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Andrews’ return reveals growing disparity between style and substance

Daniel Andrews’ return to better health last week was genuinely to be welcomed. A serious injury and a long convalescence doubtless imposed their own burdens, but afforded him the best chance of optimising his recovery while giving his ministers the opportunity to make the most of their time working under James Merlino while it lasted.

Mr Andrews’ recovery was the good news. But it was the manner of his return that rekindled concerns which point to wider challenges for the government.

Premier Daniel Andrews and his wife, Catherine, in a still from the video released before his return to work. Credit:Twitter

The first troubling sign was the complete over-egging of the media plan around the Premier’s re-emergence. The government’s highly selective strategy to anoint certain media (no criticism of them) with an audience with the resurgent Premier was more akin to a celebrity exclusive with publicity agents staging and choreographing the life out of the lighting, sound and possible camera angles. It militates against the character of public office and will, if it ever becomes more common, further divide the media into an inner and outer court of the Premier.

As for the Premier’s video, I began watching thinking that it was a sensible move to address public interest in the circumstances of his injury. That was until its high production values became apparent. If not earlier, once I heard the piano playing in the background, I realised that I may have been mistaken. It’s a pity because the video should have been a wildly embraced and straightforward explanation to temper public discussion around how his injury occurred. Instead, despite some genuinely positive material, too much of it sounded like a campaign ad.

The second and perhaps more serious sign that was noticeable within days of the Premier’s return was a resistance to some fairly legitimate questioning. When asked during the week about allegations that one of his former senior staff members had prompted Crown’s regulatory and compliance boss, Michelle Fielding, to threaten the Gaming Regulator by foreshadowing direct contact with the Gaming Minister, the Premier refused to provide answers.

This is serious for at least two critical reasons.

The Premier back at work last week.Credit:Getty Images

The signs are redolent of a government that appears to be in the grip of its own complacency and sense of invincibility. In a notable misstep, the Premier said on radio, when questioned about blowouts in major projects: “Anyone who’s done a kitchen reno, for heaven’s sake, knows these things are challenging.”

So, accuse the public of being as bad at managing their own household budgets as the government is at managing public money?

To be fair, maybe it’s a condition that inevitably afflicts all governments that have been in office for a long time. Just how the government can overcome the challenges of growing hubris and policy exhaustion is not clear. But what is clear are the mounting reports into service delivery, major projects, TAFEs and other functions of government that appear, for example, on the Victorian Auditor-General’s online dashboard.

Despite COVID, we can’t afford to miss the increasing disparity between the government’s style and substance which was on full display last week. Let’s hope for a better week.

John Pesutto is a senior fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University, a panellist on ABC Melbourne’s The Party Line and was Victoria’s shadow attorney-general from 2014 to 2018.

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