Sophie lost her appeal when she stopped working her electorate

Sophie Mirabella
Sophie Mirabella

CONTROVERSY and public debate have dogged Sophie Mirabella’s 12-year career as the member for Indi.

Not that she appeared to mind.

Indeed, she courted attention by refusing to back away from the strong opinions that made her the darling of stalwart Liberal supporters and won her high regard within the party’s leadership and hierarchy.

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In 2001, as Sophie Panopoulos, she hit back at those critical of her being “parachuted” into the North East seat by having not only then federal treasurer Peter Costello, but also prime minister John Howard, open her campaign offices in Wodonga and Benalla respectively.

She won renown for speaking her mind about not only her opponents but even her Liberal colleagues, most famously Senator Bill Heffernan who she told “Why don’t you go and pop your Alzheimer’s pills?” in February last year.

The cacophony of comment about Indi in the past week reached a crescendo as everyone, it seemed, had something to add to the examination of the campaign and Mrs Mirabella’s demise, made official yesterday by her concession of defeat.

And I have to say, the quality of those examinations has varied.

Some have been thoughtfully considered. Others have been utter rubbish, offered by those with no knowledge of what has been happening in this electorate in the past few months, let alone the preceding years.

The response to Mrs Mirabella’s loss of Indi has nothing to do with her being a woman nor is it the fault of her constituents, her opponents or media outlets.

It has plenty to do with an electorate that found the opportunity to exercise its opinion about what it wants from a local member, albeit with some well-meaning, but somewhat ham-fisted and, in some cases, completely inappropriate responses thrown in by those living outside the North East.

There has always been a lot to admire about Mrs Mirabella. She is tenacious, hard-working, thorough and, if you want someone on your side in a parliamentary battle, you could have done worse than choosing her as an ally.

She proved her early critics wrong. Those who rejected the Liberal Party’s decision to pre-select her when Lou Lieberman retired were made to look foolish by an incoming MP who embraced her new home territory by settling her young family at Wangaratta and making herself familiar with the issues that concerned her constituents.

Mrs Mirabella was at her best when she was out and about in her electorate, attending to the duties of a local MP, and when she offered evidence to those living in Indi of her ability to win important gains for the region by forging links with those including former prime minister Howard.

She has always been the target of opinion that has been at polar opposites of the spectrum. She is mainly loved or loathed.

During the 2010 election campaign, she showed me mail she had received from those in the latter category.

Most of the letters were disgusting, vile offerings that no one should have tolerated.

But since 2010, as Mrs Mirabella became a significant figure in Tony Abbott’s bid to win government for the Coalition, there had been a notable change in the way she had conducted herself as the member for Indi.

During that election and after Labor remained in office, Mrs Mirabella broadened her ambitions.

In her industry portfolio, she travelled widely as she took on the role as Mr Abbott’s spokeswoman against Labor’s carbon tax, building her credibility as a valued member of an Abbott government front bench.

We had our first clash in July when out-going federal independent MP Tony Windsor awarded Mrs Mirabella “the nasty prize” and said she would be the person he would least miss in the Parliament.

She believed the opinion of an outsider to the North East did not rate a front page story in The Border Mail. I argued that, as she had purposefully cast herself on a national stage with her focus on the industry and science portfolio and regular media appearances on programs such as Q&A, that the opinion of a nationally recognised parliamentary colleague counted for plenty.

Then, soon after the election campaign started in earnest, the Mirabella camp asked that I remove one of the paper’s reporters from covering her campaign, arguing the reporter had a bias against her.

I refused. There was no bias and, throughout the campaign, The Border Mail, as usual, has been scrupulously careful in weighing up, not only the extent of the coverage given to individual candidates, but also the tone of those reports.

The fact remains.

We witnessed a battle within Indi of a kind never seen before and the reaction and conduct of all those involved was big news indeed.

I have to say that I was disappointed when I heard Mrs Mirabella’s speech on the night of the September 7 election.

Her attack on constituents who had voted for Cathy McGowan as having had the “wool pulled over their eyes” was insulting to all those who had exercised their democratic right to vote for a candidate of their choosing.

Her concession statement yesterday was far more conciliatory to both Indi voters and Ms McGowan and perhaps evidence of some considerable soul-searching on her part during the 12 days since the polls closed.

This battle for Indi is a moment in Australia’s political history.

It will be examined and re-examined in the months and years to come.

Lessons will be learned, others will be ignored, but what is certain is that it won’t soon be forgotten.