June 2016

The Nation Reviewed

In dispute

By John van Tiggelen

There’s a new contender in Sophie Mirabella and Cathy McGowan’s battle for Indi

On the face of it, Marty Corboy, the National Party’s candidate for Indi in north-eastern Victoria, has at best a ringside seat to one of the more keenly anticipated battles of this coming election.

In the blue corner is the Liberal Party’s Sophie Mirabella, keen to avenge the 2013 result, which robbed her not only of her seat of 12 years but also of a ministerial prize in Tony Abbott’s cabinet.

In the red corner – or make that orange, in keeping with her campaign paraphernalia – is the Independent incumbent, Cathy McGowan. In 2012, McGowan was part of a community network called Voice for Indi, which famously harnessed “kitchen table” discussions to force Mirabella, who’d come to be perceived as putting her ideological and professional interests ahead of the electorate’s, to listen. Apparently spurned instead, Voice for Indi became a movement, propelled by a social media–savvy posse of young Indi “expats”, and kept “nice” by McGowan’s pleas to “be our best selves”.

But as both Mirabella – bitterly – and Marty Corboy – with a wink – acknowledge, it took two pot shots to help McGowan narrowly win. One came from the then retiring but highly popular Independent Tony Windsor, who revealed in the lead-up to the election that Mirabella was by far the “nastiest” politician in parliament. The other came from Ken Jasper, a National Party stalwart who’d held the local state seat of Murray Valley from 1976 to 2010 and who, by bagging Mirabella and publicly backing McGowan, lent McGowan a cloak of conservatism.

“Ken’s intervention was a huge thing,” says Corboy, 36, who works in the family stockfeed business. “There were those in the Nats who didn’t like it. But many supported what he did. To this day it remains a very sore point.”

Under the terms of the Coalition agreement, a sitting Coalition MP is spared three-cornered contests, so the Nationals did not contest Indi in 2013. (Nor in 2004, 2007 and 2010, to the frustration of Jasper and co.) By the same agreement, when there is a contest to reclaim the seat, Coalition candidates must direct voters’ preferences to each other.

But anti-Mirabella feeling among Nationals has hardly dissipated – she’s still routinely branded a “city barrister” – and the former National Party leader Tim Fischer, who recently moved into the electorate, doubts the preferences will flow as directed on Corboy’s how-to-vote cards. “Electors will be making very deliberate choices down the ticket,” he says. “More than normal.”

To ensure they do, Ken Jasper plans to urge his sizeable base to preference McGowan, after Corboy. “I’m just waiting till I can have maximum impact,” he said at the time of writing. “Cathy has worked hard for her electorate these past three years. Whereas the previous member took the electorate for granted.”

In Wodonga last September, on one of his final regional forays as prime minister, Tony Abbott claimed Mirabella’s loss had shocked her into becoming “a changed and better and more focused person”. The two have always been close, not least ideologically. Mirabella, in the special praise Abbott likes to reserve for those in his own image, had been a “warrior for the party” – specifically, its right wing. From that end of the spectrum, anyone appearing to be somewhere in the middle, like McGowan, is the left in sheep’s clothing.

And so, Mirabella’s re-election strategy consists chiefly of ripping this disguise to shreds. “Cathy’s more of a Green than Labor,” she tells me. “It was very clever to generate the illusion that she was a rural conservative. This was largely perpetuated by Ken Jasper, who did radio and TV ads [for her]. But a lot of her policy positions that some would say were deliberately obtuse before the election have now become clear.”

It’s true that McGowan, who is 62, has socially progressive views: on refugees, on climate change, on same-sex marriage. She doesn’t support the resumption of cattle grazing in the region’s High Country, and she opposed the Coalition’s repeal of the carbon tax. Then again, of the nearly 500 bills passed during her time in parliament, she voted with the government 93% of the time.

If McGowan’s weekend clobber of jeans and RM Williams boots is a front, the disguise runs deep, for she is a sheep farmer. She is also the churchgoing Catholic daughter of a Liberal Party branch member who, ironically, helped preselect Mirabella in 2001 over now health minister Sussan Ley.

McGowan claims she can’t be pigeonholed on the political spectrum. Yet her views are largely consistent with those of a classic moderate, or “wet”, in the old-fashioned Liberal tradition. Think Malcolm Fraser – a man who, incidentally, Mirabella once likened to a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie”.

Before Mirabella’s accession, Indi was, like most rural seats, a bastion of small-l liberalism. The preceding MPs, Lou Lieberman and Ewen Cameron (for whom McGowan used to work), were moderates and popular. Since then, the electorate’s conservatism has, if anything, softened. Towns from Yackandandah to Mansfield now thrum with tree-changers and tourists. Valleys once coated in tobacco are now lined with vineyards. However, locals continue to feel short-changed by Canberra: they want more trains, better schools, upgraded hospitals, improved broadband communications, no cuts to the ABC, and drought relief for farmers in the grip of climate change. In hindsight, Indi was always going to be an awkward fit for a representative known for her disdain of bleeding hearts.

