‘I don’t just want this for the win’: What’s really motivating Daniel Andrews

By Annika Smethurst

Daniel Andrews in his office during the penultimate week of the state election campaign.Credit:Eddie Jim

After almost 20 years on Spring Street – eight as Victorian premier – Daniel Andrews might be forgiven for wanting to walk away.

From the political high of leading Labor to victory over a one-term Coalition government in 2014 and the “Danslide” victory in 2018, he has delivered significant social reforms such as voluntary assisted dying and the ban on gay conversion therapy, invested record amounts in infrastructure and is the nation’s longest-serving incumbent political leader.

But it’s been a rocky few years. His government’s decision to enforce some of the most stringent pandemic prevention measures in the world has made Andrews a divisive figure in Australia. Disturbing death threats and violent protests have become part of the Victorian political landscape. As lockdowns dragged on, protesters rallying against pandemic powers and vaccine mandates wheeled a fake gallows to the steps of Parliament House. The bitter tone has seeped into the election campaign, with sitting independent MP Catherine Cumming on Saturday telling angry demonstrators she wanted Andrews to turn into “red mist” – a military term used to describe the spray of blood that occurs when a person is hit in the head by sniper.

Andrews’ government has been the subject of at least four corruption inquiries, one of which is investigating his role in the awarding of two grants, and he now leads the most indebted state in the country. And an early morning slip on wet stairs in 2021 led to him narrowly avoiding paralysis and made him question whether he would return to lead the state.

“Cath and I had a number of discussions. When you break your back, it’s a pretty significant thing,” he told The Age in an interview on Friday. “That gets you thinking. Absolutely.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and wife Catherine on the campaign trail last week.Credit:Joe Armao

At 50, Andrews has reached the pinnacle of his career. His three children – who have only ever known him as a politician – are grown up and he is eligible for a six-figure parliamentary pension for the rest of his life.

So what is keeping him on Spring Street?

“There is more to do,” Andrews said, simply, from his office overlooking the Treasury Gardens. “I don’t just want this for the win, I want it for the work. For the opportunity as well as the obligation. That’s what I was taught growing up.”

‘Energy, adrenaline, motivation’

If, as the bookmakers and pollsters suggest, Andrews can lead his party to another election victory on Saturday, he will surpass John Cain’s record as Victoria’s longest-serving Labor premier by Easter next year. Publicly, he has declared he will serve out the four-year term, saying: “I serve at the pleasure of the Victorian community and my colleagues.”

But it’s hard to find a colleague who believes him. Most say he will retire from parliament after reaching the Easter milestone, or the following year when the Metro Tunnel project is due for completion.

Deputy Premier Jacinta Allan, Andrews’ factional ally who is now widely tipped to one day succeed him as Labor leader, told The Age Andrews remains energised to deliver big policy projects and social reforms.

“It’s usually the case that the longer you’re in government, the more you run out of puff, but I think the opposite is true,” Allan said. “You see the benefit of what you are doing and you want to keep building on that. You see the positive changes, and I think that’s what drives Daniel.

“These jobs should be hard and challenging but the energy, adrenaline and motivation you get out of it is what gets you out of bed each morning.”

Friend and factional ally Martin Foley, who is retiring at this election, believes the job, and the power and influence that come with it, can be “intoxicating”.

“Once you get into the public policy area and you see what you can achieve and reform, it can be intoxicating. He has been a political creature his whole life and he is just reaching the peak of his political skill and power. I know he enjoys it.”

‘Governments don’t always get things right. Hindsight is obviously a wonderful thing. You don’t get a do-over, though.’

But these assessments aren’t representative of his cabinet, caucus or even broader Labor movement. There is a view within the party that Andrews’ decision to attempt a third term in office is to try to reshape his legacy as one that isn’t defined by COVID-19 lockdowns. Those closest to him privately admit Andrews had given every indication he would step down before the 2022 election. But with just two years – the pandemic years – threatening to define his political legacy, he craves a reset.

“I think he is riding it out because he needs to redeem himself from the pandemic. He is trying to fix it,” one Labor insider said.

Victoria’s strict lockdown measures – put in place on the advice of Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton – led to a rise in mental health service presentations as Victorian students missed more than 100 days of face-to-face learning.

The state’s infamous “second wave”, which resulted in more than 700 deaths, began with a leak from government-run hotel quarantine facilities. An inquiry into the hotel quarantine program identified flaws with almost every aspect of the set-up and oversight of the scheme, with Andrews laying the blame on former health minister Jenny Mikakos.

Police fire rubber bullets at protesters in Melbourne in August 2021.Credit:Justin McManus

The laws were unforgiving and the police response was sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes chaotic. The Andrews government has also refused to apologise to vulnerable residents after the Victorian Ombudsman found the strict lockdown of more than 3000 public housing tenants breached their human rights.

“The rushed lockdown was not compatible with the residents’ human rights, including their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty. In my opinion, based on the evidence gathered by the investigation, the action appeared to be contrary to the law,” Ombudsman Deborah Glass found.

