I was young and tried to catch Dan Andrews out in Ballarat. It didn’t work

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In the 2010 Victorian election, Ballarat felt like ground zero for the regional campaign as both sides fought doggedly to win three local seats.

I was a reporter with the Ballarat Courier, and the repeated visits from former premier John Brumby left the local media in little doubt about how important they considered the region.

Daniel Andrews as health minister in 2010. Credit: Craig Abraham

About three weeks before election day, then health minister Daniel Andrews rolled into town to trump the opposition with a promise of $10 million for a helipad for the regional city’s main hospital.

Just before the press conference got underway, I naively imagined this minister from Melbourne would be easy pickings. Could he possibly be across the finer details of the promised helipad at the local health service?

We peppered Andrews with questions, trying to expose cracks and flaws in the policy. But it quickly became clear this tall, bespectacled bloke from Melbourne was well across the brief. He could not be tripped up or baited into making a mistake.

In my memory, Andrews dealt deftly with our questions until we had none left – a practice familiar to the Spring Street press gallery today.

Labor’s helipad promise cleverly nullified community concern and a planned protest scheduled for a few days later was called off. The announcement may also have helped Labor retain the electorates of Ballarat East, Ballarat West and Ripon even though it was booted from government by the Coalition led by Ted Baillieu.

Eight years later I climbed onto Labor’s red bus as a reporter for this masthead together with the Spring Street press gallery hurtling towards regional Victoria on the first day of the 2018 election campaign.

The bus headed straight for Wangaratta where Andrews made another $10 million commitment to boost local health services – prompting a delighted response from the doctors and nurses who gathered to watch the announcement.

Daniel Andrews on his campaign bus in 2018.Credit: Joe Armao

By now, I was much more familiar with Andrews’ style and command of the media at press conferences. And he was keen to show his country credentials, having spent much of his youth in Wangaratta.

“I’m from this local community – not pretending, I’m just being me. I love this place,” he told the press pack. But the main order of the day was a charm offensive.

Much like the start of his 2014 campaign, Andrews invited the entire press pack into the home of his mother Jan in Wangaratta.

There was a plentiful spread, including sandwiches, fruit and scones with cream and jam. We wandered in the neatly maintained garden and Jan chatted with journalists about the renovation on her home.

The lunch stop at his mother’s house seemed wholesome enough, but underscored a sophisticated media strategy that continued to serve him well. The event sought to soften Andrews’ image and present a more earthy persona in the polite company of his mother and wife Cath.

Andrews with his mother Jan and wife Catherine at Jan’s farm in Wangaratta.Credit: Mark Jesser

Andrews brought us in, yet somehow kept us at arm’s length.

Labor trounced the Coalition at the 2018 election and extended those gains last year.

Andrews’ controlled performances continued during the pandemic.

His gruelling marathon press conferences became compulsory viewing for Victorians intent on finding out what freedoms would be taken away or restored as COVID-19 swept across the state.

But even while announcing his resignation on Tuesday, Andrews gave away little emotion despite the enormity of the moment.

He exuded the same discipline as the young health minister in Ballarat where I learned better than to underestimate his ability to control the message.

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