We are barrelling down the Western Freeway, midway between Melbourne and the old gold-mining city of Ballarat, when Daniel Andrews twists around from the front seat of the government limousine. "You mustn't tell my mother that, she'd kill me," begs the man who by Christmas might - just might - be Victoria's unexpected new premier.
Up until then the conversation had been rolling along as smoothly as the sleek blue chauffeur-driven Holden Calais. We had discussed his childhood in the country (rather solitary and serious from the sound of it), his five years at university trying, and failing, to get an honours degree ("Too much beer and not enough books in the early years", Andrews confesses), his inevitable transition into politics (the only job he was destined to do, apart from delivering charcuterie on one of his father's trucks) and, of course, his infatuation with the game of golf. But then we had drifted off the fairway into rougher going, and in particular the role of religion in his life.
His mother, Jan - still alive and well at the age of 70 and living on the family beef cattle farm - had told me that Daniel had been brought up as a Roman Catholic, attending church on Sundays, parish primary schools and the Marist Brothers' Galen College in the Andrews' adopted home town of Wangaratta, in north-east Victoria. In December 2010, after the Labor government suffered a narrow but humiliating defeat in the state election, Andrews was elected as the new party leader. For good luck, his mother had given him a handful of silvery medallions about the size of 10-cent coins depicting the Apostle Jude Thaddeus, with instructions that he was to put one in the pocket of every suit and carry it everywhere.
It was a curious choice of talisman, since St Jude came to a sticky end - beaten to death with a club and beheaded - and on the Catholic calendar he is worshipped as the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. I was curious to see one and it was then that Andrews mumbled he had left it in a briefcase in another car and asked me not to tell.
Sorry, Daniel, but the story illustrates an important paradox in the man who hopes to be the next premier.
Andrews is a man of profound contradictions. He is the church-going Catholic who not only forgets his lucky charm but who dismayed the church hierarchy when he was health minister by passing a law to legalise abortion, who supports gay marriage and who will - if he's elected to government - legalise "living wills", allowing people a say in how they die. He is the member of the Socialist Left faction who slaughtered sacred cows and persuaded his party to support the sale of state assets such as the Port of Melbourne. He is the Dr Jekyll - whom friends and family portray as funny, thoughtful and compassionate - whose Mr Hyde can tear into opponents in the bear-pit of Parliament. In December 2012, he was thrown out by the Speaker after asking then premier Ted Baillieu why he continued to support renegade Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, given he had "likened homosexuality to child molestation, been charged with assault, faces a Tax Office probe for underpaying debts to mum-and-dad investors".
Earlier this month, Andrews attempted to have the now independent Shaw expelled from the Victorian Parliament after the MP was found to be misusing his taxpayer-funded car and petrol card for commercial gain. The Napthine government instead suspended Shaw for 11 sitting days, knowing that an expulsion could lead to a by-election in the seat of Frankston and potentially bring down the government. Interesting times for the wannabe premier.
As the car speeds back towards Melbourne, I ask him whether there are, in fact, two Daniel Andrews.
"Only two?" he replies, enigmatically.
I first meet Andrews a few hours earlier on a bright, chilly Friday morning at the basketball stadium at Mazenod College in the south-east Melbourne suburb of Mulgrave, where he - together with his Liberal opponent for the now-marginal seat, an American former stockbroker named Robert Davies - are among the guests at the school's "founder's day." More than 1000 students from Catholic schools are perched on a foldaway grandstand to watch as a choir belts out some joyful hymns, a dozen priests in long, coloured robes preside on a raised dais, and a cheque for $102,000 is handed over to help finance the order's missions in China and India.
Andrews looks chipper, even though he's been up for hours, holding a clinic in his electoral office, dealing with the bread-and-butter issues of his constituents: overhanging branches, blocked drains, an elderly couple desperate to find a place for a handicapped child. Around six feet tall in the old currency (183 centimetres), with a solid build and the hunched shoulders of a man who spends too much time at a desk, Andrews has close-cropped dark hair, a slightly owlish look in spite of trendy new spectacles, and is dressed in a politician's uniform of grey suit, white shirt and purple tie.
We are on our way to Ballarat, where Labor has two MPs who face defeat because of a redistribution. This is retail politics at its most basic and Andrews is in his element. In a sports pavilion, he studies plans for changing rooms to replace the decrepit facilities; Labor is wooing the 2000-odd families who have kids playing sport here with the promise of a $30 million stadium. Wouldn't the money be better spent on a new school or medical centre, I ask the endangered local MP, Sharon Knight. "Well, if they play sport they will be healthy and we won't need to spend as much on healthcare," she says.
