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Australia When will Daniel Andrews be back? It's unclear, but we're getting a taste of politics without him

00:26  02 april  2021
00:26  02 april  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Victorian politics has been a little quieter in recent weeks as the media spotlight shines brightly on the darkest corners of federal parliament.

It's also been quieter because Labor's talismanic leader Daniel Andrews is sidelined after falling over some wet stairs and fracturing a vertebra and several ribs.

He won't be returning to work for many weeks, his injuries requiring a long and painful stint in recovery. No date has been set for his return, but it is at least a six-week break.

The Premier has always been the visible embodiment of this Victorian Labor government and his absence has resulted in a slower visual pace on Spring Street.

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Not since Jeff Kennett has Victoria had such a dominant force in the Premier's office, Monash University political expert Paul Strangio says.

And he notes we're in uncharted territory with the prolonged absence.

"Not in living memory has a premier been sidelined for so long with injury or sickness,” he said.

A dry run for life after Andrews

One of the defining characteristics of Andrews is how hands-on he is with most decisions his government makes.

It is a very centralised administration, centred on him and his office, sometimes to the chagrin of ministers trying to forge a policy.

So, in his absence there were fears the government could become rudderless. But as it stands, it's business as usual.

Loved or loathed, Andrews has a commanding presence and has become somewhat of a national figure after the past 12 months. So it is little surprise that his sick leave has impacted the pace of state politics.

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The government is without its best salesman and defender, and the Opposition is deprived of a tangible target to pin the state's woes on.

His notable absence is a dry run for political life after he leaves politics, whenever that may be.

Acting Premier James Merlino is impressing some of his colleagues and his media performances have been strong.

More than a nightwatchman, Merlino has been able to calmly face bouncers on the vexed issue of hotel quarantine returning.

Merlino and Andrews speak regularly and the injured Premier is also in constant contact with his chief of staff, Lissie Ratcliff. But many other ministers are incommunicado, partly by design to let Andrews recover.

Busy behind the scenes

Tests for the interim team have begun to surface, and there will be a collective holding of breaths next Thursday when the first plane loads of returned international travellers touch down at Tullamarine.

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The drip rollout of the COVID vaccine is creating a problem for both the state and the Morrison government, particularly with reports some of Victoria's healthcare workers are quibbling over getting the jab unless it's their vaccine of choice.

So far, Health Minister Martin Foley has bitten his tongue after pledging not to criticise the Commonwealth.

While the public pace may have slowed, behind the scenes the government is working frantically to deliver the state budget on May 20.

It's a budget that could make for grim reading, with the full COVID hit to the state's coffers to be laid bare.

It also must spell out how the government will pay for all the overdue mental health reforms demanded by last month's royal commission.

The business-as-usual approach easily triggers ideas of what life (government) without Andrews would be like.

During the height of last year's coronavirus chaos, speculation within party circles surged about whether he would tap the mat.

He was resolute in forging on, promising to take Labor to the 2022 poll.

No one in Labor is talking about whether or not Andrews will return. All are adamant he is coming back and only the Premier can reveal if all those long days of recovery after a close call are prompting new thoughts about his future.

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One thing he does know is he is odds-on to win the next election, with the ham-fisted Liberal leadership challenge on Michael O'Brien no doubt giving Andrews's broken ribs a tickle.

A missed opportunity?

The Opposition is still licking its wounds after MP Brad Battin's coup attempt.

Despite brimming with confidence, Battin could only muster nine votes in a party room of 31.

Some of his less loyal colleagues have proffered in the aftermath: "Brad has always struggled to count to 10."

O'Brien's brush with political death does not guarantee he will still be leader at next year's state election, but it does give him some clear internal political air.

And while Andrews's absence deprives the Opposition of a target, it does give O'Brien an opportunity to build his profile and to score some policy goals.

He is yet to do so, and some Liberal MPs are lamenting a missed opportunity.

To be fair to the Opposition Leader, the entire Liberal brand is being overshadowed by its treatment of women in Canberra and the glaring underrepresentation of women in its parliamentary ranks.

Of the 31 Victorian Liberal MPs, only seven are women and the four in the lower house have margins less than 3 per cent. Shadow Treasurer Louise Staley's margin is just 15 votes.

O'Brien's contribution to the debate has been that he's "open" to the idea of quotas for women in parliament.

But many Liberals who want reform, and the broader public, might wonder whether this is groundhog day.

After years of debate about improving female representation in the party's ranks, those pushing for change could be forgiven for thinking little will actually change.

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usr: 0
This is interesting!