Sophie Mirabella has a lead foot. Her frenetic energy seems to travel straight through her flat-heeled red shoe to the accelerator of her 12-year-old dusty blue station wagon.
We're driving across what was once her electorate in north-east Victoria, and it's a relief, frankly, when she slows down to cross the beautiful Ovens River.
"There are some fantastic camp spots right along the river here," she says, pointing to the riverbank. "You have to dig your own dunny, though."
When most people think of Sophie Mirabella, they probably visualise smart suits, pearls and old-school conservatism.
The former Liberal MP digging her own toilet with a spade in hand seems far-fetched.
But it's true, as I learn when we drive over the river and arrive at the house of Barry Mapley, a farmer and keen Mirabella supporter. "You should have been here the other week," he says. "She went feral camping down the river."
Meet the new Sophie Mirabella. In the 2013 federal election, Mirabella lost her blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Indi (pronounced "in-dye"), an electorate of eight valleys and three regional cities that stretches from the hills north of Melbourne's urban fringe to the Murray River. Mirabella wants to show there's more to her than her reputation as a right-wing political bruiser.
" 'Sophie listening' would have been an oxymoron some time ago, but she's all ears now," says Jamie Kronborg, a journalist at the Wangaratta Chronicle. And, as I discover later, when she weeps unexpectedly in her living room, the new Sophie Mirabella is more emotional, vulnerable and – it has to be said – wounded.
Mirabella, who is 47, is now recontesting the seat she believes was unfairly wrested from her by Cathy McGowan, an independent. It's the fight of Mirabella's political life. McGowan is not only her opposite politically, but comes wielding a mighty weapon: niceness.
One day last November, McGowan and I were standing outside her Wodonga office when a man of questionable sobriety walked past. "Where's the bloody sex shop?" he demanded. "Just down there," McGowan replied, smiling, without missing a beat.
McGowan is upbeat, at ease with herself, helpful, down-to-earth. She's covered more than 94,000 kilometres in her car since coming to office – equivalent to driving around Australia six times – and displays none of a seasoned politician's usual boundaries.
(At one point, she picks up a notebook I left on a table which has a list of questions for her and, as I panic about what else I might have jotted on the page, starts answering them.)
McGowan's house is 20 minutes' drive south of the electoral office, in the Indigo Valley.
It perches like a lighthouse on top of a round, steep hill. When McGowan returns from Canberra on a Thursday night and turns on her lights, the phone will ring. It's her sister, Helen, a lawyer, who can see her home from across the valley.
McGowan, who is 62, lives alone. She has never married or had children, and her partner, David Wolfenden, lives on his own farm 90 minutes' drive away.
Still, she is surrounded by family: along with Helen, she has two other sisters and a sister-in-law in this valley alone.
While Mirabella came to Indi from her inner-city Melbourne home as a young lawyer, the McGowan family is like the old tree in the paddock, with deep roots.
One of 13 siblings in a Catholic family, McGowan was born just over the border in Albury and grew up on an Indigo Valley dairy farm. She knew, as she puts it, how to be the daughter of farmers, but what she really wanted was to be a farmer in her own right. So in 1979, aged 26, she left senior secondary school teaching in Wangaratta, in Victoria's north-east, and, a few years later, started sheep farming on the Indigo Valley hilltops.
It was the only land she could afford, and it was hard learning to farm in a man's world. McGowan connected with other women farmers and went on to co-found Australian Women in Agriculture.
(She was later the organisation's president.) "I wanted to change the dominant paradigm that only men farmed," she says, as we wind up the gravel road to her house. Later, McGowan set up a business consulting with agriculture groups and governments on how to engage women.
Her politics are hard to pigeonhole. McGowan's father, Paul, was an active Liberal Party member (he was on the committee that chose Mirabella as Liberal candidate for the 2001 federal poll, when she was first elected) and her extended family was involved with the Nationals.
But although she worked for a Liberal MP for 2½ years in the 1980s, McGowan has always seen herself as non-partisan: pro free trade, private enterprise and efficient government, but also pro environment and gay marriage.
