Selling Sweaty Dan and Silly Denis – the final choice will be yours

Victorian Premier Denis Napthine encounters some suspicion on the hustings. Photo: Jason South Daniel Andrews with Molly Meldrum and Michael Gudinski at Sing Sing Studios. Photo: Simon O’Dwyer

The Premier gets on his bike at Fed Square. Photo: Justin McManus

Wheeee: The Premier at a kindergarten in Warrnambool. Photo: Leanne Pickett

Andrews shares a beer in Ballarat. Photo: Damian Mookhoek

Daniel Andrews’ car is an hour north of Melbourne, on way to Mernda, when flashing lights and a police roadblock halt his progress. Traffic is being diverted from the main road into town. The Opposition Leader and his team, including wife Catherine and former Treasurer John Lenders, are rolling into Mernda to announce a brand new school, should they win the November 29 election, one of 11 Labor will promise for the state.

Thankfully it’s not a major disaster. “A truck has lost its cargo of screws and nails and they are all over the road,” our driver tells us..

Andrews is quick off the mark, given an “embedded journalist” is riding shotgun with him on a trip into the heart of Yan Yean, one of Victoria’s most marginal seats. Embedded journalist number four of the Andrews campaign so far, to be exact

“So what’s the headline?” he quips. “A screw loose? Road to nowhere?”

This is the “Dan Andrews”, rather than “Daniel”, that Labor is trying to sell in the lead-up to the state election. A man more relaxed and approachable, and a far cry from the man who has headed Labor’s relentless negative campaign against the state government over the past four years.

To that point, just the day before Andrews shunned the glamour of Flemington to watch the Melbourne Cup in a Ballarat pub and enjoy a Jim Beam and Coke.

On the road to Mernda, Andrews is once again dressed in the open-neck shirt, jeans and boots that have become his trademark in the past week. Notably, both Lenders and his wife are dressed in the same manner.

“A lot has been made of the clothes,” says a smiling Catherine Andrews, who has taken leave from her job to join her husband on the campaign trail. “It’s a road trip, and we have dressed for a road trip.”

Andrews jumps in. “It’s a long day in the car, from the early morning into late evening, and I just feel more comfortable out of the suit when travelling.”

Andrews remains calm and relaxed, despite the hold-up, and a need to find a pit stop ahead of the day’s first photo call.

Just over an hour earlier the Opposition Leader had been on radio with the the ABC’s Jon Faine, where he was grilled over the depth of his relationship with James Packer, whose friend Lloyd Williams said was backing Labor’s campaign. Packer later denied this, saying he was not getting involved in the election.

Faine also quizzed Andrews about his lack of public recognition and grilled the want-to-be premier particularly hard on that last point, highlighting a report in The Age that revealed barely one-third of voters were able to name him when presented with a photograph.

“The priority is the policies, not my personality,” says Andrews on his lesser public profile.

“Our job as an alternative government was to hold Ted Baillieu and then Denis Napthine to account on the promises they made. I haven’t had time to focus on whether Victorians have gotten to know me, and I probably won’t between now and November 29. I get a sense from the people I talk to every day they are more worried about the basics of life, about the fundamentals, than about me.”

But with an election looming, the questions will naturally turn to what Victorians think of the potential new leader, as Faine pointed out during his morning interview.

“I know the media has a job to do, but I have never been one to be focused on these things,” says Andrews. “You work hard, and focus on the job at hand. You know, we take nothing for granted, even with the polls. Our obligation is to give Victorians a choice on election day. That’s all it’s about. We have worked hard to give them that choice over the past your years.”

“What the people of Victoria do know is that we (Labor) have very different values and  very different priorities to Denis Napthine and Tony Abbott. But I haven’t got time to worry about other things, like recognition.”

Andrews is staying on message, talking schools, trains and jobs, but the Spring Street press gallery has noted the changes in the man they have followed for four years.

Arriving in Mernda the first question he is asked is if he is wearing the exact same outfit as the day before. “No, I definitely changed shirts,” he laughs.

Not only has Andrews ditched his suit and tie, but last month he suddenly emerged as “Dan Andrews” rather than the more formal “Daniel”. He has also dropped about 10 kilograms of weight over the past year.

“No diet in particular,” he says. “Just sticking to the basics of no fried food, skip the dessert, and avoid the chips if you order a steak. It’s amazing what happens if you avoid the fatty foods.”

After almost four years as opposition leader, the polls suggest Andrews is on the home stretch in his push to become premier. According to the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll, Labor leads the government on the top three issues that resonate with voters – healthcare, education and jobs, and the swing will be enough to give it government at the end of the month.

But there remains one telling gulf between him and his opponent. The polls shows Denis Napthine leads his challenger as preferred premier by 45 per cent to 36 per cent among voters. The message has been echoed in other opinion polls over the past year.

On that front the government smells weakness, and has been quick to seize on Andrews’ lack of popularity.

