A sketch of Louise Asher’s life over the past three years would have a trail of symbolic gravestones. First she buried the Kennett government and her job as a minister along with it. Later came the loss of her role as treasury spokeswoman, the loss of her leader, Denis Napthine, and the loss of her job as deputy Liberal leader.
She has fallen from the Libs’ “woman most likely” – a status she had held for nearly 30 years – to one who is cited by some colleagues as a disappointment.
To outsiders, it might seem that she has joined the pile of female politicians who seemed destined for prominence but who crashed and burned.
Ms Asher will have none of it. Dr Napthine moved her from treasury because it was a backroom role and he wanted her to be more prominent, she says. As for the way she resigned as deputy when he was voted out of the leadership in August, “I made a voluntary decision to stand down”.
“It was a decision made out of loyalty. I regard loyalty as a characteristic that is fundamental to the worth of a human being,” she says.
Ms Asher confirms she was approached to do a deal to roll Dr Napthine for Robert Doyle, an approach she rejected: “It was put to me that I was unassailable in the position of deputy, in terms of raw numbers – which is not to say that others didn’t want the job.
“If I simply agreed to a switch of political support, then I would keep my job. But I don’t act like that. I didn’t want there to be any sense of my having been involved in any deal to undermine the leader I supported for three years as deputy.
“I have seen leaders cursed by disloyal deputies. I never would do that.” She believes she has her own reward: “I can sleep at night. I believe I acted honorably in that entire period.”
While it has cost her in career terms, she is in the safe seat of Brighton, which means her ticket to parliamentary life is still secure. And her working relationship with the new leader is sound enough for her to have survived in shadow cabinet.
She is one of the few old hands with ministerial experience on Mr Doyle’s front bench, which puts her in the running for a senior ministry if there is a Liberal win. “If we win the election, I would hope that Robert Doyle would put me in a ministry. I certainly think I’ve behaved in a way that (has earned it) . . . I’ve done exactly the right thing by my party, but I’ve also done exactly the right thing by me.”
How are the Liberals under Mr Doyle different to the Liberals under Dr Napthine? “There had been infighting in the Liberal Party and to pretend there wasn’t is a nonsense. One of the differences is that the backbiting has stopped, and that’s stopped because of a very conscious effort from Denis, in particular, to make sure that Robert really has a fair go in the run-up to the election, because it’s in all our interests
Ms Asher emphasises that Mr Doyle in turn has been gracious. “If Robert had been petty and vindictive, he would have dumped both Denis and myself. He hasn’t been. He’s indicated a willingness to want to work with all his members, particularly his most experienced members.”
One of her campaign tasks is to lend her profile to needy candidates. Frank Kelloway is standing for Bellarine, a seat the retiring Liberal incumbent holds by only 1.2 per cent.
He takes Asher down to Queenscliff to meet local figures who want to catch her ear: the fishermen who want their slipway redeveloped, the music festival folk anxious to assure their funding and the small business owners who want government help to market their peninsula. Asher is sympathetic and businesslike, zooming in on their concerns and juicing them for the figures that will back up their arguments.
The issues are different in her own electorate. “Labor wants to shut my police station and sell valuable Brighton land and transfer the whole thing down to Sandringham. And I’m worried about Labor’s metropolitan strategy, which I think would result in very tall buildings in Brighton,” she says.
Her Brighton constituents will increase by one after the poll when retiring National Party MP Ron Best leaves his Bendigo seat to come and live with his wife for the first time. “We’ve been together for nine years now and we’ve never lived together,” she says. “I normally only see him at weekends or if parliament sits.”
She thinks her relationship has helped keep her steady through the past three years: “I think I’ve changed since I’ve married and since some of those global things have hit. Stepping down is not life-threatening.” In any case, she grins, the “career-driven woman who’s been forging up the greasy pole since she joined the Liberals at 19” is still in the race: “I’m absolutely here for the long haul.”
THE ASHER FILE
· Born: 26 June 1956.
· Entered Parliament: 1992.
· Seat: Brighton.
· Ministries: Small Business and Tourism, in the Kennett government.
· Married to retiring National Party MP Ron Best.
First published in The Age.