Police making arrests at the Flemington towers during Andrews’ hard lockdown.Credit:Jason South

Andrews’ accepts his government made missteps in its handling of COVID-19, although he avoids specifics, and is at pains to point out the government made “really tough decisions on the best advice”.

“We didn’t chase people’s unanimous approval, because you’re never going to get that,” he said. “Governments don’t always get things right. Hindsight is obviously a wonderful thing. You don’t get a do-over, though.

“There would, of course, be elements, if you got to rewind everything, you would not necessarily make different decisions, but you might explain them differently. You might sequence things differently. There’s always things that you would change. You don’t get to choose the challenges you confront. Not in this job.”

During the pandemic, premiers and chief ministers were given an elevated prominence and profile not normally afforded to state and territory leaders as national consensus made way for individualised responses based on varying threat levels.

Dressed in his trademark chinos, North Face jacket and black-framed glasses, with his distinctive round-shouldered walk, Andrews became perhaps the single most recognisable leader of the pandemic.

Recognition in politics is usually considered an advantage. Particularly in state politics, which has traditionally enjoyed less airtime than Canberra. But through the pandemic the “daily Dan” press briefings meant the state’s 48th premier was beamed into households around the country for up to an hour each day as case numbers, and his political fortunes, waxed and waned.

Many Labor MPs fear that exposure has done more damage than good.

“The biggest problem is we are a long-term government and he is overexposed,” one cabinet minister told The Age from a polling booth this week. “I admire that he is hard and tough, but his empathy could have come across a little more.”

Two Daniels

Many of Andrews’ colleagues say the premier’s career should be viewed in two parts – the man who won in 2014 election and led Labor to victory again in 2018, and the post-pandemic premier.

“The job has gotten to him, and it’s understandable,” a former senior Labor staffer said. “The pandemic scared everyone, and he had to make genuinely grave decisions. He understood the pain it inflicted, but it has made him a different man and electorally that’s not necessarily a good thing … He’s different now.”

Andrews pictured wearing a spinal brace at home with his daughter after his accident.Credit:Daniel Andrews (Twitter)

His detractors also point out that the pandemic centralised decision-making in the Andrews government, boosting the power structure of the Premier’s Private Office. As a consequence, Westminster traditions were chipped away, with departmental secretaries no longer accountable to their minister but to Andrews’ inner circle of political operatives.

Even his loyal supporters are critical of this power shift, going so far as to describe Andrews as having “shades of Scott Morrison”, who appointed himself to administer several ministries during the pandemic.

“There has been a destruction of contestability; in many ways that is endemic in modern government, but he took it to the nth degree,” one former senior public servant said. “There are advantages to a centralised style but, ultimately, it leads to bad governance.”

Foley, who served as health minister for almost two years during the pandemic, “[does not] buy that there is a Machiavellian centre” to the Premier’s Private Office. He believes Andrews “flourished” during the pandemic but admits it was hard not to be changed by the enormity of a cataclysmic, once-in-100-year event.

“It affected all of us, we were all exhausted, I can assure you. But I think it enhanced so many of the qualities that made him a strong leader. Whether it was health, school, borders, police response, I don’t think it got to him in the sense it caused him to be rattled,” Foley says.

Andrews insists the pandemic didn’t change him as premier, but said it confirmed something he’d always known: “That central element of leadership, that it’s not about doing what’s popular, it’s about doing what’s right.”

But you don’t have to be a political insider to see the that over the course of 20 years on Spring Street, Andrews has been transformed. When he arrived at the centre of state politics in 2002, nobody was touting this aloof and nerdy newcomer as the future leader he’d become.

Family ties

Born in Williamstown in 1972, Andrews spent his formative years in Glenroy with his tight-knit family, his parents running a small business in the area. An arson attempt on a nearby supermarket badly damaged the family’s shop and triggered their move to Wangaratta in north-east Victoria, where his father Bob built up a small-goods franchise as well as farming cattle.

Young Daniel Andrews.

During the pandemic, as Andrews and his inner group of ministers made decisions about lockdowns and small business support, he was taken back to those early years when his parents worked tirelessly to support the family.

“They [his parents] worked really hard and we were not wealthy, but we had everything we needed,” Andrews says. “It’s strange the things that pop into your head in sort of high-stress moments. But I remember at various points when we were deciding business support packages and lockdowns … all I could think about was that there’ll be people out there who’ve built something really special and precious, through hard work, and we’re shutting down.”

After finishing school at Galen Catholic College, Andrews toyed with going to agriculture college but instead moved to Melbourne to live at Mannix College, a Catholic residential hall at Monash University, where he studied a bachelor of arts and met wife Catherine.

“Catherine and I talk about everything,” he tells The Age. “Whether she likes it or not, she’s kind of drawn into this a lot, so she has views. Often, I’ll come to her with a very complex matter, and she’ll be able to give me a real-world perspective, that kind of distilled perspective in one sentence and let me know if I’m on the right track.”

‘In a way, these last couple of years we kind of suspended normal politics. That’s seen people have entrenched views.’

