By Sumeyya Ilanbey, Erin Pearson, Clay Lucas and Jackson Graham
Photo shows the new members of the Labor front bench after the 2006 election. Left to right Tim Pallas, Richard Wynne, Daniel Andrew Lisa Neville, Joe Helper and James Merlino.Credit:Jason South
In 2006, Age photographer Jason South captured a posse of newly elevated members of the Bracks cabinet arm-in-arm in ill-fitting suits and questionable hairstyles. Eight years later after one of those young MPs, Daniel Andrews, was elected premier, four others – Tim Pallas, Richard Wynne, Lisa Neville and James Merlino – took lead roles in his cabinet.
Martin Foley and Martin Pakula were also in that first leadership team and all have been senior members of the Labor government ever since. They were part of Andrews’s inner “crisis cabinet” during the dark days of the COVID pandemic. And now four of them – four of the premier’s closest colleagues – are gone.
They each have their own reason for leaving but the retirements of Neville, Merlino, Foley and Pakula rip a hole out of cabinet that Andrews will find hard to fill.
Lisa Neville: ‘You’ve got to know when to go’
Neville says family concerns over her ailing health were behind her decision to stand down after more than two decades in government.
A tough woman of politics who holds the title as the first female and longest serving police minister in the state’s history, Neville will not be seeking re-election in November as she turns her focus to living with Crohn’s disease.
“I couldn’t keep working at this pace, keep my health OK and be around for [son] Sam who keeps saying: ‘I don’t want you to die young Mum’,” Neville said. “You’ve got to know when to go.”
Neville is not new to controversial or tough public announcements. First elected as the member for the Geelong seat of Bellarine in 2002 she held various portfolios, including aged care and child protection and became the country’s first minister for mental health.
Lisa Neville on FridayCredit:Jason South
But searing criticism in the mid-2000s under John Brumby’s leadership followed, and Neville was soon dubbed the “Minister for Bad News” amid deaths within the child protection system and at forensic mental health hospital Thomas Embling. A worrying spotlight then also shone on the condition of supported residential services within her portfolio.
Neville said there was no doubt there were issues at the time, but believed the tough criticism only made her a better minister. When asked whether she felt being a woman played a part in her treatment, she said an “expectation of how a woman should react in those situations” did exist at the time.
Maintaining a steely determination to get on with the job and as her resilience grew, Neville was later appointed the state’s first female police minister in 2016 and has overseen the biggest recruitment of new officers in Victoria.
All the while, Neville said, an at-times debilitating health condition was making life increasingly difficult.
In February last year she took extended leave from her parliamentary duties due to a flare-up of her Crohn’s, a condition which she’s battled for more than 30 years. That fight saw her spend time in hospital, including a period in intensive care and multiple surgeries. She returned to the job in August.
Lisa Neville with her son at her Geelong West home in 2008.Credit:Julian Kingma
Neville – who shares an adult son Sam with Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles – said she wanted to give herself a year out of hospital before deciding on her future, consulting family, friends and doctors ahead of Friday’s announcement.
Reflecting on her time in politics, Neville said she was most proud of helping to deliver the largest police budget in the state’s history in 2016, rolling out Tasers to Victorian police officers and overseeing the implementation of firearm prohibition laws.
She said she was leaving the job believing Victoria Police had been given the tools to redefine itself as a modern workforce.
Her heart though clearly lies in her Bellarine electorate where she plans to spend the rest of her term focusing on opening new schools, a sporting precinct at Drysdale and a fire station at St Leonards.
Time away from politics, she said, would then allow her to undergo further surgeries and trial new medication.
When asked about the timing of four ministers announcing their retirements on the same day and how that reflected on the state of the government, she said renewal was always a good thing.
“People should feel good we’ve made decision about our ability to deliver what they need. Now there will be an energised new group of people coming in,” Neville said. “It’s the right time to go.”
Police MInister Lisa Neville is seen during question time at State Parliament House. Credit:Chris Hopkins
Fellow Greater Geelong-region MP John Eren, who announced late last year he would also be stepping down from politics due to health concerns, has worked with Neville for 20 years. He said there had never been a more stressful time in the job.
“Lisa’s been a workhorse. She’s had a distinguished career and when you look back at her legacies she’s left behind, you how that’s going to be everlasting,” Eren said. “It’s a hard decision to make at the end of the day but we’ve got loved ones who want us to stick around a lot longer.“
Andrews, elected to parliament during the same year as Neville, said she had become a trusted colleague, friend and tireless champion for her portfolios, highlighting the 2016 budget which delivered 3135 new frontline and specialist police.
“At the time, former police commissioner Graham Ashton called it unprecedented. And it was. It was the single biggest investment in Victoria Police in the history of the force,” Andrews said. “Now it’s time for Lisa to put herself first.”
Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said Neville’s stewardship of the portfolio had coincided with arguably the most challenging environment in the history of Victoria Police alongside the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The minister leaves her position with the utmost respect of the Police Association and the gratitude of our members,” Gatt said.
Martin Pakula: ‘I don’t want to be a politician anymore’
Pakula is sanguine. There’s a bit of sadness and trepidation about leaving politics, he says, but more than that there’s joy and optimism for what the future holds.
“I just don’t want to be a politician anymore,” he told The Age. “I love government but I don’t love politics. I probably loved it when I first started, but 16 years is a long time … It’s a really taxing job, and it’s good to have enough self-awareness to know that it’s time to go and that’s how I feel.”
The 53-year-old was first elected to the Victorian parliament in 2006 as an upper house MP. Within two years, he was promoted into cabinet, and in 2013 moved to the lower house seat of Keysborough.
Pakula has held the portfolios of attorney-general and racing minister, and since 2018 has been the minister for jobs, innovation and trade, minister for tourism, sports and major events, and minister for racing.
The achievement he is most proud of is the work he did as attorney-general with victims of institutional child sexual abuse. He led Victoria’s national redress scheme and removed the so-called Ellis defence, the legal precedent established in NSW in 2007 which ruled that, legally, the Catholic Church did not exist, as its vast assets were held inside a special trust.
Martin Pakula is leaving politics after 16 years.Credit:Justin McManus
But it’s been in the past two years in which Victorians have got to know him the most.
He was the minister responsible for business support, handing out billions of dollars in financial aid during lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns, allowing the Australian Open to go ahead in 2021 despite significant criticism and spruiking Melbourne’s credentials as a world capital in major events.
And he was the minister pilloried for allowing 1250 people to attend the Cox Plate in October 2020 while Melbourne remained under lockdown restrictions.
“It’s fair to say for a long time, there were a lot of fights I didn’t win [in cabinet meetings around COVID-19 restrictions] … but when I was able to move the dial a bit, it was extremely rewarding,” Pakula said.
“Keeping the racing industry going throughout the pandemic [has been important]. I know it doesn’t mean a lot to everyone but to that industry, I know how important it was.
Martin Pakula (third from left), a Blues’ tragic, with fellow parliamentarians (L-R) Donna Petrovich, Michael O’Brien, Justin Madden, Jan Kronberg, Peter Crisp, Jeanette Powell, Peter Hall, Martin Dixon and Ken Smith on the steps of Parliament in 2007. Credit:John Woudstra
“Over the last eight months, just getting the event sector up and running again. It would have been very easy for our live theatre shows to not reopen … only a small tweak could’ve meant the Australian Open going ahead or Formula 1 not going ahead is something I’m really proud of.”
NSW was so close to stealing the F1 Grand Prix, Pakula said, and losing it would have dealt a huge blow to the state’s economy, and potentially put in jeopardy other major events, such as the Boxing Day test, Melbourne Cup and Australian Open.
Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chef executive Paul Guerra praised Pakula’s tenacity, and his commitment to defending Victorian businesses within government.
“I’ve spoken to him at 5am and at midnight,” Guerra said. “What I found with Pakula was he always understood how [restriction] decisions may impact businesses, and that would shape his view in cabinet meetings.”
Australian Grand Prix chief executive Andrew Westacott (left) and Martin Pakula earlier this month after he secured the future of F1 at Albert Park until 2035. Credit:Getty Images
Former Victoria Racing Club chairman Amanda Elliot said Pakula had been an “extremely effective” Racing Minister, who understood the significance of the industry to the state.
“He’s a very intelligent man who understands how to get to the centre of an issue very quickly,” Elliot said. “I think it’s rare to find a politician that can actually stand astride all ideologies to get their job done. Martin has been an exemplar of that.”
Martin Foley: ‘You can stay too long in politics’
While out doorknocking locals in his seat of Albert Park, ahead of the 2014 state election, Martin Foley had an appalling encounter in “walk-up” public housing units in South Melbourne.
“I met an old Russian lady on the third floor of those estates and she hadn’t been out of her unit because she couldn’t negotiate the steps, for nine months,” says the retiring health and equality minister, who from 2014 was housing minister for a term.
It confirmed for him the Andrews government’s controversial policy of replacing dilapidated public housing with new social housing apartments, mixed with private units, was a better model.
Helath minister Martin Foley last month.Credit:Scott McNaughton
“As opposed to a state-run system that has just shown itself to be a problematic landlord,” he said.
The 60-year-old has been in parliament for 15 years and rose to greater prominence in Victorian politics when his predecessor Jenny Mikakos quit in 2020.
Foley said that in his two years as health minister he had “got the rail tracks laid” for major reform in the system.
