Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 13, 2022

Daniel Andrews, by Sumeyya Ilanbey

As a general rule, Australians are not much interested in political biographies.  From what I’ve seen, most of them end up before very long on the bargains table at the bookshop, and this might be because they are usually written (often too hastily) by journalists capitalising on current events rather than by professional biographers or historians taking the long view.

(Historian David  Day for example, wrote memorable bios of Prime Ministers John Curtin (1999) and Ben Chifley (2001) (I read both pre-blog), and he also wrote bios of Prime Ministers Andrew Fisher (2008) and Paul Keating (2015, on the TBR) (And also of progressive lawyer Maurice Blackburn, Champion of the People (2019, see my review). See Day’s website here)

To muster interest in a political biography, many of their authors resort to exaggerating the significance of some quotable titbit of scandal, useful in our compromised media landscape for fellow political journalists—depending on how shabby they are—to blow up out of all proportion.  (I am thinking of grubby commentary about that bio of former PM Bob Hawke, for example.)  Or they claim to be ‘revealing’ … as does Sumeyya Ilanbey’s unauthorised biography of Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews, published just in time to capitalise on the forthcoming state election.

Alas, while Daniel Andrews might be ‘revealing’ for people who’ve paid little attention to politics, (but then, they aren’t likely to read it) I suspect that it’s a yawn for fellow journalists looking for a scoop.  There’s really nothing much that isn’t already known about its subject, and mostly Ilanbey resorts to a skewed version of the Labor government’s history since its election in 2014, using anonymous sources to report more in the way of insinuations than any achievements of the Premier or his government.

In chapter 3, for example, there’s a takedown of Andrew’s claim to be ordinary.

Andrews’ life revolved around his family.  While many of his peers spent their evenings drinking with colleagues on Spring Street, the member for Mulgrave headed home to his electorate, where he lived in an ordinary suburban brick house in an ordinary suburban street where the lawns aren’t manicured, the picket fences aren’t white and the neighbours aren’t all driving black SUVs.  He waited at the same level crossings that irritated his neighbours, and drove over the same pot-holed roads. It’s perhaps this ordinariness that has made Andrews extraordinary in politics. (p.33)

‘We are just a normal family,’ Andrews’ wife Catherine has said.

‘We live in an ordinary home in a small street in suburban Melbourne.  Our kids go to local schools.  We go to the local shops; there’s nothing special about us. Daniel just happens to be the Premier. That’s his job.  I still have to pay the bills, wash the uniforms, make sure everything is ready for soccer on Saturday or ballet on Monday and Wednesday, and I still have to make sure there’s enough food in the fridge.’ (p.34)

But, having characterised the suburbs as the battleground of Australian politics and as neither poor nor elite (an unsurprising summation since inner city journos rarely venture into the suburbs and have no idea about the experiences and attitudes or income of people who live beyond inner Melbourne postcodes), the bio goes on to say…

Part of this assertion is undoubtedly true—of course the Andrews family do normal things like take their children to school and stock their pantry with food—but a large portion of it is contrived, as is often the case in politics.  It is marketing, and it is spin…

[…]

Feigning ordinariness is easy enough though.  The difficult bit is truly understanding the concerns of middle Australians, who rarely see themselves represented in media or in the top echelons of government.  (p.34)

This is disingenuous. Just what exactly is contrived?  Which bits of this narrative are marketing and spin?  In what way is their story feigned?  Does Andrews play polo on the quiet, or have a season ticket to the opera, or own a ski lodge at Thredbo or a condo in the Sydney CBD? You won’t find an answer, not even what the Premier’s salary is, which is freely available information.  No, this is classic tabloid trash, dog-whistle politics, making an unverified insinuation to appeal to voters who are resentful of ‘elites’.

The bio is too weak to be labelled character assassination — but in attempting to untangle the reasons why Andrews remains popular despite the tough Covid restrictions and is the most ‘substantial’ Labor figure in Australia since Paul Keating — the agenda is clear.  There’s more about Andrews being a ‘political hardman’ and a ‘factional apparatchik’ than an ‘earnest reformer’.  And there’s very little about his good fortune in having one of the most atrocious Oppositions this state has ever seen.

