Premier act: Denis Napthine celebrates 25 years in Parliament

DENIS Napthine is responsible for 5.6 million people, a multi-billion-dollar budget and crucial decisions that shape Victoria’s future — yet when his head hits the pillow he rarely has a restless night.

His inner calmness is a rare skill in the sometimes cut-throat world of politics where every move is scrutinised.

He rises between 5.30 and 6am, goes for a walk before a busy schedule then tries to be in bed by 10.30 or 11pm.

“I very rarely toss and turn with worry,” he revealed this week as he reflected on 25 years in Parliament. 

The 61-year-old Premier celebrated the milestone with family, colleagues and friends in Warrnambool, the heartland of his South West Coast electorate.

He seems to be lapping up the challenges of leadership as Victoria’s first country-based Liberal premier since Henry Bolte.

“I genuinely enjoy what I do,” he told The Standard.

“I grew up in a household where my parents were always doing things for the community.

“That’s where my political career came from — driven by a desire to make the community a better place.”

As the third child in a family of 10 children who grew up on a farm near Winchelsea he learnt vital skills at an early age that he later took into political life.

“I had to learn to speak up to get my way, fight for my share, to put in and get things done,” he recalled. 

His siblings also grew to take roles in their local communities and had differing political allegiances.

So why did Dr Napthine join the Liberal Party?

“Because I believe in the principle of people being allowed to reap the rewards of their efforts,” he said.

“For example, when I was at Winchelsea school they refused to give awards for top students, but continued to give out sports awards.

“I felt it was unfair.”

He lists highlights of his political achievements as helping secure the south-west ambulance helicopter, a better deal for the disabled through de-institutionalisation and improved services, better protection for children in crisis, securing funding towards the proposed Warrnambool cancer centre, rebuilding hospitals across the south-west and development of Portland’s port potential.

Check out our gallery of Dr Napthine's 25 years in Parliament.

One of his biggest joys this year was attending the May Racing Carnival and seeing the once-disgraced Banna Strand win the Grand Annual Steeplechase. It capped off several years of him working to save jumps racing.

“It was quite emotional to have three days of jumping with the quality and depth of competitors and the excitement of the crowds,” he said.

Dr Napthine  considers one of his great skills is listening to constituents and helping find a solution.

“(Former Liberal MP) Ian Smith once advised me ‘you have two ears and one mouth — use them in that way’,” he recalled.

“Often politicians don’t listen carefully — they anticipate what people will say.

“I learnt it as a vet. Animals can’t talk so you’ve got to listen to farmers and animal owners to find what the problem is.”

Dr Napthine  left home at the age of 14 to attend boarding school, went to university at the age of 17 to study veterinary science in Melbourne, joined the Colac Young Liberals at 18 and got his first veterinary appointment at Hamilton in 1975, taking on the title of doctor.

There he became involved in local community life by joining the Apex club, Young Farmers, Hamilton Imperials Football Club as a player and committee member and played volleyball.

His first foray into a political career was in 1985 when he stood for Polwarth preselection against the seasoned Ian Smith who was making a re-entry into politics.

Although beaten at the polls Dr Napthine tried his hand again in preselection for the seat of Portland to replace veteran Digby Crozier.

He won the seat in 1988 and held the seat until it was abolished and swallowed up into the larger merged electorate of South West Coast which he has held since 2002.

That 2002 poll came after a tumultuous few years for Dr Napthine and the Liberals.

Jeff Kennett had been soundly defeated in the 1999 elections and Dr Napthine was appointed opposition leader when Kennett resigned.

The Liberals and Nationals split and shortly before the next election Dr Napthine was dumped in favour of Robert Doyle who went on to lead the party to its worst-ever electoral defeat.

Added to the pain was Dr Napthine’s fall from a ute at Balmoral during a fox shooting expedition in 2001. He suffered about seven broken ribs, a broken collarbone and broken cheekbone which kept him in discomfort for weeks.

“When I took on the job as opposition leader there was a lot of finger pointing and allocation of blame for the election loss,’’ he said.

“When I was replaced as opposition leader I suppose there was a thought that I might move on.

“But it was the local people and party leadership who thought I should continue, particularly with my expertise in rural and regional matters.”

He was deeply touched by letters, phone calls and pats on the back from south-west voters who felt “I had done a good job in difficult circumstances”. It’s a feature of rural communities he appreciates in the top job — being able to escape the metropolitan bustle and mingle with south-west locals.

“It’s great to be able to walk down the main street of Port Fairy, pick up the newspapers, buy a raffle ticket and chat with the locals,” he said.

“I’m number-one ticketholder with Tyrendarra footy club and it’s places like that where they treat you as just another bloke — quick to pat you on the back or tell you to pull your head in.”

However, the downside is having to leave his family to be in Melbourne for leadership commitments and media conferences.

At one stage as opposition leader he was away from home for six consecutive weeks.

He has tried to shield his family from the pressures of public life, but it came perilously close to home in his second term as local MP.

Dr Napthine revealed alarming attacks by disgruntled constituents after the new Coalition government started harsh cutbacks from 1992.

“In Portland we had a Molotov cocktail thrown at our garage door and my wife and children were abused down the street,” he said.

“Having a go at your family and home is a bit rich.

“Fortunately it was only a minority section of the community.”

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