“The once-in-a-100-year catastrophe of the pandemic gave us a chance to get a better system in place,” Foley said.
“You had to get a better system because this pandemic isn’t going to be the end of it; climate change and the speeding up of being a more integrated global community means we need to our systems up to speed. And we need to do that within the mess of a structure that is the Australian Federation.”
“When a global pandemic hits, you need to operate as a system. There were real challenges and we had to rebuild the plane in mid-flight and in mid-crisis the whole notion of what an integrated health service can be.”
Foley is married to English language teacher Sharon Duff and the pair have two adult children, twins who were seven when he entered parliament. They are now 22.
A housing worker and union official before being elected MP for Albert Park, Foley was born in Mornington, where he lived until his mum died when he was eight. He has lived on and off in Elwood since that time, and will remain there once he finishes in parliament in November.
Along with an increase in social housing dwelling numbers in his own seat, Foley nominates a major renovation of the Palais Theatre and construction of the award-winning LGBTIQ+ Pride Centre in St Kilda as two of his proudest achievements.
As equality minister, Foley also said he was pleased that respect for diverse communities was now embedded into Victorian society.
“It’s to the point where the Tories cannot unravel what we’ve done – where you can’t just get out there and belt the LGBTIQ+ community for political gain.”
Health minister Martin Foley in July last year with the premier, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and Covid-19 response commander Jeroen WeimarCredit:Eddie Jim
Foley said he was leaving now because, as much as he got fired up over policies and structural change within government, and equitable access to services, “there are other ways to help on those things. And you can stay too long in politics. You’ve got to know when to go.”
Foley said he believed Labor could hold Albert Park at November’s state election, but declined to say who he thought should replace him as the Labor candidate for the electorate.
This week, he went with another retiring MP, housing and planning minister Richard Wynne, to announce the new Emerald Hill Health and Housing Precinct – the demolition of those very walk-up public housing apartments where the Russian tenant had effectively been trapped in her home for nine months.
They will be replaced with 70 new social housing apartments, and a new hospital. “I had been working on that project for a very long time and I was desperate to land it before I went, so I’m very proud of it.”
James Merlino: ‘Now is the time for me’
Merlino fronted the media on Friday to announce his departure from the parliament after 20 years, wearing a familiar charismatic and determined grin.
Despite serving as deputy leader for 10½, deputy premier for more than seven, fulfilling his ambition to be education minister and providing the early momentum to Victoria’s landmark mental health royal commission, he declined to lay out his track record.
Premier Daniel Andrews shakes hands with outgoing deputy premier James Merlino. His preferred deputy, Jacinta Allan, is pictured centre.Credit:Justin McManus
“I will leave it up to others to judge my impact in education and mental health,” Merlino said, in an at times emotional press conference.
“There’s no victory lap in terms of reform … there’s always the next challenge.”
Andrews, who entered parliament at the same time as Merlino two decades ago, called out his deputy’s “modesty and integrity” and piled praise on Merlino’s commitment to fairness in schools.
The premier cited support for low-income students through breakfast clubs and support for uniforms and camps, as well as upgrades to every Victorian specialist school as thanks to Merlino’s actions.
“Those kids are worth it and their parents are worth it too, and that wouldn’t be happening without James Merlino,” the premier said.
Andrews described his “trusted colleague and dear friend” as being above what any premier could ask for in a deputy.
“He is a person of courage and conviction,” he said.
James Merlino plans to spend more time with his alpacas.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui
Merlino, who has spent 16 years on the front bench and 12 years as a minister, took the Dandenong Ranges seat of Monbulk off the Liberals in 2002 after serving as a local councillor for more than five years.
“Someone wise once said to me ‘when you come into politics think about how you want to leave politics’,” Merlino said on Friday, adding he believed he was “incredibly lucky” to be leaving politics on his own terms at the November election.
He said after more than half of his life in public roles, he did not have the “heart and fuel” to commit to another four years in parliament, acknowledging political life had a “disproportionate impact on our families”.
“It’s in big and little ways, it’s the school productions you might miss or the sporting events you might miss,” Merlino said.
“It’s also the times you are there but you’re not really there because you’re dealing with all the pressures and the challenges that politics brings.
“There’s not one single reason I’ve come to this decision … Now is the time for me.”
He said renewal was the best outcome for his party, and that he would be “going at 100 miles an hour” until the election.
Andrews also paid tribute to Merlino’s actions as acting premier after the premier suffered a back injury in 2021 that kept him out of work for more than three months.
“On a very personal note, I will never be able to repay James for his loyalty, for his friendship, for his care and comfort to me,” Andrews said.
Merlino said he would be spending more time at a country block he recently acquired in the Dandenong Ranges.“I’ll probably plant a few more olive trees, take care of the alpacas, and most importantly spend time with Megs and the kids,” he said.
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