I wondered if my increasing scepticism about what I was reading was because I am predisposed towards progressive politics. (I’d never heard of the author; I don’t read The Age (the newspaper she works for), and I don’t watch commercial radio  or TV.) But a quick look at Ilanbey’s Twitter feed enlightened me. On the day I was writing this (9/11/22) I viewed her most recent tweets and retweets, and they are not exactly even-handed. (See below if really interested).

For the tiny minority of people who are interested in Victorian politics and its premier, I suggest reading Margaret Simons, who’s a credible journalist with genuine integrity.  Her article, ‘The Daniel Andrews paradox: the enduring appeal of Australia’s most divisive premier’ is at The Guardian.

Author: Sumeyya Ilanbey
Title: Daniel Andrews
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761067457, pbk., 320 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Ilanbey’s Twitter feed last 21 Tweets 9/11/22, viewed late afternoon.

Of 21 Tweets. there were 6 that are/may be neutral:

  • 2 about voter intentions as revealed by polls;
  • Retweet about union objections to an Opposition ad;
  • Retweet re NDIS enquiry;
  • Link to article about ALP attack ads for election campaign;
  • Link to ABC Check Mate revealing a fake photo (negative to the ALP government) from Brazil that’s doing the rounds.

There were 6 positive tweets about the Opposition and the Liberal party and one negative one

  • 5 tweets about Opposition policies (and none about the government’s):
  • Retweet of Peter Hanke’s press release ‘on behalf of the family’ about the death of former Liberal politician Peter Reith (notorious for unethical behaviour). Hanke is a former media and political adviser to the previous federal government.
  • Retweet of Richard Willingham’s ABC article re the religious right infiltrating the state Liberal Party

There were 8 negative tweets about Labor and no positive ones.

  • a link to a negative article about the Prime Minister in The Age
  • 2 links to negative articles about the state government (a protest in a marginal seat and criticism of infrastructure projects courtesy of The Australian)

And 5 tweets implying government corruption.

  • Nov 2nd: she tweets that there is an IBAC* ‘gag order’ against The Age**
  • followed by tweet link to an article about that in The Age.
  • Nov 3rd: link to Age article ‘Why Victorian voters should care about press freedom’.
  • Nov 4th: links to Age article with the headline Victorian Premier Investigated by Anti-Corruption Watchdog***,
  • follows this up with this tweet: “Integrity in politics and parliament needs to extend beyond political parties, and we need to be asking why a government has been probed in four separate IBAC inquiries?’

Note the word ‘probed’, a deliberate choice of words intended to imply corruption.  My guess is that almost any IBAC enquiry involves asking questions of the government.  That’s how an IBAC** does its job.

There’s an interesting podcast at the Guardian, which reveals that this type of veiled insinuation is an election strategy used by Trump in the US. It takes the form of, ‘just asking questions’ — which anyone has the right to do — but the questions imply dubious behaviour when there is not a shred of evidence about it.  Like ‘just asking’ about Barack Obama’s birth certificate, over and over again for the purpose of insinuating that he had something to hide.  It works to create doubt about a politician’s character and uncertainty about his integrity, and it’s possible that election strategists hope it will work here in Australia.  Apart from the obvious dishonesty of this tactic, another unfortunate aspect of its use is that it may ‘take the air’ from other questions that are actually important.

*The Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) is Victoria’s agency responsible for preventing and exposing public sector corruption and police misconduct. Our jurisdiction covers state and local government, police, parliament and the judiciary.

** The IBAC website explains why reporting is not allowed. (As per the legislation that established IBAC.)

Most of our examinations are private. This helps ensure the integrity of investigations.

Private examinations are not open to the general public or the media. However, a public report may be released when the investigation is finalised.

*** See IBAC’s statement about the injunction and that they have raised with Government the need for urgent legislative change that would make it an offence for anyone, including the media, to publish information IBAC draft reports, or the information contained in them.

