Bordered to the north by the Murray River, the electorate of Indi covers an area of northern Victoria including Wangaratta, Benalla and the border town of Wodonga. It produced one of the biggest boilovers of the 2013 election with the defeat of cabinet minister-in-waiting Sophie Mirabella at the hands of conservative independent Cathy McGowan, whose win marked the first time since 1931 that the seat was not in the hands of one of the main coalition parties. Indi has existed without interruption since federation and only ever won by Labor in 1910, 1914, 1928 (when Labor’s Paul Jones was elected unopposed after Country Party incumbent Robert Cook forgot to nominate) and 1929, from which time it shifted decisively to the conservatives. It was thereafter fought over between the Country Party and the Liberal Party (together with its predecessor the United Australia Party), the member from 1937 to 1949 being Country Party titan John “Black Jack” McEwen, who moved to the new seat of Murray with the expansion of parliament in 1949. The Nationals last held the seat in 1977, when their incumbent Mac Holten was defeated by Liberal candidate Ewen Cameron on Labor preferences. The Nationals contested in 2001 when Cameron’s successor Lou Lieberman retired, but managed only 12.3%.

The new Liberal member in 2001 was Sophie Panopoulos, a barrister and Australians for Constititutional Monarchy activist. Panopoulos married in 2006 and assumed her husband’s surname of Mirabella. Mirabella became noted for her aggressive parliamentary style, and was promoted to shadow cabinet in the innovation, industry, science and research portfolio when Tony Abbott became leader in December 2009. McGowan’s challenge to Mirabella arose out of a local activist group called Voice for Indi, which initially declared itself set on “improving the political process in the electorate” rather than mounting an electoral challenge. The group says it resolved to field a candidate after Mirabella gave their concerns short shrift, informing them that the real concerns of her constituents aligned with her party leader’s oft-repeated soundbites.

The candidate nominated by Voice for Indi was Cathy McGowan, a rural affairs consultant and former regional councillor for the Victorian Farmers Federation who had once worked for Liberal member Ewen Cameron. With McGowan to rally behind, the organisation proved adept at fund-raising and use of social media, and it soon became apparent that it was succeeding in tapping into a perception that Mirabella was a Melburnian careerist with an insufficient connection to the local area. McGowan’s profile was further lifted when retiring New England independent Tony Windsor told the ABC’s Insiders program that the “nasty” Mirabella was the person he would least miss in politics, and that McGowan was an “excellent independent” whose campaign he might lend support.

Also lending McGowan support was Ken Jasper, who served Wangaratta and surrounding areas in state parliament for 34 years, retiring as member for Murray Valley at the 2010 election. McGowan appeared to benefit from friction between the coalition parties spilling over from the contest for Mallee, which the Liberals were seeking to win upon the retirement of Nationals member John Forrest. Reports indicated that local Nationals had been quietly told they would not face disciplinary action if they lent support to McGowan.

McGowan went on to prevail after polling 31.2% to Mirabella’s 44.7%, which was down from 51.8% in 2010. This left McGowan well clear of the Labor candidate on 11.6%, down from 28.2%, and she was narrowly able to close the primary vote gap after picking up 79% of Labor and minor party preferences.

NB: Hat tip to Ben Raue at The Tally Room, whose Google Earth maps I’m using for the electoral boundaries displayed in the map above. Raue does tremendous work on his blog and deserves donations. Note also that you can get a slightly bigger image of the above map by clicking on it.

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