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On the first Monday of her premiership, Jacinta Allan decided to reach out to the other side.
Victoria’s 49th premier, and avowed member of Labor’s Socialist Left faction, got on her mobile phone and put a call through to Paul Guerra, the chief executive of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It was 8.15am.
Premier Jacinta Allan.Credit: Eddie Jim
“It was an honour to be one of the first to receive a call,” Guerra later told his members. “I did congratulate her again, and briefly discussed businesses’ priorities.”
The pair had bumped into each other at Police Remembrance Day at the tail end of the preceding week, when Allan ascended to the top job after Daniel Andrews abruptly quit as premier after nearly nine years, catching many people (some say even Allan herself, his friend and protege) on the hop.
So thrilled was Guerra to be so high on the premier’s must-call list that he was still enthusing nearly two months later.
“Jacinta has a charm that will disarm most and is quick to put people at ease,” Guerra told The Age when asked how doing business in the state had changed under new management.
“It’s her warm personality, her obvious intellect, her willingness to work with people and her inner drive that is key to her leadership. I enjoy her sense of family, keen understanding of business, and her great sense of humour. Jacinta is both grounded and accessible. Underneath the terrific personality is a steely determination to make a positive difference.”
It’s impossible to imagine even his most ardent supporters describing Andrews in such a way.
By the end of his eight-year reign, the former premier had put so many people in the freezer (including Right faction minister Ben Carroll, now Allan’s deputy premier) that vast tracts of the state could be said to resemble Arctic tundra.
But that was then. Now, interviews with politicians, business executives, stakeholders, journalists, lobbyists and political observers report that Allan is bringing a fresh consultative style to running the state and is putting together her own squad to help her do it.
It’s springtime in Victoria, and the vibe is very different. As one opposition MP put it: “She has a more collaborative, non-arsehole approach to government.”
And a Labor MP who has worked closely with her for many years describes the change in leadership style differently: “As a new premier she is involved – but she gives people space.”
Even Brighton MP James Newbury, who manages opposition business in the house, found something mildly positive to say.
“Things have changed. Some good, some bad. Jacinta does communicate more internally, which is a stark contrast. But when it comes to delivering an outcome, Jacinta Allan is no Daniel Andrews”.
As leader Allan has three main tasks: getting legislation through parliament, delivering a clear message to the public. And above all, winning the next state election due in 2026. (Thus Labor’s Mulgrave byelection win in Andrews’ former seat last weekend, though widely expected, was an important psychological fillip.)
In these early days Allan is receiving mixed reviews, but one thing is clear: her determination, in contrast to her predecessor, to reach as many Victorians as possible.
It’s why she turned heads the month before her ascension by travelling west to Sunshine’s St Leopold’s Croatian Catholic Church to pay her respects at the funeral of Bob Setka, the father of controversial unionist John Setka. Setka snr was a labourer who survived the day in 1970 when a section of the under-construction West Gate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 men. As the Financial Review put it, Andrews publicly claimed he had never met Setka, while Allan, a former infrastructure minister, had no such qualms and was engaged in a “delicate dance” with the CFMEU.
Allan needs to maintain a delicate balance between the CFMEU and AWU, which regularly are at odds on projects but are players within the Labor Party. The AWU has been shut out of a stability deal uniting a large section Right-aligned and Left-aligned groupings in Victorian Labor. More recently, CFMEU organisers on government jobs have pushed disputes to get AWU contractors removed from projects and replaced with ones favourable to them.
There is some speculation this trend will cool off with Allan’s elevation and the promotion of Danny Pearson, an AWU-aligned MP, into the transport infrastructure portfolio.
In the month before her promotion, Allan ventured into more unfamiliar territory. In mid-September, two weeks before Andrews resigned, Rabbi Moshe Kahn, of the DaMinyan synagogue and director of Chabad Youth, hosted a dinner party for a group of friends and one stranger at his home in Melbourne’s Bagel Belt. The guest of honour: deputy premier Jacinta Allan. Co-host Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, senior rabbi at St Kilda Shule, had no inkling that their guest would soon be in the state’s top job. And if their visitor did, well, she kept a poker face. Guests included executives from several Jewish organisations as well as former Victorian governor Linda Dessau, the first Jewish woman to hold that role, and her husband, lawyer Tony Howard.
By all accounts, it was a fun night: Allan accepted small gifts of Beechworth Honey and Point Leo olive oil, which had a connection to the sites of Chabad Youth camps. She was happy to pose for selfies with Kahn’s wife, Dina, a co-director of Chabad Youth.
“Honestly, she was lovely – so warm, so engaged and really interested,” Kahn told The Age.
And as all the guests noted – unrushed. She didn’t even mind when Kahn pushed happy snaps from the evening out onto his socials.
“We spoke about anything and everything,” Kahn said. “She has had limited exposure to the community, and we thought it would be a nice opportunity.”
Another person who has dined with Allan contrasted the new premier with her predecessor.
“I found her very, very personable. She didn’t seem nearly as calculating,” said the person, who declined to be named so they could speak freely.
“Dan Andrews he has his amiable side but can be very harsh when he needs to be. I think she is more human.”