Author: Sumayya Ilanbey
Title: Daniel Andrews
Publisher: Alen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761067457, pbk., 302 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Responses

  1. Thanks, Lisa. I am interested in Daniel Andrews as Victoria’s Premier, but I won’t spend any time with this book.

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    • It was illuminating, but not in the way I’d expected. What it did was to provoke me into reading that and other Guardian articles that explain what’s going on with the media here. I went on to read another one which was about how The Herald-Sun had crossed a line with a front page reprise of conspiracy theories about the Andrews accident, in that what had been the preserve of extremist conspiracy theorists had made it into mainstream media.
      That they would do that for short term political gain when they know what the consequences have been in the US, is shocking. Whether it succeeds or not is beside the point, it’s degrading our media to a new low.
      And Allen & Unwin, who published this… did they know that they were buying into a well-timed smear campaign?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The poor old Age, it was a newspaper once. I can’t imagine what brought you to read this. All Labor premiers are disappointing in the end (maybe not Don Dunstan?) – from my end of the political spectrum anyway; but Andrews seems to get a lot done.
    I’m particularly disappointed with his on-going clear felling of old growth forests – secret, illegal and apparently unstoppable.
    And I’m still not sure what made him halfway through – and I hope we are halfway through – the Covid pandemic give up on masking. It seems all the premiers decided if NSW was going to lit ‘er rip then they all would.

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    • Curiosity, of course! I’ve read a few political bios including a woeful one of Don Dunstan…
      As I said in my review of The Big Teal, “all our political parties are a disappointment for progressives”. In a democracy, you can never get all of what you want, and in a polis which is basically selfish and votes from the hip pocket, it’s even harder.
      Andrews is a bloke who likes to build things, and I can tell you, it is fantastic to drive around my bits of Melbourne unimpeded by level crossings. Why it took so long to get rid of them, I do not know, and the same goes for the expansion of the underground rail loop and other rail infrastructure.
      Re Covid: Victoria learned in 2021 that if NSW let it rip, we *could* not keep it out. We had a ‘ring of steel’ to prevent our outbreak spreading to them, but Gladys did not return the favour. Plus, all the premiers learned that the toxic violence of the conspiracy theorists meant that the consensus about restrictions was fading and could not be enforced. No government can afford to look powerless. So we are where we are.

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  3. Good question. And I, being fickle, have now borrowed a copy from the library…

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  4. *sigh* grammar is not my strong point this morning. I have borrowed an electronic copy.

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  5. Thank you :-)

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  6. Hmmm… I think the problem with political biographies is that there needs to be distance between the politician’s stint in office before you can truly understand his/her legacy. Writing something when they’re still in office is fraught with all kinds of issues, not the least a myopic short-term view of their achievements/policies or, as you have observed here, a tendency toward bias by the writer.

    I admire Andrews (as one who has observed him from afar) but not sure I’d want to read this book.

    I read the Guardian profile when it was published last week and learned a lot about his mindset and the way he’s perceived and thought it was well done.

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    • Agreed, an older and wiser journalist would have been wary of ‘jumping the gun’ like this, and also of nailing her colours to the mast. In the long run, political journalists are meant to be objective and unbiased and so they are protective of their credibility.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Have put a reserve on this at our local library Lisa, but it sounds disappointing.
    I am one of the few here wearing a mask when I have to go into indoor shopping malls – even elderly vulnerable people sit around chatting in busy indoor areas for hours and don’t bother masking.
    [Edited LH] Gladys Berejiklian [edited LH] was still preferable to Perrotet & she had done a good job so far. She certainly was popular here in NSW.
    Interesting to read your accounts of some books on Australian politics recently, thanks!

    Like

    • Hi Sue,
      I’m sorry, I’ve taken the precaution of editing your comment about Berejiklian because it’s so important to ensure that social media commentary doesn’t compromise any legal proceedings which may eventuate.

      Yes, we maskers are a rarity these days. I don’t understand why some people think it’s such a big deal.

      Like


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