THREE days into the Napthine government, Victorians are still left with questions over why the quiet and unsuspecting Ted Baillieu handed the premier’s keys over to a former veterinarian from Port Fairy.
Denis Napthine has been a regular sight around the south-west since entering politics via the seat of Portland in 1988.
Born into a family of 10, Dr Napthine was raised on a farm near Colac and attended a Catholic school in Geelong.
Now, the 61-year-old Premier has been given the task of turning around the image of a scandal tarnished government.
Dr Napthine joined the Liberal Party at a young age and rose through the ranks during his 20s and early 30s.
Local Liberal Party stalwart Jim Dwyer remembers Dr Napthine as a promising leader.
“I thought he had a lot of potential, certainly ministerial potential if not leadership potential,” Mr Dwyer said.
“Denis didn’t come into the electorate until the early 1980s but we were associated closely before he went into Parliament through different committees.
“We both came up in the ranks and to see how far he has gone, I think it’s wonderful and he will make an excellent premier.”
Fellow Liberal branch member Leigh Allen met Dr Napthine in Portland in 1995 just before he was launched into the Kennett government.
“Denis really hasn’t changed over the years at all. He’s always been a hard working person for the south-west coast and when he was looking after the Portland electorate,” he said.
Once on Spring Street, Dr Napthine picked up portfolios in youth and community services and served as parliamentary secretary to then health minister Marie Tehan — mother of federal Wannon MP Dan Tehan.
“She was a huge fan of Denis,” Mr Tehan said this week. “His first ministerial appointment was working directly with my mother and my mother said at the time that she could not have had a better parliamentary secretary.”
In something of a surprise, the Liberals were dumped by voters at the 1999 state election.
The task was then given to Dr Napthine to pick up the pieces and lead the wounded opposition.
In his 2012 political memoirs, former Labor premier Steve Bracks recounted Dr Napthine as an opposition leader struggling to fend off attacks from his city colleagues.
“One thing that made it hard for him was that his milieu was the seat of Portland, several hours’ drive from Melbourne down near the South Australian border, whereas most of the other MPs in the Liberal Party called the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne home,” the former premier wrote.
“Denis Napthine also had to deal with the fact that other people coveted his job, and that they would regularly background the media about him and the Liberal Party’s prospects.
“To his credit, he battled on.”
It was something Dr Napthine conceded when speaking to The Standard not long after the comments were published.
“Bracks’ comment that it is challenging or particularly difficult being an opposition leader in a country seat is absolutely accurate,” he said.
“One of the things I faced living in Portland and being opposition leader was that I had to get a balance between serving my country electorate, spending some time with my family and being in Melbourne to get some comment on the news of the night.”
Little more than three years later Robert Doyle snatched the top job in a leadership spill, leaving Dr Napthine to wait on the sidelines until the Labor Brumby government came unstuck in 2010.
Before Wednesday night, few would have predicted that Dr Napthine would have been thrust into the leadership of a party that could very well lose the next state election.
Dr Napthine is popular in the south-west, so much so that it inspires apathy from would-be opponents with comments like “no one can dethrone Denis”.
This week his electoral office on Liebig Street was inundated with hundreds of phone calls, emails and a number of well wishers stopping by.
But as Premier, it is now the people of Victoria who Dr Napthine must impress — not just those who have regarded him as a familiar face at community events and the races.
Under a review of electoral boundaries, Dr Napthine may no longer be the member representing Portland, with plans to remove the city from the South West Coast electorate.
This could lead to a backlash among voters who have supported him since he first represented the manufacturing heartland 25 years ago.
“Denis has always said your first loyalty has got to be to your own,” Mr Dwyer said.
“If Warrnambool or the south-west coast needs something, he will go for it.”