No single party, she thinks, has the answers for rural Australia. And she never wanted, never dreamt of being, a politician, much less a David to a Liberal Party Goliath.
the inside of Sophie Mirabella's house, a rambling, late-Victorian farmhouse outside Wangaratta, is a surprise. Some of it is renovated, some is in its original form. The 1950s kitchen, in particular, is beautifully eccentric, lined with pink cupboards framed in yellow.
Mirabella's decision to re-contest Indi is also surprising, as gutsy as it is perplexing. Her party's state president, Michael Kroger, was openly against her run for pre-selection, though she won it convincingly.
And she has re-entered the fray even, as Fairfax Media has learnt, other senior Liberals advised against it.
Most politicians would not dream of making a comeback from the kind of defeat she suffered. The loss was not just bad luck, it was deeply personal.
A grassroots campaign coalesced with the goal of making Indi, traditionally a safe Liberal seat, marginal – and to get rid of Mirabella specifically.
After 12 years, many voters, including those in conservative parts of the electorate who traditionally voted for the Nationals, were fed up with Mirabella's style as an MP: she wasn't in Indi enough; she dismissed people; she was too combative; too aggressive.
Mirabella lost by only 439 votes, but she was the only Liberal MP to lose her seat in a national swing to Tony Abbott.
She's learnt some lessons since then. "Did I spend too much time being a warrior for the party, and do you lose a bit of skin doing that? Sure," she says.
And she regrets leaving her very young daughters, Alexandra and Kitty, often for 10-day stretches, while her husband Greg, a long-serving army officer and now a farmer and a director of a waste recycling start-up, looked after the children with the help of her mother and an au pair.
Mirabella was campaigning in the 2010 election when Kitty was seven weeks old. No one, she says, thanks her for that now.
The campaign to get rid of Mirabella started in May 2012, in Melbourne's inner suburbs. A group of 20-somethings who'd grown up in Indi, including Cathy McGowan's nieces and nephews, were disillusioned with Mirabella and felt that issues they cared about, such as climate change, public transport, marriage equality, health and education, were being ignored.
A few of these young people, as well as some like-minded people in Indi, including McGowan, began meeting in the Wangaratta public library. These people, who called themselves "Voice for Indi", met in semi-clandestine fashion because some feared Mirabella would "blacklist" them.
"It was a real and tangible fear," says local community development consultant Susan Benedyka. "I knew that if the former member was re-elected, I would be putting my future contracts in peril and any recommendations to Commonwealth boards in jeopardy."
The Voice for Indi volunteers had several gripes. They felt Indi, as a safe seat, had become a backwater, and that the two-party system had failed them. Many were annoyed that Mirabella, along with four other MPs, refused to apologise to the Stolen Generations.
Others saw her appearance on ABC TV's Q&A in July 2012 – when she recoiled from Simon Sheikh, then national director of activist group Get Up!, after he passed out and face-planted on the desk next to her – as emblematic of her lack of compassion. (Mirabella, who has only peripheral vision in her right eye, says she thought Sheikh was pretending to fall asleep from boredom as Labor's then climate change minister Greg Combet spoke.)
Many in the electorate – and not just Voice for Indi members – believed she was rude, abrupt and talked at people. "She is extraordinarily clever," says Cath Marriott, a farmer who was heavily involved in a local Liberal branch but now supports McGowan. "But I think Sophie is a prime example of somebody who has completely alienated herself from the grassroots needs of the electorate."
In the lead-up to the 2013 election, Voice for Indi ran "kitchen-table conversations", canvassing voters' political hopes and concerns. They decided to run their own candidate and settled on an initially reluctant McGowan, who was known for her formidable networks across the community.
The young, Melbourne-based "Indi expats", as McGowan called them, lent her campaign their social media and communications skills. There was also a huge door-knocking campaign. One woman put all her sheep in orange T-shirts, because orange is McGowan's trademark colour.
But the most decisive blow to Mirabella's campaign came when Ken Jasper, a respected ex-state MP from the Nationals, backed McGowan. In a Coalition-leaning electorate, his support gave McGowan a cloak of conservative respectability, despite her left leanings on some issues.
