With friends like these …

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The Australian: With friends like these … John Ferguson. Victorian Political Editor Melbourne. 6 November 2014

When Lloyd Williams tapped Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews on the back on Monday morning and kindly offered him the Packer family’s overwhelming support, the conversation was meant to be confidential.

Williams, the 74-year-old builder of the Crown gambling empire by the Yarra River, was clearly and perhaps naively unaware that beneath their outwardly benign fluffy exteriors, TV cameras have powerful, somewhat intrusive microphones.

Which explains how a harmless point-and-shoot Melbourne Cup picture opportunity at Williams’s Victorian horse stud could turn into a crisis for both sides of the political divide in the midst of an election campaign.

By midday on Monday the impact of the Williams comments had shaken Victorian Premier Denis Napthine; and at Liberal Party headquarters, 60km southeast from the horse stud, campaign strategists had started war gaming the impact of the Crown founder’s intervention.

It would be nearly 24 hours before James Packer would intervene and repudiate Williams. Too late, though; horse bolted.

For Napthine, 62, a political intervention by the founders of Crown casino was nothing new; he had heard worse before.

In 2001, when in opposition, just more than a year after he had taken over the Liberal leadership from Jeff Kennett, Napthine made the rather obvious point that he believed the Kennett government had stopped listening to voters.

Almost immediately the other half of the glittering Crown casino show, businessman Ron Walker, tore through Napthine for having the temerity to criticise Kennett.

“I think that was a, that was an indiscretion he’ll live to, to regret,’’ Walker said at the time.

Regret it Napthine did; in just more than a year he was gone as opposition leader.

Fast-forward 13 years and Napthine’s response to the Williams indiscretion was telling.

“I’m not fussed what billionaire casino owners do or say,’’ he said.

They were the words of a relative outsider and a man with nothing to lose.

Napthine has grown in stature and confidence since the dark days of 2001-02, when he rated just 11 per cent on his Newspoll rating as better premier and was saddled with an 18-point negative satisfaction rating.

Today he is leading Andrews 47 per cent to 34 per cent on the better premier rating but faces a difficult task of winding back Labor’s 54 per cent to 46 per cent two-party-preferred lead.

There is little blue sky for Napthine as the campaign gathers pace. The Coalition is praying that a back-ended and heavy advertising spend combined with a high undecided vote will break its way.

Napthine told The Australian in a weekend interview that he believed the election would be “very, very tight’’.

“Victorians are smart voters and they are starting to say: ‘Well, this is about state issues,’ ’’ Napthine said.

This quote underpins the extent to which the Premier is fighting the election on a number of fronts, with the general unpopularity of Tony Abbott’s government in ­Victoria undermining the Napthine cause.

Yet the extent to which federal factors will play a role is open to question, given the Victorian government’s four-year term has been a festival of gaffes, disunity and a change of leaders just more than two years in.

What is clear is that, at least until now, Napthine has been deeply reluctant to run a heavily negative campaign against Labor and Andrews, both of whom are highly susceptible to scrutiny.

There has been significant pressure for many months for Napthine to “go negative’’.

“I’m not personally a negative person,’’ Napthine explains, “and I will always run a positive campaign and a positive agenda.

“I’m not going to change, that’s not my character.’’

Just as Williams caused him grief, so has Abbott, first by opening up a debate about the GST and then by playing with petrol prices, a core cost-of-living issue that will remind voters about the federal budget.

Napthine and those around him were deeply unimpressed with the timing of both issues, and his staff was furious when the Prime Minister threw his arm around the Premier at last Friday’s press conference while in Melbourne to announce a police taskforce into union corruption.

Napthine, sitting in a cafe in his home town of Port Fairy in south-western Victoria, chooses his words carefully when telling The Australian about his views of ­Abbott.

Napthine’s eyes suggest he feels let down but he won’t say it.

Instead, his commentary on the Prime Minister is qualified.

“We get on very professionally,’’ he says, “it’s a professional relationship.

“We do have an interest in politics but he’s never been in my mateship book. But we get on very well professionally.

“We’ll certainly invite him … to the rally (this Sunday) depending on his international commitments … There is going to be a fair demand on his time.’’

There are varying views on both sides of politics about how the Abbott government’s performance will affect state issues but, as Napthine notes, Victoria is a vastly different state from NSW and Queensland.

He understands the financial challenges facing Canberra but believes some of the measures went too far.

“Victoria is different to NSW and Queensland, there’s no doubt about that. But I think that he’s got a tough job because they’ve got debt and deficit to deal with.

“They’ve made some fairly tough decisions in the budget.’’

Not all to his liking.

“And I expressed my view at the time that some of the (budget) measures were not targeted as well as they should have been.’’

The heart of the Napthine government’s challenges, however, lie in its own work.