Down the road, at the village of Buninyong, they are more concerned about a dangerous school crossing on the highway that divides the town. Andrews promises to fix it, and poses with a posse of children and the lollipop lady for the local paper. "We had the Liberals here yesterday," The Miner's proprietor/editor/photographer, Alan Marini, tells me. "They get all excited about it because there's an election coming up, and then we don't see them for another four years."
"Not so," says Andrews as we head back to Melbourne. "We're going to fix it. If we get elected."
Scroll through newspaper articles on Andrews and inevitably you will come across the phrase, "Daniel who?" It has become a cliché that the Opposition Leader has little brand recognition beyond the seat of Mulgrave, which he has held since 2002 - even after nearly four years of tireless attendance at community events, sports fixtures and official functions. Even the federal Labor MP Alan Griffin, who was Andrews' first boss, acknowledges, "Some people say he comes across like a suburban accountant, but I think he's a lot more than that." Bob Cameron, his friend and former parliamentary colleague, sums up the serious Andrews as "a man who was born at the age of 40". However, he may not realise he is channelling Roger Ailes, a one-time aide to US president Richard Nixon, nor that the full quote is rather less flattering: "A lot of people think Nixon is dull ... they look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a book bag. Who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it."
Andrews only sprang to national attention as a serious contender in January, when Paul Keating leapt out of nowhere to intervene in one of the Victorian ALP's interminable preselection squabbles, nominating Andrews as "a man of energy and pluck" and the most energetic of all the state Labor opposition leaders. "I hold some substantial hope that Labor might be returned at the next poll," Keating declared. Which would be some achievement - no Victorian government has been rejected after just one term in office since 1955, when the administration of John Cain snr was torn apart by the great Labor split. I ask Keating to elaborate, but he declines - perhaps realising that an endorsement from the man who finished his term as one of Australia's most-reviled prime ministers will do Andrews no good.
Far from a lost cause, the polls show Keating may be right. The Nielsen polling company's research director, John Stirton, says that in every survey since its defeat in 2010, Labor has been comfortably in front of the Liberal/National Coalition in Victoria - most recently, in February, sitting on a swing of 5-6 per cent, which would deliver it government with a handy majority. And the unpopular federal budget would not have hurt Labor's chances.
As I wait to talk with Andrews' staff in their offices above a gelato shop across the road from Victoria's grandly colonnaded Parliament House, police in sunglasses and yellow fluoro vests are dragging away students who staged a sit-down on the tram tracks to protest increased university fees.
The problem, in this age of personality politics, is that the incumbent, the avuncular vet Denis Napthine, is still the preferred premier by a fat margin. Still, says Stirton, Andrews' "personal numbers are respectable without being spectacular. It's the votes than win elections, and Labor has more than the Coalition."
Who is this man who inspires such contradictory feelings? After spending a couple of weeks talking to his colleagues, family, friends and one or two foes, and a day on the campaign trail, I have a few ideas.
Andrews likes to say that he gets his genes from his Irish Catholic potato farmer ancestors. While that is true, one of the most influential people in his early life was his maternal grandfather, Michael White, who left the land when times were tough for a job as a fireman shovelling coal into the furnaces of steam trains.
A staunch trade unionist, White used to regale the young Daniel with tales of Australia's great Labor leaders, such as that other famous train driver, Ben Chifley, as they sat side-by-side on the sofa debating the nightly TV news. In his maiden speech to Parliament, Andrews paid tribute to his grandfather and cited one of his sayings that he has adopted: "That it was better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt."
From his mother, Jan, he inherits his social conscience. She is still actively engaged, as she has been all her life, in charity work. Two years ago she had 160 people for dinner in a shearing shed on the family property, Old Kentucky, at the hamlet of Londrigan,10 kilometres from Wangaratta, at which she raised $17,000 for prostate cancer research. Next year she is planning a "long lunch" in aid of ovarian cancer patients.
From his father, Bob, he gets his capacity for long, hard hours of work. When they first moved to Wangaratta, Bob had a trucking round across northern Victoria selling Don smallgoods, and would often be on the road from four in the morning until after dark. The family - Daniel has a younger sister, Cynthia - never had a real holiday because at Christmas time Bob was away delivering the hams, and in winter he had to supply the ski resorts at Falls Creek.