As federal politics became mired in toxic debates on the carbon tax and leadership, McGowan's volunteers signed a strict code of values to "be their best selves". Alana Johnson, Voice for Indi's president, says members were admonished if they criticised Mirabella.
Even now, nearly three years later, McGowan never says anything negative about Mirabella on or off the record (and Mirabella is careful to do the same). The two have a civil relationship, although when in a room together, one local says, "It's like a school disco, all the Sophie people on one side, all the Cathy people on the other."
As the cockatoos and little corellas riot in the walnut trees behind the house, Mirabella and I sit down to record a video interview for Fairfax's websites. It's about 7pm, after a big day of driving. The light is lovely, and Mirabella sounds like the polished politician she is, or rather was.
But when the camera is turned off, she suddenly starts to cry. "It's the way I feel about The Age," she says, referring to a report published in that newspaper in 2011 that revealed a relationship, long ended, with a law professor 40 years her senior.
The story went into detail about his will, his estranged son and daughter and bitter legal tussles with Mirabella that eventually proved fruitless for his children. In the two days we spend together, she tears up three times.
Mirabella is an emotional person. ("She's Greek. Is that a terrible stereotype?" her husband Greg jokes later.) But the loss of her seat is clearly still raw. After all, it was the end of a big dream. On the eve of the 2013 election, Mirabella was about to realise her ambition of becoming a minister.
Mirabella says little about how she felt after the election. For insight, you have to speak to Greg, otherwise known in the community as "Mr Sophie". "She was on the cusp of becoming the second most powerful woman in public life in Australia one day; and the next day she's nothing," he says.
"To have that taken away from her is not easily fathomable. I personally could not have reacted with the sort of grace she had."
Last June, when Malcolm Turnbull was still communications minister, he announced the first round of government funding to address mobile phone black spots. In the hilly and fire-prone electorate of Indi, this was a big deal – mobile coverage is a chief gripe for residents.
Indi was promised 30 towers, more than any other Victorian electorate. It was a significant win for new member McGowan, and an awkward outcome for Mirabella, who has argued independents cannot deliver results unless they hold the balance of power.
McGowan says the result came only because she and the community did everything the bureaucracy asked them. They produced an electorate-wide plan, got the local councils working together and had locals go out into the valleys to reality-check the Telstra maps.
"There's absolutely nothing special about what we did, except that we did it," she says. "And we could do it because we have got goodwill and can work together."
This is what McGowan calls "The Indi Way". She believes voters should not ask MPs to fix a problem and then walk away; communities are stronger if they have the skills to help themselves.
(Each sitting week in Canberra, McGowan is assisted by self-funded volunteers, known around the place as "those Indi people", who become better community leaders by learning how Parliament works, she says.)
[Mirabella] was on the cusp of becoming the second most powerful woman in public life in Australia one day; and the next day she's nothing. To have that taken away from her is not easily fathomable.
And she is careful about what she can promise, encouraging constituents to work together while she lobbies and facilitates. "If we are going to help this community be what it wants to be, the government is not the only answer."
But not everyone in Indi likes her approach. "Cathy is a professional meeting organiser," says farmer and former local councillor Harvey Benton. "She's done it all her life."
McGowan irritates some with her fondness for the language of bureaucrats and company mission statements, phrases like "bringing best practice to the task", and what one local journalist described as "buzz words and platitudes".
If McGowan is selling a new type of politics, Mirabella is not buying it. "'The Indi Way'. What is that? Is it a feeling? Is it a sensation? There's no such thing," Mirabella says on the road to the former tobacco-growing town of Myrtleford. "
There is a choice and a difference. One side of politics speaks in simple, plain English, making promises to which we will be held accountable. There's a thing called democracy. That's 'The Indi Way', " she says.
And, by the way, Mirabella says, McGowan's success in increasing mobile phone coverage was "not a genuine claim", because the process of assigning funding was independent and bureaucratic, not one which politicians could influence.
Sophie Mirabella and I are walking to lunch in Wangaratta. People on the street greet her and make jokes with her – often at her expense – with what seems like genuine fondness. At the cafe, she enthusiastically greets real estate agents and lawyers.
