The Myth of “Dan the Man” – Victorian Labor is now every bit as dangerous as the NSW Liberals

by Davey Heller, 16th September 2021

Many Victorians were shocked at the start of September when the Labor State Premier, Dan Andrews, almost overnight dropped the fight to return to Covid Zero. They had come to be reassured that Andrews would be different to the Liberals north of the Murray in Sydney, after all this was “Dan the Man”. Hadn’t we spent the last eighteen months pushing back against Murdoch’s attacks on him with countless #IStandWithDan tweets. However, “Dan the Man” turned out to be a myth and the Victorian Labor Party has now adopted Covid policies equally reckless to the New South Wales (NSW) Liberals under Gladys Berejeklian .

In Andrew’s own words, his policies will create a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”. His abandonment of the goal of Zero Covid cases, has turned the Victorian lockdown into a “mockdown”. Millions of Melbournians are locked in their homes whilst non-essential business continue to drive community spread ever higher. The NSW Liberals and the Victorian Labor Government now stand in total unity in trying to force mass infection not only on their own states populaces but on the still Covid zero rest of Australia. It now cannot be denied “learning to live with Covid’ with all its disastrous consequences is now a bipartisan project.

Panaroma high rise construction site in Box Hill is linked to 120 cases

Dan Andrews and Gladys Berejeklian now spruik the same double lie. Firstly, that increasing vaccinations, in the context of rising community transmission, provides a safe path out of lockdown and to “freedom”. Aiming only to “flatten the curve” so ICU’s are not overwhelmed, their policies are resulting in spiralling case numbers, a prolonged lockdown and laying the groundwork for ongoing disruption, illness and deaths. The second lie is that Delta cannot be suppressed, a lie that can be maintained by dismissing the experience of Queensland or further afield China where Delta outbreaks were just beaten back.  New Zealand’s strict lockdown whilst not there yet, is also making progress.

Andrews ditched his commitment to Zero Covid almost overnight. Now cases are now rising faster in Victoria than in Sydney. His claim of “throwing everything” at Delta is just not true. Whilst a lockdown was initiated early, aerosol transmission in workplaces was not seriously tackled considering Delta’s increased contagiousness. The cost of allowing non-essential businesses to operate is now obvious with Health Minister, Martin Foley, admitting that construction alone was responsible for up to one third of all current cases.

Considering Andrews embrace of “living with the virus”, it’s worth re-examining his pandemic record.

Andrews delayed lockdown for almost a month in mid-2020 after cases leaked out of Hotel Quarantine till cases were at 149 a day. Dan briefly pioneered the model of harsher lockdowns for poorer working-class suburbs and ordered a heavy-handed lockdown of public housing tenants. The more draconian Stage 4 lockdown only began when cases reached almost 700 a day. This slowness to act meant an 111 day lockdown was required to suppress the virus at which took a high toll on ordinary people economically and psychologically.

In contrast when lockdowns are part of an elimination strategy, they are called early and are short and sharp. This is the way they have been used in all states and territories except NSW and Victoria and have worked to not only suppress covid but avoid extended lockdowns.

So given Dan’s slowness to act in 2020 how did he end up with his reputation as the dogged public health defender. The answers lie in the battle amongst the ruling class that broke out when covid arrived on Australia’s shores. Morrison is a far-right politician. It’s no surprise that Morrison and the faction of the ruling class he represents wanted to ape the herd immunity policies of Johnson and Trump. Who can forget Morrison’s gormless performance waving his scarf in the air at the Rugby days before the whole country went into lockdown.

Federalism got in the way of these plans though. The State Premiers, both Labor and Liberal baulked at the idea of overflowing hospitals and locked down to defeat the first wave. Andrews alienated the Federal Liberals and sections of Big Business at this point through his insistence schools close as part of the Covid measures. Andrew’s also stared down Federal Government hostility when he insisted that Victoria must re-join the Covid Free status of the rest of Australia by suppressing the second wave. Andrews, and the faction of the ruling class backing him, in the absence of vaccines rejected herd immunity and still saw suppression as the best option.

Andrews subsequently became a sort of punching bag for the “live with the virus”, freedom loving anti-lockdown brigade, particularly in the Murdoch Press. “Dictator Dan’s” reputation was not dented by the reality of his reluctance to lockdown in Melbourne’s second wave. Targeting Andrews created the “pro-lockdown” bogeyman they needed. The fact he happened to me a dominant Labor leader in a state where the Liberal Party were struggling electorally was not irrelevant. Nor was the beef of the Federal Government with Andrews for refusing to toe the line at their escalation of hostilities with China when his Government signed a MOU as part of the Belt and Road Project.  The myth of “Dan the Man” in some ways then was a creation of both this campaign against Dan Andrews and the understanding by many that these attacks were really aimed at destroying all efforts to suppress Covid. 

Police outside a locked down public housing block in July 2020

However, the difference between Andrews and the Federal Liberals were unfortunately not as great as many believed. By signing the “National Plan” based on the Doherty modelling, Andrews and the other Premiers had come round to Morrison’s view that eventually we would have to let mass infection occur and “learn to live with the virus”. Andrews originally planned to wait until the vaccination targets of 70 or 80 percent to stop trying to suppress Covid but he was not prepared to tighten sufficiently restrictions on business or spend the money required to suppress the latest Delta outbreak. “Dan the Man” who had posed so resolutely as the defender of public health against the Federal Government suddenly started singing from the same songbook – time to stop fighting covid and prepare for necessary “collateral damage” to protect profits.

