Renewal key to sustain Labor government for third term

When Daniel Andrews asks voters to re-elect Labor for a third term this November, one advantage his government will have is experience.

More than one third of Andrews current cabinet sat on John Brumby’s frontbench between 2007 and 2010, including minister for transport infrastructure Jacinta Allan, deputy Premier James Merlino, police minister Lisa Neville, Treasurer Tim Pallas and planning minister Richard Wynne.

Later this year, Andrews himself will notch up two decades on Spring Street and if he sticks around to polling day he will become the sixth-longest serving premier in Victoria’s history, and the second-longest serving Labor premier behind John Cain.

There are obvious benefits that come with experience and longevity in parliament, but it should never come at the cost of renewal.

Favouring stability over disruptions, a ministerial reshuffle is probably the last thing Andrews wants to do before the election, especially given the ongoing factional warfare engulfing his party. But he might not have a choice.

Fourteen of Labor’s 72 upper and lower house MPs – almost 20 per cent of caucus members – have announced their intention to retire in November. And it’s almost certain that more MPs will call it quits in the next 24 weeks.

At least one current cabinet minister, Richard Wynne, has already announced his retirement and Labor insiders speculate that more ministers might follow, with all eyes on Neville and Pallas who have served 36 years between them.

If that was to happen, Andrews would be under pressure to reshuffle his frontbench before polling day so that Victorians know who will take charge of key portfolios for the next four years, in the event of a Labor victory.

But cabinet making, particularly on Labor’s side, is a delicate factional balancing act.

The expectation of a chauffeur-driven car, a pay rise and an honorific in front of their name can kickstart a bout of industriousness in even the most underwhelming backbencher. But politics is a zero-sum game and there are a limited number of seats on the frontbench.

If it was simply a case of promoting talent, the task would be easy. But Labor’s highly factionalised structure means the factions are allotted a specific number of spots depending on how many MPs each grouping has.

With voters signalling they are ready to move on from the pandemic years, Andrews – who assigns portfolios – will need to strike a balance between stability, experience, and renewal.

With Victoria carrying the largest debt of all states and territories, the government could benefit from some bold policy ideas in economic portfolios. The departure of Wynne creates an opening in the planning portfolio. If Pallas decides to call it quits in November, his Treasury portfolio will also become available.

Labor insiders believe Danny Pearson, from the AWU-aligned Right faction, or Oakleigh MP Steve Dimopoulos, who is aligned with the National Union of Workers grouping, could fill these roles.

Pearson already sits at the cabinet table following the power vacuum triggered by Labor’s branch-stacking scandal, which claimed the scalps of three ministers: Adem Somyurek, Marlene Kairouz and Robin Scott in 2020.

As assistant treasurer, and a range of other portfolios he holds, Pearson has impressed colleagues with his enthusiasm as well as his handling of hotel quarantine issues during an extended and unexpected stint acting as police minister. Labor MPs believe he would be next in line for a more senior economic portfolio.

Dimopoulos, who currently serves as parliamentary secretary to the premier, has long been touted as a future minister and is also considered a front-runner for an economic-focused ministry.

So too, Nick Staikos, who was elected in 2014 and has managed to turn his once-marginal seat of Bentleigh into a much safer seat giving him more time to take on ministerial work.

In 2018, Andrews made history when a record number of women were promoted to his ministry. Losing Neville would potentially create a space for more women to rise through the ranks and take on cabinet or parliamentary secretary roles.

Labor MPs believe Lizzie Blandthorn, Sonya Kilkenny and Harriet Shing will be first in line for promotions.

Figures from Labor’s right are pushing Blandthorn to secure a seat at the cabinet table after she locked in a spot in the upper house. Left faction member Kilkenny, who is serving as cabinet secretary, will also be keen to step up.

So too Shing, who is currently under-utilised as a parliamentary secretary. Shing, who was described as wildly competent by one Labor insider, couldn’t muster enough support from her Left faction last time, but would be an asset to Andrews’ frontbench.

Andrews’ ministry, at times, has not always presented the best his party has to offer, but retirements, forced or otherwise, will give him the necessary renewal to sustain a Labor government.

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