Member for Northern Victoria Wendy Lovell stands for beliefs

By James Bennett

Wendy Lovell paints a lonely figure for the Victorian Coalition in Northern Victoria.

A region that is typically conservative, Ms Lovell is surrounded by Labor, independents and progressive minor parties — and the Coalition would appear to have a long way to go before it wins back power.

Political reporter James Bennett spoke with the veteran politician about her role helping to reshape the Victorian Liberal party.

By the time the next state election roles around in 2022, Wendy Lovell will have spent 20 years at Spring St.

However, only four of those years has been in government — 2010 to 2014.

It's certainly not any politician's dream to spend most of their time on the wrong side of parliament. Even Ms Lovell admits it has been frustrating.

With her region covering from the farthest points north of the state and as far south as the fridges of Melbourne, it gives her a chance to campaign early for the Coalition.

But although she's upper house, some parts of her region (Shepparton and Mildura) are held by independents in the lower house — which doesn't give her a lot of support, except from the Nationals.

“I see my role as positioning northern Victoria, within the Coalition, as a priority for the next election not only for winning seats, like Shepparton and Mildura, Bendigo, and others, but also to make sure that we're foremost in the minds of the shadow ministers when they are formulating their policies,” she said.

“In the meantime the work still goes on. It's also about making sure the current government has the needs of this electorate first and foremost in their mind.”

Changing to win

The Liberal party in Victoria (both state and federal) has been sliding the wrong way pretty much since Jeff Kennett was voted out of office in 1999.

The glory days of Sir Robert Menzies or Andrew Peacock have seemingly gone.

Ms Lovell concedes the Victorian Liberals have to be more progressive in their thinking compared to other states such as Western Australia and Queensland.

“Obviously, we have to reconnect with the community,” she said.

“And we have to take on the community sentiments and be more reflective of the community.

“We had significant challenges to overcome with some of the things that went on in Canberra at the last election, that wash through on us; but that's not the only reason we didn't win.

“The policies that we were putting forward were not the policies that were resonating with the community, so that's the reason why we sort of stripped back to basics.

“We've shelved all policies so they may not all disappear — good ones will come back and we'll start again.”

Ms Lovell said being so far behind could have its advantages, such as having better opportunities to speak with the community.

Wendy Lovell on the 2006 election campaign trail with Shadow Minister for State Development Philip Davis and Liberal candidate for the seat of Shepparton Stephen Merrylees.  

Unexpected beginnings

There are two things Ms Lovell is die-hard about: the Liberal Party and Richmond Football Club.

She says contrary to what the perception is, the Liberals have a proud history of supporting women.

Ms Lovell started her political career in the Liberals fundraising for then Federal Member for Murray Sharman Stone and policy advising for Louise Asher.

A lot of her work was unpaid, and because of the Coalition agreement Ms Lovell couldn't stand for parliament as a Liberal.

But after then leader Peter Ryan walked away from the agreement, following the 1999 election defeat, there was an opening.

“I still didn't even think of standing in 2002 — I was the one looking for candidates (to stand),” she said.

“People starting coming to me saying I'll be the one to put up my hand, and I would tell them no; I had a business to run.

“After a state board meeting they put the hard word on me to stand because they thought I'd do well.

“Dad said he'd support me if I stood."

Ms Lovell was on the back foot early, campaigning for the sometimes forgotten upper house.

The constant door-knocking led to the newsagent being elected with the highest number of first preference votes: 41 725.

Since 2002, she'd held numerous shadow cabinet positions but is best remembered as Housing Minister during her time in government.

Nowadays she's a back-bencher and also serves as the Legislative Council's deputy president.

In government: Wendy Lovell served in former Premier Ted Bailieu's ministry as Housing Minister as well as Children's Minister.

Behind-the-scenes success

There’s a typical roll-your-eyes theatre about parliament, especially question time.

Not everything happens inside the chamber, and although the politicians might come across as disliking each other, it's common for decisions to be made informally.

“When you've been in the parliament for a while you form friendships with people — even in the Labor party,” Ms Lovell said.

“Everyone goes out the back after parliament for a drink or dinner on the balcony.”

Ms Lovell said an example of the informality of politics led to "accidental success" for the Shepparton Search & Rescue Squad.

She said it couldn't use its lights and sirens because it wasn't written into legislation.

This meant if the Search & Rescue Squad was travelling to the causeway between Mooroopna and Shepparton from its base at Shepparton Showgrounds, the vehicles had to stop at the traffic lights.

Quite often emergency services needed special equipment at a serious incident but Search & Resuce was sitting idle.

“The solutions were always for them to affiliate with the SES but they were and still are proudly independent,” Ms Lovell said.

“It was a Thursday night in parliament — and I very, very rarely go to the bar, but I went with another MP.

“Andre Haermeyer, who was the Minister for Emergency Services, walked in and told me he was having his buck's party and we should join him for a few drinks.

“I sat next to his chief of staff and I had a conversation about Search & Rescue with their lights and sirens. Instead of the usual channels he started to unpick where the problem lay and we worked out it was one particular desk on the chief commissioner's office that it got to but never went past.

“One person blocking it every time.

``Andre's chief of staff was able to bypass that and we got them the lights and sirens.

“It was a very subdued buck's party,” she said with a laugh.

An off chance meeting with the relevant minister helped Wendy Lovell secure lights and sirens for Shepparton Search & Rescue.

The dreaded ‘R’ word

Retirement has never crossed Ms Lovell's mind and she has no intention of departing Spring St before 2022.

“The drive to keep going comes from the community,” she said.

“I can't say I've ever done anything that haven't truly believed in . . . Sometimes there are things you have to make decisions on.”

Ms Lovell said one of her best achievements was establishing the Education First Youth Foyer as the Housing Minister.

Although she hasn't been asked yet by Opposition Leader Michael O'Brien to serve on the shadow cabinet, Ms Lovell said she would "certainly answer the call" if it arose.