So if Morrison and Berejiklian represent the hard right of the Australian ruling class, who does Andrew’s represent? Andrews is a Labor Party politician. The Labor Party’s legitimacy relies on their historical connection to the union movement and their claims to be the “party of workers”. This makes them a Social Democratic party that claims it can bring in reforms to capitalism to make it fairer for the working class. Aside from the fact that the Labor Party, like every major Social Democratic Party in the world in recent decades has moved far to the right, there has always been a irreconcilable tension in the Social Democratic project. One cannot work within the confines of the capitalist system without ultimately serving it. This means Social Democratic Parties, as much as their opponents “across the aisle”, ultimately serve the interests of Big Business.

This is the ultimate lesson of the past 18 months in Australia for the working class. Whilst the split in the ruling class between the far right Federal Government and a section of big business run up against the State Premiers, including the Labor Premiers in particular in WA, Queensland and Victoria, ultimately neither faction were driven by a desire to protect the health of the working class. The Federal Government would have liked to pursue a herd immunity from the beginning. The other faction decided that when Corona virus was suppressed and essentially accidentally eliminated from Australia, it would be better for business to keep the virus out whilst we awaited vaccines.

National Cabinet Meeting Dec 2020 From Right: NSW Premier Berejiklian, PM Morrison, Vic Premier Dan Andrews

Once the vaccine program took off in earnest the calculus changed. All the State Premiers signed up the “National Plan” based on the Doherty report. One way or the other the Premiers had come round to Morrison’s view that we would have to let mass infection occur at some stage and “learn to live with the virus”. Whilst Dan Andrews like his state counterparts wanted to wait until the vaccination targets of %70 or %80 percent were met, once NSW let it rip, he simply was not prepared to tighten the lockdown sufficiently on business or spend the amount of money needed to required to suppress a Delta outbreak. “Dan the Man” who had said posed so resolutely as the defender of public health against the Federal Government suddenly started singing from the same songbook – time to stop fighting covid and prepare for necessary “collateral damage” to protect profits. There were other positions of unity between the two factions throughout the pandemic. Of course, neither faction wanted to spend too much money on the project by doing anything crazy like building new hospitals, investing in PPE and increased ventilation in workplaces or quickly building safe efficient quarantine facilities that didn’t leak. Of both factions were also united in their indifference to the abolition of the JobSeeker covid supplement and the return of welfare during the pandemic to below poverty levels.

A special mention must be made of the role of the trade union bureaucracies. Rather the ACTU and Trades Hall have largely restricted themselves publicly to the government friendly demands that their members get vaccinated. Public statements by union bureaucrats have largely involved an unseemly competition between different sectors of vulnerable workers. Currently the supposedly “militant” CFMEU is overseeing a virtual free for all amongst Melbourne construction sector, doing nothing to even improve OHS and hundreds of construction workers are infected with Covid, endangering not just themselves but their families. One hundred and twenty workers were infected on one site alone.

There has however been small scale actions and walk off at some workplaces over Covid19 safety and rank and file workers and delegates have struggled hard to protect themselves but these efforts have not been amplified into broader public struggles by the bureaucracies. These efforts must be built upon into a real fight by workers and unionists for safe working conditions. Covid19 is an industrial issue!

The experience of Andrew’s betrayal of the working class is mirrored by other Social Democrat or “Progressive” Governments around the world. Most glaringly is the example of Biden in the US who is now preceding over a massive and deadly  “pandemic of the unvaccinated” in the US. From AMLO in Mexico to  Swedish Social Democrat Party, social Democrats have promoted the “live with virus” disaster.

What is needed in an understanding from workers that no capitalist politician can be trusted to protect the interests of the working class. Whilst “Dan the Man” might have stood as a temporary barrier to the herd immunity policies of the far right, this was only ever done as a short term strategic decision ultimately based on what he believed was best for business. So workers of West Australia, Queensland, South Australia, Northern Territory, ACT and Tasmania take heed! Whilst right now your interests and your ruling classes intersect in keeping Covid at zero, this is only temporary, they cannot be relied upon! What must be done now is the building of a movement in the workplaces and communities around Australia based amongst ordinary people, the working class. The working class is everyone in this country who relies on earning wages to survive, which is the vast majority of the country. This movement must work together to demand and fight for policies demand that no worker, child or vulnerable persons life should be sacrificed on the alter of profit. Covid must be eliminated once again from Australia and then we must demand that the same is done internationally! Reject the “realism” of the ruling class that dismisses using humanities vast resources and collective intelligence for anything other than private gain. It is only the backwardness of this system that makes it a controversial statement that all must be done to eliminate a dangerous new virus, when the technical capacity to do so exists. The myth of “Dan the Man” must stand as a political reminder that it is only when we fight together as a class that we can defend ourselves.  

Davey Heller

Davey Heller is a Trotskyist from Melbourne and long-time campaigner for Left-wing causes including anti-war, refugee rights, environmental protests and workers' struggles. He is a former secondary teacher who studied history at Monash University and currently works in the environmental field. You can follow him on Twitter at @socialist_davey

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