Mirabella acknowledges that her stridency on the national stage may have cost her votes. Nonetheless, she says she’ll always be a “warrior”. “Well, what other reason is there to be in politics than to stand up for the things you believe are right?” She adds, “There’s a distinction between standing up and fighting [for issues] and taking on the role of a warrior for the party. I probably shouldn’t have taken so much of that [latter] burden on myself. I should have been more selfish.”

It’s not exactly a mea culpa. Instead, Mirabella mostly blames “nasty” politics (read Windsor and Jasper) for her loss and hints at sexism. “There’s a way to go in this country where we accept strong, outspoken women.”

That doesn’t seem to be a negative for her opponent, at least not yet, although McGowan doesn’t subscribe to the “warrior” archetype. “Too masculine,” she reckons. “I’m not here to fight the other side; I’m here because I love communities, and I’m their conduit.”

Although McGowan, a self-confessed one-time “leadership course junkie”, likes to say that the rebranded Voices 4 Indi campaign is not about her, she’s far from unassuming. My time with McGowan began at a suitably orange-themed giant pumpkin festival in a valley shrouded in burn-off smoke. During what I’d figured would be a one-on-one interview over tea and cake in the local hall, she grabbed my recorder to start interviewing others around the table, and then passers-by. Handing back the recorder, her priority became hustling for selfies – with the tea ladies, among supporters, amid the pumpkins. It’s the price of modern rural politics, evidently: whereas once it was enough to turn up to things, now you have to be seen to have turned up.

Afterwards, she asked me to a luncheon an hour’s drive away. I duly tailed her little orange hatchback through the picturesque towns of Beechworth and Chiltern to the banks of the blue-green Murray near Rutherglen. Once there, she sat me down at an outdoor banquet organised by local Rotarians for a party of visiting Romanians, whom she’d helped with visas. She poured me a glass of wine, introduced me as a journalist who wanted to hear their thoughts, buzzed about for a few photos, and then bade goodbye as the antipasto was served. “I just wanted you to get a sense of the community,” she said.

Unusually for a politician in election mode, she’d omitted to mention an incident that had occurred the night before, at the opening of an aged-care redevelopment in Benalla. McGowan had been angling for a photo with the government’s assistant minister for health and aged care, Ken Wyatt, when Sophie Mirabella, according to one witness, “barged across” and told McGowan “to stay out of my campaign”. The Benalla Ensign drily reported days later that it left Wyatt rather “bewildered”. (And well he might have been: the notion of Mirabella putting “dibs” on him is all the more curious in view of her infamous boycott of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, of which Wyatt is a descendant.)

The Benalla Ensign story proved a hoot on Twitter, which led to national headlines. Two days after that, McGowan and Mirabella were again side by side, this time in a Wangaratta pub for a live debate on Sky News. Mirabella, as usual, was on the attack. Trying to hammer home that a Coalition MP could achieve more for Indi, she revealed that immediately after the last election the Coalition government had revoked a commitment of $10 million to upgrade the Wangaratta hospital, “because Cathy got elected”. This time Mirabella was instant news. If her claim were true, it was crooked; if not, it was still a threat: elect me, or else.

When I rang Marty Corboy a few days later, he was sounding chipper. “Soph needs to pop a Mogadon,” he said. “She hasn’t changed, people can see that now. But she’s going to keep doing real damage to Cathy. We could pinch this.”

Corboy, a fresh-faced father of six (there’s a seventh on the way), can appear disarmingly naive in conversation. Asked about his views on refugees, he replies, “Look, I want a big Indi. I want a big Wang, I want a big ’Donga …” then looks puzzled to see me grinning.

His election strategy is clear: to be the nice Coalition alternative. He says he admires Voices 4 Indi. He likes the Labor candidate. And the Greens candidate is “so good she would win a seat in Melbourne”. Says Corboy, “I’m a right-winger, I know, but I get along better with lefties than I do with hard-righters.”

As for Mirabella: “I get along fine with Sophie. Her kids are the same age as [two of] mine, we’re in the same Rotary Club, and quite possibly we agree on most of the things she carries on about, like the monarchy. But many of those things are side issues. It’s the way she puts things. I might disagree with republicans, but to her they’re a left-wing conspiracy.

“Thing is, the left is not the enemy here. It’s the unknown that worries people, what’s coming for them. People just want someone to have their backs.”

So how conservative is Corboy? Ten years ago, he stood as a Family First candidate for the state seat of Benambra. He remains pro-life, thinks homosexuality is wrong, homeschools his kids and doubts humans can cause climate change. “The science isn’t settled,” he says.

Does he mean this in the same way that the science of evolution isn’t settled?

“Well, yes,” he says. “That’s the nature of science. But when it comes to the argument that man evolved from apes, I guess you could call me a creationist.” He shrugs, then adds, “As far as I’m concerned it’s a side issue.” Perhaps. All the same, he may just have sidelined himself. There’s not a whole lot of space to the right of Sophie Mirabella.

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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