From country paddock to top job

On a windswept paddock out of Portland, Denis Napthine jumps out of the back of the chauffeur-driven government car. It's 2001, and Napthine, leader of the opposition, is attempting to regroup the Liberal Party after Jeff Kennett's stunning defeat at the 1999 election.

But Napthine is struggling in the polls, and the constant chatter is that he won't last. Napthine, the country vet, is trying to cope with the demands of leading a party with its heart in metropolitan Melbourne.

We've spent the day touring his electorate in the south-west of the state, and the paddock gate presents an image that captures how he is caught between two worlds.

He instinctively leaps out of the car to open the gate, and as he does, his double-breasted suit flaps in the cold wind. Here is Napthine, man of the country, wearing the uniform of the city and its politics. Napthine would succumb a year later to the circling Robert Doyle.

A decade on, Denis Vincent Napthine is the 47th Premier of Victoria. Double-breasted suits have now slipped out of fashion. But has Denis Napthine also changed?

Denis Napthine, in his younger days, poses in woolen underwear made by a company in his electorate.

This is the critical question as Napthine takes his first steps in trying to rebuild the fortunes of a government, holding an uncertain majority and the prospect of defeat after one term.

Denis Napthine proves that some things are better left to the imagination.

The man who toppled him, Robert Doyle, believes that Napthine is a ''different bloke from the one that was leader in 2000''.

Those closest to him have also seen changes. ''Some years ago, when he was first opposition leader, I think that was perhaps more of an issue,'' says brother Bernard, of the country/city divide. ''I think now that he has spent more time in Melbourne, lived in Melbourne for a while when a couple [of his] sons were at uni, I think he has more of a sense of what that's about.

''I think it's just a bit more maturity that might just make it easier and hopefully have him in good stead to be able to survive the rigours.''

Denis Napthine's roots are rural, growing up on a farm near Winchelsea on the road to Colac, third eldest in a Catholic family of five boys and five girls. Involvement in the community was a cornerstone of family life. His father, Len, was a local councillor for 15 years, served on the school council, and was involved in the Farmers' and Graziers' Association and the local Liberal branch. His mother, Therese, was involved in setting up a community house in Winchelsea.

Napthine boarded at the old Chanel College in Geelong, run by the Marist Fathers. He was academically strong, a good public speaker, and politically aware. He wrote to US president Lyndon Johnson, urging him to run at the 1968 presidential election, fearing the ''domino effect'' of communism.

He also wrote a commentary for a school magazine before the 1969 federal election, dismayed at the choices. ''The coming elections must be a time of dread for all voters,'' he wrote. ''The parties are offering nothing.''

Napthine had originally wanted to be a farmer, while his father encouraged him to go to university. He was interested in becoming a vet. In 2001, Napthine recalled how a young vet had visited the farm, telling him that it was ''very hard for a country boy like yourself to get into vet science''.

''I just sat there silently,'' recalled Napthine, ''and thought, 'I'll show him'.''

This has been a recurring theme in Napthine's career, so perhaps his rise to the premiership a decade after his last tilt is not all that surprising.

The Napthine clan is diverse. As a student, the now Liberal Premier of Victoria found himself in the middle of the heated issue of draft resistance. His brother Roger publicly resisted his conscription, appearing on the front page of the Herald burning his draft card.

Roger was arrested, and turned to his brother for help. Napthine tracked down Jean McLean, from Save Our Sons, to organise a lawyer, and stood outside the magistrates court feeding a public phone with five-cent coins rounding up character witnesses.

Bail was set at $5000, and Napthine went to the Dover Hotel, a union pub in Lygon Street, to collect some of the bail money.

The magistrate set a condition that deeply upset their father, Len. If Roger skipped bail, he would have to turn his son in if he knew where he was. ''I hold a lot against a judge to make a father do such a thing as spy on his son,'' recalled Len in the book Decade of Dissent.

Napthine also lived the life of a young student. In 1972 he was at Sunbury rock festival, Australia's answer to Woodstock, with brother Bernard. After graduating, he worked in the Department of Agriculture, before a political career beckoned. He won the seat of Portland in 1988, and was made community services minister by Kennett after the 1996 election.

Only days after being sworn in, there was the horrendous fire at Kew Cottages that claimed nine lives. Napthine's handling of the tragedy was regarded as his making as a minister.

After his defeat by Doyle, Napthine endured the long, hard years of opposition before the surprise Coalition win in 2010, taking on the portfolios of two interests, major projects and racing. He part-owns a racehorse, Spin the Bottle, with friend and federal Liberal MP Dan Tehan.

This seemed to be the career course for Denis Napthine as he entered his 60s, mid-ranking ministries and interests outside politics, the premiership a distant memory of what might have been.

What kind of Premier will he be? ''I hope he will - and I think he will - try and be inclusive,'' says Bernard Napthine. ''He does like to listen and take other views. But I also know that when he makes his mind up, he is very strong, and I think that's what's needed at the moment, is some decision making and then get on with it.''

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