But the controversy over Victoria’s involvement in China’s $1.5 trillion global infrastructure play had been raging for weeks after China’s relations with Australia, and the rest of the world, were thrown into sharp relief by the push for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19.
The whole thing left Victoria, as the only state or province among scores of jurisdictions around the world to have a Belt and Road agreement with the communist nation, very much the odd one out as the federal Coalition government increased its attacks on the arrangement.
O’Brien and his federal colleagues are hoping the row will hasten the end of the long second honeymoon Andrews has enjoyed since a landslide election win in 2018 handed his government a second term, and the Premier political dominance of the state and his party.
The Labor leader has been flying, politically speaking, for the first six months of this year with near unheard-of approval ratings for his handling of the biggest bushfires the state has ever seen, closely followed by the worst health emergency in a century.
But in recent weeks, the normally sure-footed Andrews and his team have been making some uncharacteristic missteps on Belt and Road and, more recently, COVID-19 restrictions in the context of Saturday’s Black Lives Matter protest in Melbourne.
The state’s successful social distancing effort now looks a bit ragged in what, it is hoped, are its final stages.
The lockdown’s critics are emboldened after the Premier, Chief Health Officer and Health Minister got serious about asking people to stay away only last Thursday, just two days before the protest. The demonstration turned out to be easily the biggest gathering of people in the state since the pandemic began.
The Premier, who said he was supportive of the cause but not the protest, normally sees trouble coming earlier than that. So you wonder.
But Andrews has been going flat out since New Year’s Day. First with the fires, then with the coronavirus. Only a few weeks ago, plans were still in place to turn the Melbourne Convention Centre into a giant makeshift hospital and morgue.
So it’s fair to say that the Premier has had a bit going on these past few months, with no downtime, not even a hit of his beloved golf to take his mind off things.
That aside, Belt and Road is not going to stop being a problem for the Premier. There are too many people determined to make sure it doesn’t.
Every time something bad happens with the Australia-China bilateral relationship – and it’s not looking good – it’s going to be Andrews’ problem.
The Premier and his government argue that they have been consistent in their approach to China, where others have not, and that is true. But the China we’re faced with today is not the same as it was in 2014 when Andrews swept into power, and the view in Canberra is that the Premier hasn’t changed with it.
Defenders of the Victorian Belt and Road deal point to many things the Coalition government has done in the name of trade with China. The lease of the Port of Darwin, a vital strategic maritime asset, is a big one. But there’s also the Belt and Road memorandum of understanding signed by the federal government in 2017, and as late as November 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was still saying nice things about the initiative.
All true, but there’s no way the federal government would do any of that today. It’s even hard to see how the China-Australia Free Trade Deal, signed in 2015 after many years of negotiations, would get a run these days amid the growing antipathy and distrust between the two nations.
But against that background, the Premier now seems keen to push ahead with phase three of his Belt and Road deal, a “roadmap agreement” scheduled to be signed two months ago, but for the intervention of the virus.
If Victoria goes ahead and signs, “politically explosive” won’t begin to cover what would happen next. Andrews has a good excuse, with the global pandemic shutting international travel down for the foreseeable future, to go slow on the new deal and hope things settle down.
He doesn’t show any sign of considering that option of course – it’s just not his style – and it’s unclear whether his Chinese partners would go for it, either, or if Beijing would try to force the issue and secure a new Belt and Road trophy signature as it tightens the screws on Australia more broadly.
This is tricky and it’s going to take all of that famous Andrews political nous to navigate what looks like a long long road from here. As for O’Brien, who reckons he’s onto a winner here, he’ll be along. Every every step of the way.
Noel Towell is state political editor.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age