Daniel Andrews has put “hearing, believing and investing in Victorian women” at the centre of his pitch for re-election, while delivering his strongest criticism to date of the Liberal party for aligning itself with fringe parties.
In an interview with Guardian Australia – almost exactly a year since protesters occupied the steps of parliament, and made explicit death threats against the premier over his government’s pandemic legislation – Andrews concedes there has been a “rise in extremism” in the state.
“It’s very, very dangerous. It’s worrying. What’s more worrying is when the alternative government essentially enters into a political partnership with those fringe elements,” the premier says, a reference to the Liberal party’s decision to preference all minor parties ahead of Labor.
“Frankly, ‘conspiracy theorist’ would be the kindest label you could put on these people and they are all being preferenced ahead of Labor by the Liberal party. If you look down at [former Liberal leader] Dick Hamer’s statue out there – I wonder what he’d think about that.”
Amid a torrid and overwhelmingly negative campaign, polls and pundits have Andrews and his Labor government on track to win a third term on 26 November.
While the result is unlikely to replicate the “Danslide” of 2018 – those within the party concede its vote will drop and it will lose a handful of seats – it will potentially set Andrews up for 12 years in power.
Andrews is currently Australia’s longest-serving leader , and weaves announcements on early education, women’s health and boosting workforce participation together to outline Labor’s vision for its third term.
He links those issues to a possible solution to the nation’s workforce shortages.
“We recently had a big debate about whether we should raise the skilled migrant visa intake up … that took up so many column inches,” he says.
“We should be having the same debate about why we have a childcare and early childhood system that locks out – just in Victoria alone – 26,000 [women].
“We have to build the conditions that allow that economic participation, that economic power. We can’t deny that to Victorian women any more, because it’s not it’s not fair and it’s not smart.”
Andrews spruiks a $9bn, 10-year plan to make kinder free for three-year-olds, introduce a fully funded “pre-prep” year for four-year-olds and build and operate 50 new childcare centres.
He describes it as the “biggest economic and social reform” he has been involved with during his two decades in the Victorian parliament.
It was also made in partnership with Andrews’ New South Wales counterpart – a Liberal premier – Dominic Perrottet.
The pair have forged an unlikely alliance: Andrews is a progressive, from Labor’s socialist-left faction, while Perrottet is a conservative from the Liberal party’s right.
Not all of Andrews’ views align with progressive causes, however.
Despite preferencing Legalise Cannabis second in four upper house regions, the premier says he has no plans to legalise the drug beyond medical use.
“We’ve got a big mental health reform agenda and dual diagnosis and drug-induced psychosis is a really significant issue for a percentage our community at which there is no safe level that you can use that drug,” Andrews says.
“I just think the two things are inconsistent. I fully accept that many people do not agree with that.”
Andrews is quick to bring the conversation back to his priorities. Within the past week, he’s made some “smaller and more targeted” election promises that will make a “profound difference”, including more than $166m to overhaul women’s health services across the state. He pledged to roll out free pads and tampons in public places, double the number of endometriosis surgeries, create a Women’s Health Research Institute and establish an inquiry into women’s pain management. All were guided by a panel of women, he says.
“The greatest alignment of social and economic policy is respecting, hearing, believing and investing in Victorian women at every turn. This is great economics but it’s also about a civil society and a respectful modern state,” he says.
“Fifty-per cent of the population should never be dismissed, should never be sidelined, should be supported.”
Another panel, of parents of children with disabilities, helped form Labor’s $207m commitment for specialist schools.
The package includes an extension of outside-hours care at specialist schools, onsite allied health appointments, the introduction of NDIS navigators and as well as 1,000 scholarships to attract speech pathologists, occupational therapists and disability workers to regional areas.
“The power of investing in these things is just obvious. It changes lives,” Andrews says.
He says the NDIS is “not working as it is supposed to” and fixing it will require investment.
Before the federal budget, the minister responsible for the scheme, Bill Shorten, revealed the NDIS is likely to cost $50bn by 2025-26, prompting calls to find major savings.
“Labor’s NDIS has not been well served by nearly a decade of Coalition government in Canberra, and to his credit Bill is working very hard to try and turn that round. That won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap,” Andrews says.
“But those kids and indeed every Australian that lives with disability, their carers, their families, they’re absolutely worth it.”
Andrews, who made headlines for his willingness to spar with the previous federal government, was reserved when asked if Albanese should scrap the stage-three tax cuts, expected to come into effect next year.
The prime minister has firmly insisted Australians expect the party to honour its election pledge to honour the cuts. It’s a principle with which Andrews agrees.
“It is very important that governments do what they say they would do,” Andrews says.
As for Victoria’s budget, Andrews is confident, despite the outlook for this financial year being downgraded twice in recent weeks.
The Treasury’s mid-financial year budget update showed the 2022-23 deficit had grown by $1.8bn to $9.7bn, despite higher-than-expected payroll and land taxes. Then, in a pre-election budget update released last week, another $500m was added, taking the deficit prediction to $10.2bn.
Debt is expected to grow to $165.9bn – or a quarter of gross state product – by 2025-26, prompting a warning from agency Standard & Poor’s that Victoria is in the weakest fiscal position of any state in 40 years.
Andrews speaks of the importance of a surplus and the need to stabilise borrowings – both are achieved in the pre-election budget update – but argues debt “gets weaponised in politics”.
He said the majority of Victoria’s debt was incurred during the pandemic to prepare the health system and support jobs and businesses, with the remainder linked to the government’s massive infrastructure agenda.
But unlike 2018, when Labor went to the election promising the big-ticket Suburban Rail Loop and a train line to the airport, the party has been more reserved in its commitments this time around.
According to data published by the Parliamentary Budget Office, it’s been outspent by the Coalition, who have promised $30bn in commitments to Labor’s $10bn.
The announcement which is central to Andrews’ pitch for re-election is the revival of the State Electricity Commission (SEC), decades after its privatisation, in an effort to reach a 95% of renewable energy target by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2045.
He says with the closure of the coal-fired Loy Yang A power station brought forward a decade to 2035, it was likely other plants would follow suit.
“With the biggest coal-fired power station leaving in the middle of next decade, now’s the time to really push forward,” Andrews says.
Andrews concedes this election campaign has been “uglier” than the previous two he contested. Tabloid news stories feeding conspiracy theories about the premier’s fall down some steps last year and reporting on a car crash nine years ago involving his wife, Catherine, have been especially hard on his family.
“I’m kind of used to some of this stuff. It’s probably a bit harder on families. But Cath is the strongest person I know,” he says.
The campaign has also been overshadowed by questions surrounding the premier’s integrity, after the Age reported that the Independent Broad-Based Anti-Corruption Commission (Ibac) has been investigating two grants worth $3.4m to a Labor-aligned union. According to the report, this is the first Ibac inquiry to be directly examining Andrews’ conduct, though he’s been interviewed by two others.
The premier has refused to answer questions on the subject during the campaign, noting the Age reporting is based on draft information.
“I act appropriately at all times and no adverse findings have ever been made against me, I’ve done nothing wrong,” he says.
“Sometimes you might very much like to defend yourself, because you know that you act appropriately in all things, but there are processes and there’s an independence to these processes and they should be allowed to run their course.”
Having lost two years of his four-year term to the pandemic response, the premier says he’s got more left on the reform agenda if successful on 26 November.
“If you’re a political party or political leader, who doesn’t just want the win, they want the work, then there’s always more to do,” he says.