Outsider Premier bucks the stereotype

DR DENIS Napthine never quite fit the stereotype of a Liberal politician from Victoria's Western District.

DR DENIS Napthine never quite fit the stereotype of a Liberal politician from Victoria's Western District. You would need a fertile imagination to find any comparisons with, say, Malcolm Fraser, David Hawker or Napthine's state predecessor, the tough pastoralist Digby Crozier. They are the sort of fellows who went to Geelong or Melbourne Grammar, with all the trappings and connections that implies. The squattocracy.

Before Napthine got into politics, he was a public servant and president of a union. If those credentials weren't enough to confront Western District traditionalists, they needed only to learn he was a churchgoing Catholic, one of 10 children from a relatively modest sheep farm at Winchelsea, way to the east of "real" western Victorian grazing. Great Scott, it would be revealed he was the descendant of a convict, Joseph Potaski, a Polish Jew!

Napthine, it turns out, has managed to make the strands of his life work for him as a state politician, whatever anyone might have thought.

As everyone discovered to their amazement this week, he is now Victoria's first Catholic Liberal Premier. The last Liberal to bust into the premiership from outside the "club" in the Western District, Napthine might muse, was Henry Bolte, of German heritage, whose father was a miner, shepherd and publican. Bolte remained premier for 27 years.

Napthine is no Bolte, mind. Ask around the south-west coast and you'll find he is considered "steady and a nice bloke", not necessarily high praise these days. Even critics can't find it within themselves to be too cruel. They settle for a double entendre: Dr Dolittle. The good doctor who talks to animals; the politician who didn't seem to do much.

Yet he has proved a stayer, happy to drive regularly through the night to branch meetings attended by six or seven members in little towns such as Macarthur; to have a beer with locals or a cup of tea and scones with church ladies; and canny enough to use his background to build a solid base in south-west Victoria.

He may have been a public servant but it was as a veterinarian working in the field with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, not as a city shiny bum.

His period as a unionist, too, was as president of the respectable-sounding Veterinary Officers Group within the Victorian Public Service Association (predecessor of the Community and Public Sector Union).

The Western District, like just about everywhere, also happens to be less cohesive than the stereotype would have it. Napthine relied on votes from two very different districts when he first entered politics as the member for the seat of Portland in 1988. To the south was Portland itself, an industrial, fishing and port town, the big Alcoa works providing most of the jobs now the local abattoir was finished. Worker territory. To the north was Hamilton, conservative rural centre for a large grazing district that gave itself the grand title "wool capital of the world".

There is no obvious demographic intersection between Portland and Hamilton and surrounds, but Napthine, in his very first speech to the Victorian Parliament in 1988, managed to winkle a link.

"Yesterday," he said, "I had the pleasure of attending the Portland Cup, which was run at Hamilton. That signifies the way in which the two cities in my electorate, Portland and Hamilton, are able to co-operate to run a successful venture. Certainly, the Portland Cup was a successful venture. As an example of that spirit of co-operation, the horse which won the cup, Majestic Apex, was bred in Portland but is raced by a syndicate of Hamilton people."

It was a confected example of "co-operation" in an electorate split by old parochialism. But Napthine got away with it. Why, he was a vet who loved the races. Who doesn't?

On election days, something strange began happening at the booths in the far west. Workers straight off building sites and factory floors, often in high-visibility jackets, swarmed around handing out Napthine's how-to-vote cards, often outnumbering the moleskins and twinset brigade.

Napthine had made his home not in the grazing districts but Portland, and the locals, long accustomed to being bypassed (even the Princes Highway misses the town by several kilometres), reacted positively.

It served him well when his electorate of Portland was abolished in 2002. He moved to the South-West Coast electorate, keeping Portland, dropping Hamilton and gaining Warrnambool.

Warrnambool, home of the grand national steeplechase, Port Fairy and nearby Koroit happen to be among the most Irish-Catholic communities in the state. Napthine's background proved perfectly suited (although he almost lost the seat in 2002), and in recent years, with a margin of about 12 per cent supporting him, he and his wife Peggy have moved to Port Fairy. Now, he is state Premier.

Sometimes, it pays to ignore stereotypes.

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