Seat battle is a fight to watch

April 27, 2016

In 2013 I watched as a seemingly ordinary election campaign to return the Liberal member for Indi Sophie Mirabella went hideously awry for the politician who had spent 12 years representing her constituency.

A well orchestrated and, some would suggest, fortuitously timed push by the Voice for Indi group, who had selected independent Cathy McGowan as their representative, toppled the Liberals by little more than 400 votes.

As polling day neared in September 2013, the tone of the contest became increasingly combative and at times deeply personal.

The outcome of that contest is now well documented and Cathy McGowan entered parliament as one of a handful of independents at the end of 2013.

When Mrs Mirabella stood for preselection and was selected the Liberal candidate for the seat last year, the stage was set for a rematch between the two women.

Even before the election is properly called, this contest has made for fascinating viewing, so when I had the opportunity to stop at Wangaratta on Thursday night to see the broadcast by Sky News of a debate between the Indi candidates, it was too good to pass up.

The first question from forum host Paul Murray to Ms McGowan was whether the 2016 campaign was shaping up to be more personal than in 2013.

Her predictable response was the contest for Indi should be about policy, professionalism and leadership.

Mrs Mirabella dived into the debate, responding she thought it ‘‘fantastic’’ to hear her opponent push for a campaign about jobs and infrastructure.

But she wasn’t going to let go in seeking a response from Ms McGowan to a story in the Benalla paper last week which she says defamed her. With no response on Ms McGowan’s part and Mrs Mirabella keen to pursue the question, it was left to Mr Murray to get the debate back to questions of policy.

The rest of the forum may have made little impact in the wider media, except as a brief follow-up to the allegations on Thursday until Mrs Mirabella made a comment that sent shockwaves that swept far beyond Wangaratta’s Pinsent Hotel.

Board chairman with Northeast Health Wangaratta, Brendan Schutt, had asked about funding for the local hospital to which Ms McGowan responded she was optimistic about hospital funding given last week’s $168million Victorian government announcement for Shepparton’s GV Health, money she said had been won by independent Suzanna Sheed.

Perhaps it was the reference to an independent achieving such a significant windfall that prompted Mrs Mirabella to attempt a bit of one upmanship, but instead it backfired spectacularly.

‘‘I had a commitment for a $10million allocation to the Wangaratta hospital that, if elected, I was going to announce the week after the election’’, she said, directing her response to Mr Schutt.

Then this. ‘‘That is $10million that Wangaratta hasn’t had because Cathy got elected.’’

The room erupted. The Mirabella supporters apparently because they thought their candidate had trumped her opponent, the other side because the arrogance of the assertion became immediately clear — that is implying to Indi voters ‘‘you didn’t vote for me, so you missed out’’.

Those of us who reported the 2013 campaign went scurrying back in our minds to try and remember whether there was a campaign promise for the Wangaratta Hospital, but nope, none we could find. To their credit, anything the Libs had promised formally to Indi had been delivered in spite of their loss of the seat.

In the day following, none of Mrs Mirabella’s Liberal colleagues were going to come to her aid — not the former Health Minister Peter Dutton, his successor Sussan Ley, or the Treasurer Scott Morrison, who as chance would have it was scheduled to join Mrs Mirabella in Wodonga, in what became an obviously uncomfortable visit.

By Friday night, a statement from Mrs Mirabella said her $10million post election allocation to North East Health was instead ‘‘a personal commitment to the hospital to seek to secure $10million after the election’’, confirming the depressing reality both pork-barrelling and electoral payback are alive and well.

Now perhaps for a completely different reason than she intended, Mrs Mirabella has ensured her electorate remains in the spotlight and her chances of regaining her seat have copped what many regard as a knockout blow.

The battle in Indi has implications for the Liberals in another three-cornered contest — the one here in Murray.

With Duncan McGauchie attempting to retain the seat for the Liberals and hold off Nationals’ favourite Damian Drum, the Liberal hierarchy is not going to be wanting to waste money in what it may be increasingly seen as a lost cause for them in Indi.

It will be a hard, and potentially expensive fight for them in both seats and it would not be surprising if at some point the party sought to give one contest preference over the other.

Once more, three years on from that initially unexciting election in 2013, the story has just got a whole lot more interesting in this part of the world.

Di Thomas is the editor of The News.

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