Victoria’s transport infrastructure minister, Jacinta Allan, has emerged as frontrunner for the role of deputy premier following the resignation of James Merlino and three senior ministers.
Merlino, health minister Martin Foley, police minister Lisa Neville and the minister for tourism, sport and major events, Martin Pakula, issued statements on Friday morning confirming they will not seek re-election in November and will step down from cabinet once their replacements are confirmed.
The premier, Daniel Andrews, announced new senior “co-ordinating ministers” would head each government department before Labor caucus meets on Saturday morning to vote on a new ministry.
He said Mary-Anne Thomas, the current minister for agriculture and regional development, will become health minister, while the corrections minister, Natalie Hutchins, will take on the education portfolio.
“That means that like the cabinet, the government’s leadership team is now more than half women,” Andrews said.
“The government is so much better for making sure that 50% of the community [comprises] at least 50% of our ranks.”
Current transport minister Ben Carroll will assume responsibility as co-ordinating minister for the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions, while assistant treasurer Danny Pearson will oversee the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing. Andrews said their final portfolios were not decided.
Andrews said he and the coordinating ministers would recommend Allan become deputy premier at Saturday’s meeting.
It is a break from Labor’s factional conventions, which dictates the deputy role is held by an MP from a different faction to the premier.
If Allan were appointed deputy, it would give the premier’s socialist left faction control of the two most senior positions in the party.
But Andrews said both the Bracks and Brumby governments also broke with tradition.
“Let’s not get into these sorts of games. I’m very confident, just as my senior leadership team and colleagues are very confident, that caucus will make the right decision,” he told reporters.
Treasurer Tim Pallas urged his colleagues on the right to support Allan as deputy premier.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with her for over two decades. She’s a passionate advocate in the parliament for her community,” he said. “She will be a great demonstration, I believe, of this government’s renewal but also its commitment.”
Carroll had been touted by the right as a contender for the deputy position but Andrews said Allan was the only candidate he was aware of.
Allan has long been considered a potential successor to Andrews, although she said her only ambition was to see the re-election of the government.
“I can say I’m really humbled and grateful for the support from my colleagues around me, and I particularly thank the premier for his support,” she said, noting it was important for the caucus process to take its course.
Several sources have said members of the right factions – Speaker Colin Brooks and MPs Lizzie Blandthorn, Steve Dimopoulos and Nick Staikos – were vying to enter cabinet, while on the left, Sonya Kilkenny and Harriet Shing have emerged as strong contenders.
Senior figures depart
The four retirements are in addition to other senior Labor MPs, including former attorney general Jill Hennessy and the planning minister, Richard Wynne, who announced last year they would be retiring at the election.
Merlino, who as well as being deputy premier has also been the minister for education and mental health, said a cabinet reshuffle would be the “best thing” for the government as it seeks a third term.
“Renewal is critical for any government – fresh ideas and new energy. As hard as this is, I believe in my heart that renewal, new cabinet ministers around the table, is the best thing for the government and our state,” Merlino said.
“I know how much capacity and talent there is in our team.”
Andrews said Victoria has “never had a better acting premier” than Merlino, who stepped into the role for several months last year while he recovered from a serious back injury.
“I will forever be grateful for his care and concern but moreover, his competence – allowing me to focus on recovering from very serious injuries, confident, indeed certain, that the state was in the best of hands,” Andrews said.
Merlino will stay on in the role of campaign chair ahead of the 26 November election, a role he unofficially held at the last two campaigns.
Foley, a 15-year parliamentary veteran who took over from Jenny Mikakos as health minister after her resignation in September 2020, said the pandemic had been a tough time for all Victorians, forcing many to reflect on their aspirations.
“I am no different. I am looking forward to contributing to a better, fairer, sustainable Victoria in a different capacity, one that allows me more time to focus on my family and wellbeing and different interests,” he said.
Foley thanked nurses, doctors, paramedics, allied health professionals and scientists for their efforts during the pandemic, saying working with them has been the “greatest revelation” of his professional life.
The premier said without Foley, there would be no royal commission into mental health or the establishment of Victoria’s first medically supervised injecting room.
He said Foley’s work during the pandemic “saved lives”.
“Martin has never been afraid to face difficult issues, and make difficult decisions, when he knew it was the right thing to do – and when he knew it would help people,” Andrews said.
Neville, who has battled Crohn’s disease, said stepping away from politics was one of the hardest decisions of her life.
“I have only known one way to approach public life and that is to invest every ounce of energy into it. Being an MP and a minister is a unique privilege and one that demands your total focus,” she said.
“I know I cannot give another four years. I wish it were otherwise, but I must be honest with myself, the wonderful people I work with and the Bellarine community.”
Pakula said he had decided to hang up his boots after 16 years in politics.
“Politics is an all-consuming endeavour. It’s a job which often demands an unhealthy measure of emotional and mental commitment,” he said.
“As politicians, we are notoriously bad at appreciating when considerations for our own wellbeing demand that we stop and find something else to do with our lives. I’d like to think I’m not one of them.”