The ultimate measure of success in politics is to depart at a time of one’s choosing. And by that benchmark alone Daniel Andrews has proved in his final act as Victorian Premier that he is a political master.
Whether or not that is a compliment is another matter but we’ll come to that later.
Even titans like Bob Hawke and John Howard — both of whom acquired a post-match reputation for having an almost supernatural connection to ordinary Australians — were felled by their colleagues or the electorate.
Andrews, by contrast, exits on the back of a groundbreaking third landslide victory, in complete control of the Labor machine — which he has flipped from Right to Left — and with Victorians completely in his thrall despite the myriad miseries he subjected them to.
There is an old historical cliche that Russians love suffering but Victorians may well now challenge them for the title. The more Andrews punished them during Covid, the more they loved him for it.
For most outsiders this was literally unbelievable to watch. And as a born and bred Victorian who has since converted to normality it made me downright schizophrenic.
In terms of sheer political achievement Andrews’ is nothing short of staggering. He made not only the Victorian ALP but the entire state of Victoria itself structurally, institutionally and culturally left-wing. And he has anointed his successor as a Roman Emperor would an heir. At the moment of his departure his power is more complete and absolute than any Australian political leader I can think of.
But the most telling insight into Andrews’ reign and his impact on the Victorian psyche is the two hashtags that sprung up immediately upon his announced departure. The first was #ThankYouDan and the second was #DictatorDan.
For a leader who utilised and arguably manipulated social media so incredibly effectively, using it to bypass and often outright boycott traditional outlets, this is no mere happenstance.
On the first, having spent more than two decades in the more earthy and cynical bear pit of NSW politics, I cannot for the life of me imagine any premier of either side of politics being greeted with such an avalanche of fawning devotion.
Neville Wran and Bob Carr were both also giants of the Labor Party who both also retired after a decade at the top and yet the idea that citizens would flock to any forum to prostrate themselves with offerings of thanks is absurd.
But Andrews is a different beast. He knew by both experience and instinct the propensity of the Labor Left to lionise their heroes to the point where they are almost deified.
The ultimate example is of course Whitlam, a remarkably flawed prime minister who lost three of the five elections he contested and blew the three short years he was in power with an uncanny combination of hubris and incompetence, and yet is perhaps the most loved Labor hero of all.
Andrews, and the uncannily canny digital team around him, managed to find a way to harness this cognitively dissonant devotion while avoiding the martyrdom. They deliberately sculpted and targeted their messaging to extract the maximum emotional response and project an aura of strength, authority and trust.
To say it worked would be the understatement of the century.
At the height of Victoria’s Covid nightmare, with haemorrhaging hotel quarantine of which literally nobody was in charge, a hapless handful of contact tracers using pencils and fax machines and brutal endless lockdowns in pursuit of the false idol of elimination during which couples were once banned from seeing each other and children’s playgrounds were closed, Andrews’ popularity soared.
Even the most rudimentary questioning or criticism or mere observation of fact would be met with a tsunami of indignation, anger and often outright abuse by thousands of acolytes riding the now infamous #IStandWithDan hashtag.
No other political figure in Australian has ever produced such a slavish personal following. Indeed, the only Western leader I can think of who has inspired a similar brand of hero worship is Donald Trump.
Trump, as we know, has hollowed out the US Republican Party and made it a vessel for his own personal ambitions — which now seem to amount to little more than vendetta.
Andrews has effectively — and very effectively — done the same thing with the Victorian Labor Party but is now vacating the field.
And so just as the party’s success has been built around the impregnable fort of Andrews’ cult of personality, the vacuum he now leaves is equally chasmic.
If Victorian Labor’s invincibility is all about Daniel Andrews, as his adherents so often shout from the rooftops, then what is Victorian Labor without him? A Danslide without a Dan is just a slide.
And this is the most ironic problem Victorian Labor now faces: The faction that claims to be dedicated to collectivism hitched its fate to one single individual.
And now he is gone.