Four senior Victorian government ministers, including the deputy premier, James Merlino, have confirmed they will quit politics, paving the way for a massive shake-up of the government’s leadership group just five months out from the election.
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 deputy premier, who is also 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.”
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.
Under Labor’s factional rules, the deputy premier needs to come from a different faction to premier Daniel Andrews, who is of the socialist left.
It is also expected the retiring MPs will be replaced in cabinet by members of their faction.
Several sources said the transport minister, Ben Carroll, was a frontrunner for the deputy position, while members of the right factions – speaker Colin Brooks and MPs Lizzie Blandthorn, Steve Dimopoulos and Nick Staikos – were vying to replace Merlino, Neville and Pakula.
On the left, Sonya Kilkenny and Harriet Shing have put their hands up to replace Foley and Wynne.
Some sources suggested the premier could pick the transport infrastructure minister, Jacinta Allan, from the left as deputy, although this could lead to backlash from the right.
The premier, Daniel 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.
“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.”