Indeed, when Victorians head to the polls, never before will the act of perspiring have played such a crucial role.  The Liberal Party’s spin doctors have targeted Andrews’ propensity for hidrosis as an Achilles heel

One of the Liberal Party’s very first television attack advertisements, released in mid-October, featured footage of Andrews sweating profusely at a press conference.

Catherine Andrews can’t help but defend her husband. “The thing most people don’t know about Daniel is that he doesn’t take days off, even when he is unwell, and he has a chronically bad back,” she says.

“I know the day of that press conference he fronted up to the media with the flu and a fever. But he won’t make excuses.”

Andrews just shrugs when asked about the ad. “At the end of the day they will find some unflattering footage, and I am the first to admit that I look best when I am on radio.”

Ironically, despite the change in wardrobe and weight loss, he goes on to add: “This is not a fashion parade. This is not a game show. This is about whether or not Victorians will have services they deserve.”

According into a source at Liberal Party headquarters, the image of “sweaty Dan” will appear throughout the election campaign, and the image works on two levels.

“It’s not just about Andrews,” The Age was told. “It also reinforces that Denis is  good under pressure. I think Victorians recognise that.”

But not all in the Liberal Party agree with the focus on the leaders, even with Napthine’s relative popularity.

“Selling Denis is the last throw of the dice,” says one senior Liberal Party insider.

“In some senses, it’s a good strategy. Voters like him, he is distanced from Ted Baillieu, and he hasn’t done an awful lot wrong in his two years in the job. It’s just a matter of putting the issues of the Shaw stuff behind us.”

But publicly “selling Denis” has resulted in little more than an array of stage-managed stunts. In recent weeks, the string of photo opportunities tell the story.

Denis driving a truck; Denis jamming with a brass band at the races; Denis riding a slide at a kindergarten;,Denis working at a McDonald’s drive through; Denis riding a bicycle.

Just on Wednesday, the Premier was in the backyard with a typical Aussie family. His minders even had a tray of Family Assorted biscuits on hand, just in case you didn’t get the message.

Media buyer Harold Mitchell says the Liberal Party has pitched the premier badly to voters.

“Napthine is safe and in good times the right man to have, but in Victoria people are worried,” says Mitchell. “Andrews is younger, active, a man for difficult times, maybe, and that’s where the economy is heading. You can see in the way they [Labor] are dressing him, wearing jeans, emphasising his youth. In contrast an older premier in a suit and tie posing for silly pictures isn’t the right image.”

There is no doubt Napthine has campaigned hard for the past few months, and many in the party speak highly of the Premier’s work ethic. But they think the strategy behind selling Denis is flawed.

On that front, several senior Liberal figures rue the departure of Napthine’s key adviser, Anna Cronin, who took some personal leave of her own volition earlier this year and is no longer at the heart of the premier’s campaign.

“I agree Denis does well among the people,” says one. “Victorians like him better, but for the past six months we should have been talking about managing the economy and crime and safety, instead of talking about public transport and education. East West is probably the exception, but we have played into Labor’s hands. I think Anna would have kept the message back on our core strengths with voters.

A veteran of several Liberal Party campaigns sums it up best. “At the end of the day Denis is a country vet who cares for kids with disabilities, and  Andrews is a family man who goes to church with his wife and kids,’ he said.

“But you won’t see that in this campaign. Instead they will try and portray Denis as some sort of can-do guy who is building all these projects. Labor are getting Andrews out and about to try and show he is a real person, and not just the negative wrecking ball he has been. But election campaigns never let the real person shine through.”

Harold Mitchell has been up close and personal with  election campaigns for more than 40 years. As a young ad man, he marvelled at the power of Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time” campaign of 1972. “Absolutely remarkable campaign,” he says. “Right message at the right time.”

Mitchell then worked on Malcolm Fraser’s “Turn On the Lights” campaign, which carried the Liberal Party into government. He later worked to sell Jeff Kennett’s “Guilty Party” attack on Labor,  then became the media buyer for Labor when Steve Bracks came to power.

He chuckles when asked about the efforts to sell Andrews and Napthine to voters in the run-up to the election.

“It’s very difficult to get a new positive point across in a short run up to an election,” says Mitchell. “The days the voters remember have actually come and gone. With `Turn Out The Lights’, all the work had been done months before we launched it.

“It was the same with Kennett. For a year he ran that `Guilty Party’ line, to hammer the message home.”

Mitchell thinks the polls are set, and the only thing that will bring down Daniel Andrews is a successful negative campaign, or a political disaster.

“That’s why we will see the negative campaigning against Andrews,” Mitchell says.

“Modern day personality-based research tends to focus on the leaders, but elections  are a very different thing. Most voters have made up their mind a long time before the  last month.

“Can a big personality turn an election? No, unless it’s in a negative way. By that I mean a scandal or disaster. Most elections are lost by the incumbent, but it’s hard for hard for political parties and especially governments to see that.”

And see that they won’t.

In the next three weeks the two major parties, according to Mitchell will spend more than $10 million  on their campaigns – “Money that is probably wasted”.

Thanks to the spin doctors, it’s Sweaty Dan versus Silly Denis. The choice is yours

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