While Denis Napthine was catapulted into the spotlight last year as the Victorian premier, there was more to him than just being a former country vet, as ALEX SINNOTT explains.
WHEN Lindsay Thompson was premier in the early 1980s, he used to amusingly observe he could walk down Bourke Street without too much fuss from passers-by.
Not so Denis Napthine. When the Premier returned to Warrnambool in the middle of the election campaign he was greeted with a reception usually reserved for the captain of a winning cricket team.
Following a number of campaign events, he decided to undertake a meet-and-greet along Liebig Street, chatting to shoppers and engaging in conversation about his beloved Geelong Cats.
“There’s been a lot of travel involved but it’s been great getting out there, talking about our government’s achievements,” he said.
The third of 10 children, Dr Napthine was born and raised in the Winchelsea district where his father was a farmer and his mother operated the local newspaper.
“Mum and Dad were both big believers in getting involved in the local community — groups like Apex, Young Farmers,” the 62-year-old said.
“Being involved in the community is in my DNA. Growing up in Winchelsea, growing up on a farm, it was a great childhood and I learnt the value of getting involved.”
The Winchelsea lad set his sights on a veterinary career and went off to study at the University of Melbourne in the early 1970s.
He was a member of the Liberal Party from his teenage years and after graduating, went to work in the Western District for the state agricultural department.
His return to the region coincided with the rise of Malcolm Fraser to the national leadership. Dr Napthine said the wanton spending of the Whitlam years motivated him to step up his work in the Liberal Party after joining as a teenager.
“There were a couple of things in my days as a vet where I saw the impact of state government first hand,” Dr Napthine said. “The brucellosis evaluation program and live sheep trading from Portland were big issues at the time and in my work, you came into contact with farmers and other vets, so there was a direct connection there.”
While Dr Napthine is often described as a country vet, he’s spent more of his working life as a parliamentarian.
First elected at the 1988 state election, his political career has stretched from opposition to government backbencher, community services minister, treasurer for 13 days, opposition leader, opposition frontbencher, minister again then premier.
“I was undertaking an MBA (master of business administration) through Deakin University and we were challenged (by the lecturer) to think about where we wanted to be in five or 10 years,” Dr Napthine said.
“I decided what I really wanted to do, if I had my dream job, was to be a member of Parliament.”
The South West Coast MP was catapulted into the national spotlight last year when he finally made it to the pinnacle of state power.
His predecessor Ted Baillieu was showing signs of fatigue when he decided to resign in March 2013.
Dr Napthine tried to convince his friend to stay on as leader.
“It was an extraordinary day,” he said. “Ted is a great friend and colleague and I knew the job had taken its toll on him. We spent about three or four hours together, encouraging him to go on, but Ted was absolutely convinced (about resigning).”
In a swiftly arranged meeting, Dr Napthine was appointed premier by a resounding number of his colleagues.
The newly-minted leader hit the ground running, setting the state government on a new course as he dealt with a knife-edge parliamentary majority.
“I was absolutely determined to give it my all, every minute of every day,” he said.
“What I have been determined to do is get on with some really significant projects for Victoria.”
His leadership role, and the subsequent state election campaign, has also meant the limelight has shone on his immediate family.
Tom Napthine made an impression when he introduced his father at the Coalition’s campaign launch in Ballarat a few weeks ago and has been a prominent figure on the hustings.
He said his father had covered a lot of ground during the past four weeks and was impressed with his ability to connect with everyday Victorians.
“It’s been an incredibly positive campaign,” Tom told The Standard.
“He can talk with people who may not have voted for him previously and they’ve changed their mind after meeting him.”
Tomorrow evening is arguably the key event in Dr Napthine’s nearly three-decade-long political career.
If there’s a change of government, political pundits presume he will retire. If he wins, he’ll be a Liberal Party hero.