The Andrews were not always country folk. When Daniel was born in Melbourne's Williamstown Hospital a few months before the Whitlam government was elected in 1972 - a tiny, sickly baby six weeks premature and weighing only 3lb 11oz (1.4 kilograms) - Bob and Jan had left their jobs at the ANZ Bank, where they met, and launched their own business. They had a shop at Glenroy, on the way to Essendon airport, where they sold discount cigarettes, roast chickens and sandwiches and ran a newspaper delivery round. One night in 1982, just as they were starting to get ahead, there was an explosion in the supermarket next door - arson, police suspected - which blew out all the windows in the street, gutted their shop, and left Pascoe Vale Road "looking like a war zone", says Jan. The business was underinsured and Bob had to start at the bottom again, driving a delivery truck for the Don smallgoods company. The following year he sold up and moved the family to Wangaratta, where the company had offered him a delivery round.
The move - houses, towns, schools, friends - was hugely disruptive, especially to a 10-year-old boy, but Daniel seems to have made the most of it. Their house was on a two-hectare block, giving him room to eventually start his own small business, fattening poddy calves for market. It was a profitable sideline - Daniel bought his first car, a red VB Commodore, with the proceeds. Even better, the block backed onto the Wangaratta golf course, and Daniel became an addict, spending every spare minute whacking balls around with an old set of clubs his uncle gave him.
He claims to be a "golf tragic" and, if anything, this is a massive understatement. He is obsessed and plays every spare minute, even if it's just thumping a few balls at the driving range late at night. And although, with the demands of the campaign, his handicap has slipped from six to a still-respectable 10, he confesses if he wasn't a politician, the job he would most like would be that of Stephen Pitt, the chief executive of Golf Australia.
On his bedside table the day I visit his home are a well-thumbed copy of Charles Macdonald's classic Scotland's Gift: Golf, and Geoff Shackelford's biography of the legendary golf-course architect George Thomas, The Captain. If that's not enough excitement, for light relief there's the fourth volume of Robert Caro's monumental biography of former US president Lyndon Baines Johnson, The Passage of Power.
His interest in politics also has its roots in his childhood. His teddy bear was his first constituent - he called it Malcolm, after the prime minister of the day, although Andrews is embarrassed when I remind him of this, having met Fraser at a state dinner the other night and acknowledging that these days he is "pretty progressive".
His sister, Cynthia, laughs when I ask whether young Daniel was interested in the usual bush boyhood pursuits of bushwalking or fishing. She says he was more likely to have had his head buried in a book. Galen College, Andrews says, "reinforced attitudes formed around the kitchen table" by his parents and his grandfather.
Peter Murray, who taught him economics in high school, remembers him as "not a brilliant student, but he would work and work on something until he understood it. Maths was always a problem for him when he started economics at Monash; it was the statistics that killed him."
However, he could never be accused of lacking self-confidence. "One day something came up about a change of policy at the Reserve Bank," Murray says. "And Dan said, 'I know something about that', so I said, 'Okay then, you can give the lesson.' I don't know where he got it from, but the next day he gave a 50-minute talk on it, and set the class a couple of assignments." When he graduated and went on to Monash University to study politics and classics, Murray had no doubt where he was heading and wrote this inscription for him on the fly-leaf of his year book: "Best of luck. I look forward to seeing you in Canberra."
Catherine Andrews remembers walking into the common room of Mannix College, the Catholic residential annex to Monash University, one evening in 1991. The Sale of the Century quiz show was on television, "and there was this dark-haired guy sitting in the corner answering every question ... so I sat down next to him and I discovered that he was not only smart, he was very funny ... he ticked all the boxes." Catherine was 17, a lawyer's daughter from the bayside town of Mornington who had also been educated at Catholic schools; Daniel was two years older. She asked him for help with a politics paper and suddenly her marks went up.
They started hanging around in the same crowd - doing the $10 all-you-can-drink "barrel" at the Monash Hotel, going to parties, playing "kitchen putt", a kind of mini-golf - and stayed in touch when they graduated. In 2000 they married.
We are chatting at the Andrews' home, a rendered brick-veneer bungalow with a rose trellis out the front and a Nissan Maxima and a Ford Territory in the driveway, in a 1960s AV Jennings spec housing estate deep in suburban Mulgrave. Ordinaryville, Victoria. The Andrews bought their first house here in 2001 when Daniel, after impressing as a volunteer, then a staffer in Alan Griffin's office, climbed the ladder to assistant secretary of the Victorian ALP, and won endorsement for the newly created state seat of Mulgrave.
It was Catherine who did the door-knocking, introducing herself to everyone in the street when they moved in. Last year, just for fun, she and her long-time friend Kyra-Bae Snell did an ultra-marathon, running 50 kilometres along bush tracks from Mt Martha to Portsea, on the toe of the Mornington Peninsula. She rises most mornings at 5.30 and jogs to the fitness centre while Daniel looks after their three children: Noah, 11, Grace, 9, and Joseph, 7. At 7am, the government car arrives to take Daniel to work in the city. When he comes home, he will try to read to the children - Catherine often finds him fast asleep in his suit and shoes beside their bed with a book in his lap.
