The view from Billinudgel

Knees and elbows
The return of the unlamented Sophie Mirabella

It is fair to say that the revenant candidate for the seat of Indi, Sophie Mirabella, would never win a nation-wide popularity contest.

At the end of the 2013, the normally placid independent Tony Windsor bade her farewell from parliament with the salutation: “She is the nastiest – I reckon if you put it to a vote to all politicians, she’d come up number one.”

The commentator Helen Razer had reservations: “She is not unusually vile … yet to prove that she is as awful as, say, Kevin Andrews.” But then, Razer did not to sit with Mirabella in the House of Representatives. Anyway, if not right at the top, she clearly made the top ten, and when she narrowly lost what was regarded as the safe seat of Indi to the independent Cathy McGowan after 12 years in office there were few mourners and a great many celebrants.

And now, as she attempts a return, once again she is in the news, and once again for the wrong reasons. In a community forum in the electorate, Mirabella made the startling claim that she had secured a $10 million allocation to the Wangarattta hospital before she was defeated. “This is $10 million that Wangarattta hasn’t had because Cathy McGowan was elected,” she said.

This was more than a declaration of routine pork-barrelling. It went back to the days when the Queensland premier, the unlamented Joh Bjelke-Petersen, threatened the voters of Mt Isa that if they did not vote National, they would not get a badly needed dam. Even in Joh’s Queensland this was seen as outrageous: Mt Isa voted Labor and the dam was built.

In present-day Canberra, the government reacted to the Mirabella story with something like panic; this was, as Bill Shorten immediately pointed out, an allegation of political corruption. Treasurer Scott Morrison and Health Minister Sussan Ley avowed that there had been no commitment; Mirabella had been lobbying, but that was all. She retreated, but the damage was done. 

And it was not the first problem; previously the local paper had reported that Mirabella had shoved McGowan out of a photo opportunity with the visiting Ken Wyatt; the unflappable McGowan did not deny it but made no further comment. However, Mirabella was outraged; she was a campaigner against domestic violence, she said, and “having an accusation that you committed assault, that just gutted me”.

Well, perhaps; but I can attest from personal experience that Mirabella is far from a convinced pacifist. We both attended the 1999 constitutional convention in Canberra, I as a reporter, she as a delegate (a monarchist, of course). At the day’s end, many of us gathered in the National Press Club. We had never met, but suddenly Mirabella caught my eye, and pushed her way through the drinkers to confront me. “I have heard,” she said, “that you are a terrible person and I am going to knee you.” At which, her patella lunged unerringly at my groin.

That, unsurprisingly, concluded our first encounter. Our second and final one was when we were seated together on the panel of Q&A; I kept my legs firmly crossed, but the only combat was verbal. Thus I agree with Tony Windsor, and will be among the many who rejoice if the polls are correct and the voters of Indi re-endorse the unaggressive Cathy McGowan.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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