Book Review: Daniel Andrews
Sumeyya Ilanbey’s biography of Victorian premier Daniel Andrews is insightful and considered; providing a detailed portrait of one of Australia’s most powerful provincial leaders.
Whilst I do love reading political biographies, I am generally not so keen to read about the lives of politicians who are still active in public life. It always seems as if the story is incomplete because we cannot be sure what the legacy of the person will be or whether they will achieve all that they set out to do. Nevertheless, there had been considerable chatter about first-time author Sumeyya Ilanbey’s book Daniel Andrews: The revealing biography of Australia’s most powerful premier. I became curious and before I knew it, the book had materialised as a birthday gift.
Ilanbey is an accomplished state political reporter at The Age in Melbourne. She is therefore in a good position to analyse Australia’s longest-serving current Premier.
Daniel Andrews has become a polarising figure; people seem to either love him or loathe him; views that were hardened considerably during the two long years of the COVID-19 pandemic when Victoria experienced some of the world’s longest lock-downs. Andrews has always been a man on a mission, never wasting a day in office and his list of achievements is considerable. Whilst he has many detractors, he’s remained immensely popular despite numerous scandals that have involved his government. His “Danslide” election win in 2018 was followed up with an even bigger victory in 2022.
Ilanbey seeks to understand Andrews’ popularity through an exploration of Andrews’ background, family history and his rise within the Victorian Branch of the Australian Labor Party. Ilanbey paints a portrait of a hard-working and committed Labor “numbers man” who worked strategically towards his goal of becoming leader. Ilanbey then details Andrews’ time in Opposition before becoming Premier.
Ilanbey’s book suffers from a disjointed narrative in its earlier chapters caused by wild deviations in chronology. It is clear that Ilanbey is more familiar with writing articles for newspapers than the longer format of a non-fiction book and the text suffers in places as a result. This is not to suggest that what is written is of poor quality, but rather the author has struggled to adjust to a different format. For me, the later chapters suffered less from this problem. In the end, it is what Ilanbey wrote rather than how which matters most, and in this regard she did a good job.
Daniel Andrews declined to be interviewed for this book, but Ilanbey spoke to many other people who know Andrews well. In some regards, his non-participation fitted well into her central argument that the Premier has an autocratic streak and doesn’t take too kindly to criticism. (Those who cross him are apparently placed into a “freezer”, never to speak to him again).
I met Daniel Andrews once in 2016. He impressed me a lot and I have generally been supportive of much of his government’s achievements over the years. His management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Victoria was, on balance, commendable. Yet there have been some controversies and misjudgements. Ilanbey’s book provided a wonderful opportunity to review his government; both its strengths and weaknesses. It is clear that the man has his foibles; her comparisons between Daniel Andrews and Jeff Kennett were compelling. Yet llanbey raises some bigger issues about his government’s approach to Westminster processes, ministerial accountability, financial integrity and a tendency towards a concentration of power in the Premier’s Office.
I won’t rush to any judgement here, but I will say that the book provided a topical and well-researched profile of both Daniel Andrews and a solid analysis of his government. Ilanbey’s book was published ahead of the 2022 election.
Her book subtly suggested that Andrews’ time might be up, but we now know that to be wrong. It remains to be seen whether he completes a fourth term in office or decides to retire early. Either way, he will forever be regarded as a titan of Victorian politics, along with other strong leaders such as Jeff Kennett and Henry Bolte.
Daniel Andrews: The revealing biography of Australia’s most powerful premier is published by Allen and Unwin.
These views are my own, and do not represent the views of my employer.