EARLY in the election campaign Denis Napthine was due in Warrnambool for what had become known as “Funding Friday”.
These days gave the Premier an opportunity to escape his parliamentary duties in Melbourne and head home to the green paddocks and fresh country air that was his love.
He would spend a whirlwind day, whizzing from appointment to appointment across his South West Coast electorate, meeting the locals and handing out government grants to councils and community groups.
Often he would stay the night at his Port Fairy home before heading to the football, the races or a local show where he regularly received the rock star treatment from people keen to shake his hand or suggest a “selfie”. And he was always obliging.
But four weeks out from a crucial state election, Tony Abbott got in the way. And the rest is history.
Dr Napthine’s parliamentary staff’s long-planned Funding Friday was thrown into disarray on the morning of October 31 when the Premier was forced to remain in Melbourne.
The Prime Minister wanted him at his side to announce that a joint police taskforce would be set up to investigate criminal behaviour and corruption in the building industry.
The Napthine government had been going out of its way to highlight Labor’s ties with allegedly corrupt unions. It had been repeatedly calling for Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews to sever his ties with the CFMEU.
But what was meant to be an attack on the ALP and the unions was set to become a cringe-worthy press conference.
Dr Napthine’s minders were desperate to distance the state Coalition from its federal counterparts.
The fallout from a harsh federal budget and a string of broken promises meant the PM was polling disastrously in Victoria.
The Premier’s own state budget was big on infrastructure spending and met with applause, but he was in a constant battle to reassure voters that he, not Mr Abbott, was governing for Victorians.
It was almost that moment, when Mr Abbott reached out and put his arm around Dr Napthine in an awkward, one-sided hug, that sealed the Premier’s fate.
The police taskforce announcement was quickly swept aside as the media swept on the moment and the scene was replayed time and time again.
It was also the perfect fodder for the ALP strategists, who cleverly devised an advertising campaign morphing Abbott into a popular Napthine in a sort of Jekyll and Hyde adaptation.
The fallout from the feds was apparent across the state, particularly in Shepparton where independent Suzanna Sheed is expected to win the seat after 47 years in the hands of the Nationals.
The party’s campaign suffered a blow last week when federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce argued it was up to the Liberal Party and not the Nationals to help bail out fruit processing plant SPC Ardmona from financial difficulty.
Mr Joyce said the “ultimate responsibility lies with the people who hold the seat” of Murray, in Liberal hands since 1996.
Ms Sheed, a lawyer, ran for election under the slogan “Stand up Shepparton, it’s our turn”.
“Governments of the day seem prepared to let our community reach crisis point before providing any funding,” she said.
Federal member for Wannon Dan Tehan yesterday admitted a lack of team discipline was a key in the statewide result.
“I don’t think Barnaby’s comments helped at all,” Mr Tehan said. “That wasn’t the full story there but it was one of the elements.”
“There were myriad issues ultimately but in the end the analysis has to be the disciplined team performance run by the Labor party over four years. They outperformed us.
“People see politicians and individuals but it is as much a team game as anything.
“Obviously Geoff Shaw wasn’t a team player and there was a change of leadership.
“And obviously with the timing of the federal budget, we needed to get the nation’s finances in order and with the electoral timing that does have an impact.”
Mr Tehan said he was “terribly disappointed” for Denis Napthine.
“In his 20 months as Premier he has done an outstanding job so the result is a real shame.
“His public service is to be commended. History will judge him very well and he has clearly left Victoria a better state.”