Time for Daniel Andrews to change it up

Fans of the cult TV series The West Wing will recall an episode where the Republican candidate for president, Arnold Vinick, played by Alan Alda, decides to front a marathon press conference when a catastrophic nuclear accident occurs in his home state of California. Rather than evade the issue, since Vinick supported the power plant’s commissioning, he adopts a proactive strategy of answering questions until all journalists are too exhausted to ask further questions.

Premier Daniel Andrews speaks to the media at the daily briefing.Credit:Getty Images

It's a famous scene that, I suspect, many draw upon for inspiration when confronted by formidable political challenges.

I don't pretend that Premier Daniel Andrews has this scene in mind when giving his long daily press conferences. But as Victoria's COVID numbers have careened from deeply concerning to catastrophic in the space of 10 days, I have been considering whether the Premier's strategy of appearing daily is working.

It’s symptomatic of underlying problems that may be compromising the government’s management of Victoria's second outbreak.

To the Premier's credit, there are compelling reasons why you would front the media each day. You can argue with some force that it demonstrates a willingness to face scrutiny for as long as journalists are prepared to ask questions.

I am concerned, however, that the Premier risks forfeiting the authority of his office to weigh in at key moments when his influence can be deployed to shift public sentiment when most needed or reinforce messages that no other person in government can emulate.

With Victorians suffering from mounting compliance fatigue, the Premier needs to preserve his authority, use it strategically and avoid the mistakes that exhaustion exacts like his comments this week on aged-care homes.

If this isn’t being discussed in the Premier's private office, it should be. A strategy that sees senior ministers more often accompanying the chief health officer might be preferable to allow the Premier to weigh in selectively.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos. Credit:Luis Ascui

None of this, of course, deals with the many underlying causes of Victoria’s outbreak. If the Premier’s daily appearances symbolise a similar modus internally, then this may explain the government's halting capacity to manage COVID numbers. As the crisis has got away from the government, it’s increasingly evident that questions about personnel are growing louder.

More importantly than whether anybody should be removed at this point, ballooning numbers raise issues about whether the government is hearing internally from all the voices it should be listening to and whether other people need to be brought into the room.

Health Minister Jenny Mikakos no doubt has one of the hardest jobs in the country today. But more than one person has suggested to me in recent days that Jill Hennessy's return to the portfolio would be one option enthusiastically welcomed in some quarters. That won't happen, although it's worth remembering that even former US president Lincoln went through a number of generals before he landed upon Grant. Personnel changes, even during a crisis, are sometimes justified.

Such changes are important at a time like this because governments need contestable advice. Governments and the public benefit from officials and advisors who are prepared to present ministers with comprehensive options that have been tested against counterpoints within departments, agencies and stakeholder groups. With no imputation against existing officials who are working strenuously, the government may need to look seriously at bringing in extra firepower.

In no small irony, I noticed the appointment this week of former chief officer of the CFA, Joe Buffone, to the position of executive leader of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre. Buffone was one of the casualties of the CFA wars of recent years. It says something about Victoria's public service that good people were shown the door only to return in the state’s hour of need.

There are no doubt many reasons for why Victoria's second outbreak is proving to be so bad. But the government, who we should all want to see succeed in its work in suppressing this virus, should be making sure that it is hearing from a wide range of strong and informed voices.

John Pesutto is a senior fellow at the School of Government at Melbourne University, a panellist on ABC Melbourne’s The Party Line and was Victoria’s shadow attorney-general from 2014 to 2018.

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