If the Victorian election was indeed – as the opposition framed it – a referendum on Daniel Andrews, voters have resoundingly backed the premier and his response to the pandemic.
At the time of writing, Labor looks on track to secure 50 of Victoria’s 88 lower house seats, just five short of its emphatic 2018 “Danslide” victory.
Of the party’s losses thus far, only one – Nepean – was to the Liberals, and it had been essentially written off by Labor. At least two were lost to the Greens, an inevitability due to demographic shifts in the area and several years of concerted efforts by the minor party. Several other seats remain too close to call.
Labor won despite suffering some significant swings against it, particularly in Melbourne’s west and north, which it has managed to absorb.
But the party picked up seats in the east of Melbourne from the Liberals: Bayswater, Hastings and Glen Waverley. It also increased its margins in Ashwood, Box Hill and Ringwood.
Although the counting of pre-poll votes might yet reduce the scale of the win, worries about being forced into minority government proved laughable.
The result was, all in all, what the bookies and the polls had been predicting for months.
What was perhaps unpredicted was the swing away from the Liberal party, which had expected to gain ground after its 2018 drubbing.
The Liberals ran a much better campaign than they did at that election, however there was no clear narrative of what the party stood for, other than a visceral hatred of Andrews.
The federal Liberals tried to capitalise on the “anti-Dan” sentiment at the May election and failed, but their Victorian counterparts insisted voters could differentiate between the two governments and forged ahead with a similar plan.
The party framed its campaign around the premier, telling voters the only way to “get rid” of him was to vote Liberal. One slogan – “don’t let him get away with it” – was designed to conjure up a mood of retribution after the pandemic. They even ran an ad reminding Victorians that “we took to the streets” to oppose vaccine mandates and the government’s pandemic legislation.
At a later protest, a gallows was wheeled out the front of parliament and a mock execution of the premier was carried out. Several of these protesters went on to contest the election and were preferenced above Labor by the Liberals.
The protests were Victoria at its worst, and were not a reflection of the wider community that had, at that stage, already achieved an 80% vaccination rate.
Many saw the premier as a strong and decisive leader in a crisis and accepted lockdowns as a necessary measure to protect the community. As recently as Tuesday night’s debate, Andrews cited his “willingness to make tough calls” as a strength of his leadership.
The premier returned to the theme in the opening of his victory speech, recalling the advice given to him by former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating.
“Keating once said to me: ‘Son, leadership isn’t about doing what’s popular. Leadership is about doing what’s right’,” Andrews said.
Andrews said the government made “very tough decisions” during the pandemic for the community.
“As a community we were not, as some would say, divided, we were instead united in our faith in science and in our faith and care for and in each other,” he said, in a clear dig at the opposition leader, Matthew Guy, who has continually repeated the line that the premier has sought to “divide Victorians”.
Most voters Guardian Australia has spoke to in recent weeks were keen to move on from the pandemic. They cited climate change, cost of living, health and housing affordability as their main concerns.
To that end, Andrews used the latter half of his speech to spruik promises of upgraded hospitals, new schools, expanded free TAFE and a revived State Electricity Commission to own and operate renewable energy projects. The latter received the greatest cheer from the crowd.
For Andrews, this election will allow him to reshape his legacy to one that isn’t defined by Covid-19. If he serves until Easter, he will surpass John Cain’s record as Victoria’s longest-serving Labor premier.
But for now, he’s vindicated.