Comings and goings-on in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, the bureaucratic heart of Victoria, are not normally the stuff of headlines.
The board is run by Jeremi Moule. A surprising choice, he was appointed Secretary for the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet under Andrews back in 2020.
A recent, significant appointment was that of deputy secretary Jason Loos. Insiders say the appointment is a clear sign of the kinds of senior people Allan is bringing into her inner circle. Loos’ speciality is his extensive experience in the delivery of public-private partnerships, where government teams with private enterprise split the costs of major infrastructure projects, such as the PPP with Transurban for the $10 billion West Gate Tunnel. They are now a necessity in cash-strapped Victoria and might be used for future projects such as the Airport rail link.
While Andrews’ PPO, the premier’s private office, was a machine that amassed what some thought an unhealthy level of power under the formidable duo of Jessie McCrone and Lissie Ratcliff. Allan’s PPO will be different.
Leading it is new chief of staff Matt Phelan, dubbed a “relaxed surfer guy” by some who claim never to have seen him in a suit and tie. The former Herald Sun journalist built up a career in transport but has two crucial qualifications for the role: he is the premier’s confidant, but also her friend.
The new deputy chief of staff is Jess Lindell, who has stepped up as the taskmaster replacing McCrone and Ratcliff. The former Bill Shorten staffer was a director at PwC and most recently was Allan’s head of policy and cabinet. She is joined as deputy chief of staff by Declan McGonigle, from the Left of the party, who previously played a role in Andrews’ premier private office, focusing on relationships with the Labor caucus.
But it is clear at this early stage the premier’s outreach program has its limits.
“I am still in the deep freeze … we haven’t had a minister on in more than a year,” said broadcaster Neil Mitchell, 3AW Mornings host, whose final broadcast is this coming Friday. “She has promised to talk to Tom Elliott when he takes over.”
Mitchell says Allan was “very cordial” when they bumped into each other at the Ron Barassi memorial but notes she has not talked to him since becoming premier. But he says Allan used to text him regularly as one of several “ministers for Mitchell”.
Allan was once a member of Andrews’ praetorian guard, acting as intelligence agents and emissaries to Mitchell and other influential people, including ABC broadcaster Jon Faine.
Mitchell feels the new premier is still finding her feet. “She has been disappointing at some press conferences,” he said, noting she was still too much like Andrews. “She has to write her own rule book.”
An area where Allan can build upon strong existing ties is the business community, where Andrews had close relations and in some cases friendships with former PwC head Luke Sayers, who now runs his own consultancy firm, transport magnate Lindsay Fox and property developer Max Beck.
“The people she is closest to are party people and faction people,” said one Melbourne businessman, who declined to be named so he could speak freely.
“She’s very ideological. She’s a true believer. She is the Socialist Left minister from central casting,” he said.
“There is no way she is hanging out at Luke Sayers’ house drinking Penfolds.”
The Age was unable to fact-check that last statement, but a logical place for Allan’s business outreach to start would be with the aforementioned business executives Andrews kept close.
Jacinta Allan at the Metro Tunnel project site in Parkville in AprilCredit: Eddie Jim
The morning he resigned, Andrews posted a video to his socials of himself riding aboard a new Metro Trains test train.
Allan will enjoy the political benefits of those massive investments in the coming years as the work commute for many Victorians is transformed. The Metro project and West Gate Tunnel are due to open in 2025.
But the immediate challenges outweigh those far-off benefits.
“In terms of managing the parliament and a legislative agenda, the government is totally collapsing,” says Liberal MP James Newbury.
“On all of the big-ticket reforms, Labor is in a world of pain. A majority of parliament has big concerns about proposed new taxes, taking away workers rights to WorkCover, and centralising planning approvals with the minister.
“Dan had so much political capital… Jacinta has none. Partly because she is carrying a lot of baggage.”
The Labor MP for Cranbourne, Pauline Richards, said Allan’s consultative style was the right demeanour for the right time.
“When we’re facing some complexity, to say the least, around the way that the community needs to come together. She is somebody who listens and genuinely brings people together,” she said.
Jacinta Allan and Deputy Premier Ben Carroll, who comes from Labor’s Right faction. Credit: Wayne Taylor
“You don’t really know how somebody’s going to be until they get the gig. She’s deepened what’s already there.”
Narre Warren North MP Belinda Wilson said the premier was making people feel part of the team. “I love the fact that she is at basketball on a Friday watching her kids and driving her truck around … juggling a million different things and being real.”
Insiders report that a key difference will be how much the Right faction stands up to Allan, evidenced by that faction’s ability to install Ben Carroll as deputy premier, instead of the Left faction’s choice of Tim Pallas.
Observers will be wondering how long Allan can keep up her new premier energy.
On Friday in Bendigo, Allan was asked about how she felt she was going as premier. She joked about taking the reporter for a cup to tea.
She then allowed it was a “tremendous privilege to hold the role” and she was “really energised in the few weeks I have had the role”.
In the weeks leading up to her ascension, such energy had even taken her to Williamstown to meet with local MP Melissa Horne and the Keep Champion Road Open residents action group.
As one Labor adviser said: “She is going to need that level of investment to keep people happy because things are going to get hairy.”
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