Snell, a professional writer and godmother of their daughter, Grace, says the Andrews' marriage is "one of those really good matches, although it's not what Cathy and I would have chosen. We both had to give up careers to look after three children. We are still looking for intellectual stimulation, and having three young kids can drive you nuts. [Daniel] is away all hours and most weekends. He's a workaholic; there's no downtime, or very little." When I put this to Catherine, who is trying to fit in freelance work as an editor with all her other interests and obligations, she protests that she has "never felt hamstrung" by being a political spouse.
"I always knew he was going into politics," she says. "It was like a vocation for him." A born multitasker, she is keeping an eye on a sick child in the next room, offering tea and homemade fruit cake, and chopping ham, leeks, onions and carrots for a minestrone soup as we talk in her kitchen.
On the walls are some modern Australian paintings, including a Charles Blackman print of a cat and a butterfly, and works by Graham Fransella, Madeleine Goodwolf, David Frazer, Belinda Fox and others stacked on the floor because they have run out of wall space. The bookshelves are bowed with hundreds of books, although no novels that I can see - rather a library of golf books, and biographies from Graham Richardson to Nelson Mandela. Serious stuff.
The other two children are at school, the brown-brick Catholic primary school next to the St John Vianney church, a short bicycle ride down the street. Daniel Andrews is a bit defensive when I ask him about the look of a once-and-would-be Labor government minister sending his children to a private school amid all the controversy over the scrapping of the Gonski funding model. Next year his oldest son, Noah, will start his secondary schooling at the nearby Mazenod College, run by the Oblate order where one of Daniel's cousins, Jason Duck, was studying to be a priest before his untimely death in 2012. Andrews points out that the fees at Mazenod are "more like $5000 a year ... not one of those elite schools where you pay $25,000. I can't control perceptions - we had a choice and we have done what we think is best for our kids, as everyone should."
As for going to church, Catherine is the one more likely to have time to attend Mass or run the second-hand clothing stall at the annual fete. When I ask the current priest at St John Vianney, John McGinty, whether Andrews is a regular church-goer, he tells me, "I've only been here since January and I haven't really seen him, just to say hello."
Andrews, of course, has been busy. But I wonder whether there might also have been a cooling off after Andrews, as health minister in the John Brumby government, introduced a law to allow abortion. McGinty's predecessor, an amiable Irishman named Pat Moroney, acknowledges that the congregation would have felt "deeply disappointed".
When I ask Andrews how he reconciles his church's teaching with his public duty, he says, "I had private conversations with some very senior clergy [whom he declines to name], who told me it was not compatible with the church's teachings. I thanked them kindly for their time. I didn't need reminding. I said that I did not intend to be a Catholic health minister. It was my intention to be the Victorian health minister." His three years as health minister were not without other controversies: Andrews was accused of fudging the figures to make hospital waiting times look shorter.
John Brumby's predecessor, Steve Bracks, says, "The health portfolio is the poisoned chalice of government. Even if 95 per cent of it is going well, you are always under attack for the other 5 per cent." But Bracks says Andrews handled the major event on his watch, the construction of Melbourne's state-of-the-art Royal Children's Hospital, well. "I have known him since he was an organiser for the party," he says. "He is very, very impressive, meticulous, thorough. Political judgment he has got in spades, and he has a good head for policy."
Also impressed with his performance was the federal Labor Party's deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, who has known Andrews for 20 years. "You should go and have a look at the meerkats," she says. Meerkats? In the middle of the new hospital, on loan from Melbourne Zoo, is an enclosure where a clan of meerkats caper about, cheering everybody up. "With a family of young children himself, he understands what it's like to be a worried parent, as well as a health minister," she says. "As for the waiting lists, they have never been longer in Victoria than they are now, in spite of all the extra money from the federal government."
As for the Socialist Left union lackey tag, which the Liberals try to hang around Andrews' neck, times have changed in Victoria, and the byzantine manoeuvres of the factions matter less.
I ask David Cragg, a member of the ALP for more than 30 years and assistant secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, to explain. "The ALP factions today are pretty much non-ideological clunky patronage machines to distribute largesse to their support base," he says. "I guess it's true that Daniel Andrews wouldn't have become assistant state secretary without the backing of the Socialist Left and their affiliated unions. Does that make him a fire-breathing revolutionary? Not in a pink fit."
Lead-in photograph by Julian Kingma.