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Meet the man who split the Liberals

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The ambitious Tim Smith makes friends and enemies in equal measure.

Tim Smith, the Liberal candidate for Kew. Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Tim Smith, the Liberal candidate for Kew. Photo: Meredith O'Shea Photo: Meredith O'Shea

Tim Smith has never been the type of person to back down just because the odds are against him. As a rower at Scotch College - before he represented Australia in three world championships and two world cups - Smith might not have been as big as his peers, but he was often more determined.

''He knew he didn't have the size of the other kids in the school, and he had reasonable shoes to fill given his dad competed for the country, so he pushed himself twice as hard,'' says former coach and ''Oarsome Foursome'' Olympic gold medallist Drew Ginn. ''The amount of times he made himself sick on the rowing machine was pretty impressive.''

Those who know Smith will tell you he has always been that way: hungry, dogged, fiercely competitive. But after staring down the Premier and beating one of the government's top ministers in a crushing battle for the prized seat of Kew, the question is whether his bold ambition will result in more enemies than friends when he enters State Parliament.

In his first interview since his preselection victory against Mary Wooldridge last week, Smith is cautiously optimistic the war wounds will heal, but adds: ''The significance of the situation is not lost on me. I'm well aware there are expectations now, and the onus is on me to deliver the goods. I don't want to let anyone down,'' the 30-year-old told The Sunday Age.

''But the preselection is over, and I think people want to move on - I certainly do. The most important thing that we all do now is act in the best interest of the Liberal Party and the people of Victoria to make sure that Daniel Andrews doesn't become the premier on the 29th of November. I have a huge regard for Mary and I really do hope we can sort this out.'' Some might call it wishful thinking. If preselections are bruising affairs, this one was a bloodbath. Factional hostilities erupted, threatening to tear the Victorian Liberals apart. Denis Napthine's authority was severely dented, undermining the Coalition's prospects ahead of this year's election. And Wooldridge is scrambling, yet again, to find a seat - only eight months before polling day.

Smith's enemies (of which there are many) say the infighting could have been avoided if he had simply ''taken one for the team'' by standing down. Others accuse him of being a pawn in a factional game by powerbroker Michael Kroger and federal Kooyong MP Josh Frydenberg to assert their influence within the Victorian Liberal Party. And some have even described him as ''the next Geoff Shaw'' for telling preselection delegates he would have voted against the Abortion Law Reform Act 2008, had he been in Parliament at the time.

On that front, Smith is keen to set a few things straight. ''I saw reports during the week that I was in some sort of cabal with Geoff Shaw. That is just utterly ridiculous,'' he says. ''I did honestly say that I would have voted against the legislation, but I am pro-choice to the extent that I support a woman's right to choose - particularly early on in the pregnancy - if the health of the mother is endangered, or in the issue of rape. What I don't like in the current bill are the issues around doctors' conscience [which requires doctors who object to abortion to refer their patient to one who does not] and also what is occurring at the moment where there are reports of gender-selection abortions over 18 or 20 weeks.

''But I completely and utterly support taking abortion out of the Crimes Act.''

In person, Smith is affable, confident, and every bit the quintessential blue-tie conservative. His great-grandfather started the bakehouse now known as Ferguson Plarre. His grandfather was taught by Kroger's father at Wesley College, which is how their alliance developed. He grew up in Camberwell, was educated at Scotch, attended Ormond College at Melbourne University, and spent five years as an elite rower, bringing home bronze for Australia from the 2004 world championships.

Following a back injury, Smith's love of sport gave way to politics. He worked for senior Liberals, including Malcolm Turnbull, Bruce Billson, and state Treasurer Michael O'Brien. Eventually, he put up his hand for local government, and at 26 he was appointed Stonnington council's youngest mayor.

Labor frontbencher Tim Pallas remembers being at loggerheads with Smith back then, over Brumby government plans to extend clearways across suburban streets - a push that the council fought aggressively. ''He was an intelligent bloke, there's no doubt about that, and highly committed to his cause,'' says Pallas. ''As for Kew, the guy can hardly be criticised for seeking to achieve his ambitions. The fact that there were competing ambitions is nobody's fault; the fact that they were not managed properly is a sign of the Liberal Party's incapacity to deal with these things.''

Pallas may have a point. The conventional wisdom going into last Sunday's preselection was that the numbers would be tight, but that Wooldridge - one of the Coalition's best assets - would prevail. She had the backing of the Premier, the cabinet, the administrative wing of the Liberal Party, and federal MPs such as the member for Higgins, Kelly O'Dwyer, and senator Scott Ryan. What many failed to realise was that Smith - whose backers also include former ministers Richard Alston and Rod Kemp, and current minister Kevin Andrews - had spent years building up the numbers, and had rusted-on support.

Nor did they anticipate the strength of the backlash by the locals of Kew, who don't like being told what to do. Every time Napthine intervened more numbers seemed to swing in behind him. ''He had everyone telling him to back off - from senior members of the Liberal Party to former premiers - but I know Tim, and that's not his nature,'' says former Kennett government deputy premier Pat McNamara, who has known Smith since he was a child. ''He's not the sort of person to back away from a fight.''

Asked why he decided not to pull out, Smith points to two things: the ''overwhelming support of the locals'' and the lessons he learnt as a rower. ''One of the guys from the Oarsome Foursome used to have this quote: 'If not now, then when?' … I wanted to run for Parliament. If I'm not going to do it now, then when?''

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