The elected Liberal premier in 2010, Ted Baillieu, fell on his sword just more than two years into his reign. Baillieu is widely seen as having been a dud, his main legacy being a strong set of budget books but having run a largely inept ­regime.

When Napthine was picked to replace Baillieu, there were two options: Napthine or Planning Minister Matthew Guy. Napthine got the job and Guy and Treasurer Michael O’Brien are now the leaders in waiting.

Napthine was chosen because of his experience, both as a minister in the Kennett government and under Baillieu, and because he was seen as a “healing’’ candidate.

Having led the Coalition from 1999 until 2002 in opposition, Napthine was deprived of the chance of contesting an election as leader. Napthine today seems genuinely chuffed to be running the state when all hope of becoming premier seemed to have ended in 2002.

Asked if he was surprised to get the big job, he replies: “There is a bit of that.’’

On the same day that Napthine was made premier, the member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw, quit the Liberal Party and moved to the crossbenches.

Shaw could not relate to Baillieu, a famously obscure individual, who struggled with Shaw’s anti-abortion stance.

Before long, Napthine would fall out with Shaw as well, as Shaw struggled under the weight of multiple investigations into the misuse of his parliamentary car.

Napthine, it is clear, does not rate Shaw: “He’s certainly a different person. He’s different,” he says, laughing.

The damage Shaw’s behaviour caused is hard to measure. In the immediate numbers sense, the Liberal Party will lose his bayside seat of Frankston, probably to the Labor Party.

Then there is the broader perception issue of the relentless controversy in the parliament, with barely a week passing without Shaw being involved in a row of sorts.

On the nightly TV news, Labor caused much of the chaos that was the Victorian parliament but the government paid the price politically.

Napthine laments: “A lot of people didn’t understand how the parliament worked. And it created perceptions.’’

There is a sense, too, that Labor has been a much harder machine, going to war each day while the Coalition often shot blanks.

Napthine also had inherited structures of government that were dysfunctional. Baillieu failed to build a working government, too tight to spend on advisers and too green to understand that quick decision-making was everything in a 24-hour media cycle.

It is also true that the 24-hour media cycle has played against the government.

Labor has made a few profound political errors that have really only amounted to glancing blows.

Andrews’s decision, if he wins government, to tear up the contracts for the first half of the multi-billion-dollar East West Link. beggars belief.

The best bet is that Andrews will find that he won’t be able to deliver on this promise if he man­ages to win office because the bill will likely be as much as $1 billion by the time his government has paid out the winning bidders.

The Victorian investment in the first half of the project is just $2bn out of a total $7bn.

The second serious gaffe was Labor becoming hopelessly trapped in the alleged theft of a Fairfax Media dictaphone, which contained unauthorised recordings with political figures.

The third error is Andrews failing to deal with the criminality around Victoria’s militant construction union, the Construction Forestry Mining and Engineering Union.

Then again, while the CFMEU plays well with the base Liberal vote, there is a sense that Vic­torians have lived with criminal unions for so long that they have become accustomed to the ­madness.

The constantly changing media cycle has meant the ­Coalition has struggled to paint Labor as a risk to Victoria’s economic future.

There are emerging signs that Napthine is finessing his campaign strategy of relentless media events and photo opportunities, trading the frenetic strategy for a more ­targeted approach where “everyday Victorians’’ are used to help sell his story.

Napthine, who dismisses himself as “just a country vet(erinarian)’’ also happens to be the first Victorian premier in many years to take seriously the threat and challenges posed by population growth, which is the underlying issue in the campaign.

His agenda is to expand the state’s major regional centres and slow the rate of growth in Melbourne, which is on track to overtake Sydney as the nation’s most populous city.

Andrews, by contrast, doesn’t seem to want to know about the challenges.

Growth, Napthine says, needs to be managed between the city and the regions.

“Because we think it’s not only good for regional centres, we think it gives a better balance for population growth in the state,’’ Napthine says.

“And Melbourne’s the winner if we can have more modest population growth.’’

Several years ago Napthine moved with his wife Peggy to the seaside town of Port Fairy, about 300km southwest of Melbourne, which is close to Warrnambool, the population capital of his safe Liberal electorate of South-West Coast.

While Napthine denies it, there were strong signs that he would not contest the 2014 election, having been in the Victorian parliament since 1988.

So, having fallen into the premiership last year, he is behaving like a man who has very little to lose.

If he does lose, he will go down in history as the first one-term premier in nearly 60 years.

But most in the Liberal Party understand that once Baillieu left, Napthine had been handed a difficult mission made harder by the intervention of others.

If he wins, which is still an outside chance, Napthine will be a modern day Liberal hero.

It’s a prospect that even Williams and Walker will have to ­acknowledge.

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