather than a grab bag of promises. This time around the Liberal campaign was better than in 2018. It neutralised climate change as an issue by committing to real action – and thus held off further defeats by teal candidates.

But it devised no compelling narrative of what kind of government it would be, given the chance. Instead, the main messages were disconnected from the audience.

Victoria needs political parties – and a media – that speaks to its best instincts.

Otherwise, in a decade’s time, we might not be living in such a pretty place after all.

  • Dr Margaret Simons is a board member of the Scott Trust, the core purpose of which is to secure the financial position and editorial independence of the Guardian