Andrews insists he never aimed to become premier. “If you’d asked me in November 2002, would I be sitting here 20 years later, no, I wouldn’t have thought that was going to happen. But politics is funny like that, life is funny.

“I think wherever I finished up I would be terribly frustrated if I wasn’t getting things done, doing things, achieving things. I need a plan and a kind of high pace.”

Straitlaced and bookish, Andrews has been described by some colleagues as being born “40 years old”. In many ways, he was meant to be a stopgap leader. Not yet 40, he put his hand up to take the reins after former premier John Brumby unexpectedly lost the 2010 election. Few thought he’d lead the party to victory, especially in one term. In 2014, during his first successful election campaign, he showed what he was capable of.

It was the first Tuesday in November that year and Andrews’ campaign bus pulled up near a sports bar on Lydiard Street in Ballarat just before 3pm. A memorable photograph from the day shows him clutching a Jim Beam and cola in one hand and a TAB ticket for Lloyd Williams’ Melbourne Cup runner Fawkner in the other. Andrews made small talk with locals and journalists. He was relaxed, gregarious and keen to impress.

Daniel Andrews in a bar on Cup Day 2014.

Fawkner finished 10th that day, but Andrews was a hit, not just in the public bar but in the electorate. He and his team won that year by a few lengths. He used his first term to remove level crossings and introduce a number of forward-looking social policies. In 2018, against a poor and divided opposition, he stretched that lead significantly.

But when Andrews returned to Ballarat a fortnight ago, he appeared tense as he exited the campaign bus at the Mt Helen Campus of Federation University. Interactions with the public have been severely limited this campaign, so too impromptu stops. His movements are highly choreographed, as are his interactions with the media. The toll of campaigning for a third term as premier is showing. Andrews is still the overwhelming focus of Labor’s campaign, but he is more protective of himself and his inner circle, particularly his wife and three children, whom he describes as “conscripts” to his political career.

“Power and responsibility change everyone, and you never know how people will go until they have it,” one factional ally observed. “The pandemic has made him more cautious. I don’t think he is paranoid, but after that much time in office there is more and more shit that piles up at your door and that gives you less freedom.”

It’s not only Andrews that has changed in the past two decades. Politics has too.

“It’s a different business today and in some respects it can be nasty,” Andrews said. “We’ve had to deal with a one-in-100-year event, which everybody, quite rightly, has a view and opinion on. In a way, these last couple of years we kind of suspended normal politics. That’s seen people have entrenched views and maybe added to that a little bit.”

Andrews says he is happy his three children don’t plan to follow his career path.

“I’m rather pleased that I don’t think any of them will,” he said.

Election number three

While pollsters put Labor in front heading into the final week of the campaign, Labor sources believe the primary vote will fall compared with 2018. Initially, Andrews remained stubbornly popular, but the pandemic has triggered an entrenched division of views in the electorate and a gradual decline in support from which Labor has never recovered.

Even so, with the election just days away, the Andrews government remains favourite to win a third term.

On the campaign trail on Sunday.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

The Coalition has endured a campaign smattered with scandal and faces a looming threat from so-called teal independents. The Greens remain confident of picking up the Labor-held seats of Richmond, Northcote and Albert Park, and once-safe Labor territory in Melbourne’s outer-west is also under attack from independents.

Labor insiders report the party is struggling to sway professional women in their late-20s and 30s who are leading a revolt against the major parties. Many in this demographic bore the brunt of the Victorian lockdowns as they juggled home-schooling with work and childcare shutdowns and playground closures.

Support from these women helped propel the government to victory in previous elections and, in an effort to woo them back, Labor has unveiled policies to expand free IVF, promised to double the number of operations for endometriosis and provide free sanitary products in public places, which Andrews is at pains to promote.

“It might not be written up as a reform agenda, but I think it is, and it should be just as important as some of the big kind of systemic ones as well,” he said.


Even Andrews’ most ardent critics acknowledge his work ethic, intelligence and political nous. But with corruption investigations weighing on his government, an exodus of ministers during this term and the centralisation of decision-making to his inner circle, a reelected Labor government may be in for a bumpy term.

Andrews insists his motives remain noble.

“I behave appropriately at all times, and I’ll tell you why: because that’s the oath I swore, not once but twice. It’s the greatest honour in my life and I take that oath very, very seriously,” he said. “It is a great honour to serve in public life and you’ve got to have an agenda and a plan. If you’re in a leadership position, and that’s what you have to do, you have to lead whether it’s popular or not. And you have to act appropriately – and that’s what I do – people can make their own judgments.

“People have different views about me, that’s fine. That’s what democracy is about. One thing no one will ever be able to say is that we wasted a moment.”

In the past four years, Andrews has faced professional hurdles and overcome personal setbacks, both of which led to his decision to seek a third term.

“In a strange way, being off work for a period of time, longer than I have ever in my whole working life, being away from work was deeply, deeply frustrating. But [it] saw me come back fresh in some ways,” he said.

“You've got to make the most of every day.”

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