The Poll Bludger
Margin: Independent 0.2% versus Liberal
Region: Northern Regional, Victoria
In a nutshell: After an imminent cabinet career was derailed by her narrow defeat at the hands of independent Cathy McGowan in 2013, Sophie Mirabella is again taking the field for the Liberals in the regional Victorian seat of Indi.
Candidates in ballot paper order
ALAN JAMES LAPPIN
Encompasses the Murray River border town of Wodonga, the northern Victorian centres of Wangaratta and Benalla and surrounding rural areas, Indi delivered one of the boilovers of the 2013 election, when cabinet minister-in-waiting Sophie Mirabella was unseated by conservative independent Cathy McGowan. McGowan recorded 32.2% of the primary vote, reducing Mirabella from 52.6% in 2010 to 44.7%, and picked up 79% of Labor and minor party preferences to finish 439 votes ahead at the final count, a margin of 0.2%. McGowan’s win marked the first time since 1931 that the seat had not been held by one of the main Coalition parties. The Liberal Party has set up a re-match for the coming election by again preselecting Mirabella.
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, who married in 2006 and assumed her husband’s surname of Mirabella. Noted for her aggressive parliamentary style, Mirabella won promotion to shadow cabinet when Tony Abbott became leader in December 2009, in the innovation, industry, science and research portfolio. 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 complained Mirabella gave its concerns short shrift, telling them her constituents’ true concerns aligned with the often-repeated soundbites of her leader.
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 using social media, as it sought to exploit perceptions of Mirabella as a Melburnian careerist. McGowan’s supporters included Ken Jasper, who served Wangaratta and surrounding areas in state parliament for the Nationals from 1976 to 2010, and retiring New England independent Tony Windsor, who described her as an “excellent independent”, and said the “nasty” Mirabella was the person he would least miss in politics. She also appeared to benefit from friction between the coalition parties arising from the contest for Mallee, which the Liberals were seeking to win upon the retirement of Nationals member John Forrest.
Following the election, claims that 20 McGowan supporters had falsely enrolled in the electorate, mostly said to be Melbourne-based students with families from the electorate, were investigated by the Australian Electoral Commission. Charges against two supporters, one of them McGowan’s niece, were dropped by the Australian Federal Police in April.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.