A friend of mine recently asked: “Is Dan a dictator, as some in the media and many in the streets claim?”
The question was borne of frustration and tears for his collapsing business, his inability to see his elderly parents and the mental stress being experienced by his school-aged children struggling at home.
My friend used no abusive terms. I think he may even have been a Labor supporter, but given his family’s pain, he simply wanted to know whether the Premier was making the right decisions, whether he alone was making them, and were we in danger of becoming a dictatorship, as claimed by some?
He had heard terms such as “Dictator Dan”, “Chairman Dan” or in the case of Liberal opposition member Tim Smith, “loony” Dan. No one takes much notice of Smith, but he did emerge as a kingmaker in moving the spill motion that toppled Michael O’Brien and installed Matthew Guy as leader of the Liberal Party.
I know Guy well. He will be a tougher opponent to Andrews, but not if he allows himself to be associated with the “dictator” narratives of the likes of Smith. That kind of narrative is ineffective against Andrews. Some Victorians are not impressed that it has adversely affected our reputation overseas, with the Washington Post labelling Andrews “Australia’s coronavirus dictator” and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson stating that Victoria was “under martial law”.
But back to my friend’s question about whether we are slipping into dictatorship. I responded that the Premier was acting within defined constitutional and legislative powers. This includes having to consult his cabinet and health authorities.
Furthermore, our Westminster system of government has many checks and balances. The judiciary, the parliament, the media are independent of each other and capable of stopping abuse of power.
Within our democracy, we give licence to the elected government to restrict our freedoms in order to keep us safe.
We need to go back to first principles. In my inaugural speech in parliament, I drew on the writings of social theorist C. Wright Mills to make the point that the private problems experienced by individuals were public issues to be addressed within a democracy.
An individual suffering from COVID alone in hospital, or a family such as my friends unable to see their loved ones with student children stressed – these are individual problems, but they are also public issues that affect us all.
In adopting rules in a pandemic, a premier and a government must balance the public good of us all with individuals’ experiences as they are conveyed to them. It’s not easy.
A friend at the coalface told me nurses (and doctors) work all day in full hot PPE. Some put off going to the toilet as it is so difficult to get dressed again. And soon they may face hard decisions about who gets an ICU bed and who doesn’t.
It’s part of the reality governments must deal with that the simpletons crying “dictatorship” refuse to face.
I don’t agree with all the measures implemented by the Andrews government and the chief health officer – such as letting runners and bikers go around panting without masks while the rest of us must wear them, or not relaxing some rules now for the fully vaccinated. But you know what, democracy means you can criticise the rules, even while you follow them.
While in parliament, I fought against decisions of the Kennett government to remove common law WorkCover rights and to restrict the auditor-general’s powers.
But I did not question the Kennett government’s legitimate power as an elected government to have made those decisions.
Similarly, people have a right to question the Andrews government’s decisions, but not its legitimate power, borne of our electoral process, to make them.
I don’t like the personal nature of the attacks on Andrews. I know Andrews, and I know most of his ministers. They are decent people. It is a torturous process in a cabinet when you have to make decisions that you know may hurt people.
I know cabinet and backbench members feel the burden of these heart-wrenching decisions, such as stopping grandparents from seeing their grandchildren, children from going to school, or limiting access to funerals. But they believe they are saving lives by supporting the Premier in making them.
Dan and I were never close, but as I have said before, I found him to be intelligent and determined.
He does not deserve the dictator title. I believe he and his cabinet are acting out of a genuine concern for the wellbeing of the people of Victoria.
Does that mean they get everything right? Actually no one does. God knows, Scott Morrison has made many mistakes in not fully protecting residents in elderly homes and he has made mistakes in the vaccine rollout.
I have no doubt that Morrison, Andrews and Gladys Berejiklian are well intentioned, even though in their heart of hearts they might concede that they could have done some things differently.
In a democracy, we all have the right to criticise their actions and we can suggest alternatives.
But we should not abuse our leaders – irrespective of their political persuasion. The moment we do that, we have already lost any claim to be putting forward rational argument in the public interest.
Theo Theophanous is a commentator and former Labor Minister.