She's charming and amusing company, but her politics are still, perhaps more than ever, black and white. You are either a friend or an enemy. And that is how she sees the 2013 election: it was not a grassroots movement. Her enemies on the political Left brought her down in an orchestrated campaign.
Several months before the 2013 election, Barrie Cassidy, the host of ABC TV's political program Insiders, asked the retiring federal NSW independent Tony Windsor who he'd miss the least. "I've got to say Sophie Mirabella: she wins the nasty prize."
His answer made the front page of The Border Mail.
Mirabella believes Voice for Indi "briefed" Windsor to "frame" its campaign. (The group had met with Windsor, and others, to get advice, but deny they asked him to award Mirabella the nasty prize. "It was off-the-cuff and an honest comment," Windsor tells me.)
Voice for Indi then embarked on the next stage, says Mirabella. "They deliberately recruited – they harvested – the haters and the far-left political types from Melbourne." The Labor Party, also in on this plan, ran dead, Mirabella says (Labor denies this).
And, according to Mirabella, Get Up! was also in cahoots with Voice for Indi. (It rated McGowan highly on a scorecard, and handed these out at polling booths, but McGowan says she had nothing to do with the group.)
Meanwhile, Mirabella says, McGowan's army of door-knocking volunteers were anything but their "best selves". Social media, she says, had a "toxic ferocity".
And all of this happened without scrutiny because, she says, The Border Mail and several other newspapers in the electorate were biased against her and the city press was not paying attention.
"I've never had rumours in previous campaigns that my husband was going to leave me, and I hated children," she says. She accuses "the orange people", the McGowan door-knockers, of spreading these rumours.
"It is extremely unlikely that Voice for Indi was a spontaneous movement to ascertain what the people of Indi wanted," Mirabella says. "The fact that their campaign was supported by Get Up!, the trade union movement and the Labor Party, I guess, is relevant."
But if it was a co-ordinated attack from the Left, so what? Isn't that just politics? McGowan's campaign was fraudulent, Mirabella responds. People thought they were voting for a rural conservative, but McGowan, Mirabella maintains, is a left-wing cipher.
When you ask Mirabella why she is running again, she will say it's because people kept asking for her help. But, when pushed a little, she reveals another reason: it's about not being silenced by her enemies, the "nasty Left" of Australian politics.
This battle – against the consensus view of the Left – is something she's been fighting since university when she was a deeply conservative law student shut out by the cool Left crowd. "It's about not being afraid or intimidated into silence by a vitriolic personal campaign."
And while she admits she has learnt some lessons, Mirabella has no intention of winding back her "passion", or what others would call her aggressive politics. She remains opposed to a carbon tax and believes marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
She says she has a strong relationship with a local indigenous community, the Bangerang, but she still doesn't believe the Stolen Generations existed in Victoria. "The core of who I am is still there," she says. "I wouldn't have gone for a second go if I didn't have that passion."
Political analysts say it's hard to predict who will win on election day. One bonus for Mirabella is that the National Party is running a candidate – a well-liked local called Marty Corboy – for the first time since 2001.
When preferences are distributed, Mirabella will receive his votes, bumping up her tally. McGowan's strategy will be to ask the National voters to put her second on the ballot, stemming some of this flow.
"It will be an uphill battle for Mirabella to reclaim the seat," says Paul Strangio, associate professor of politics at Monash University.
"Recent history of independents suggests that having won a seat, they're difficult to budge at their first contest as sitting members, especially if backed by a well-organised grassroots movement."
The Liberals strategy, says state director Simon Frost, will be to remind voters that while McGowan comes across as a conservative rural independent, her voting record on issues such as gay marriage and asylum seekers suggests otherwise.
Just before we drive past Mirabella's favourite camping spots on the Ovens River, we zoom up Fred Neal's driveway in Myrtleford. Neal has been lobbying governments for years to expand a dam on the Buffalo River. And Mirabella backs him.
Next week, she tells Neal, the state Liberals are meeting in Indi. She urges him to gatecrash the meeting, to put his case again. "The meek don't inherit the political earth," she says.
Meanwhile, McGowan's supporters, while tempted otherwise at times, stick to their "nice" code. "Sophie's Sophie," Robert O'Reilly, a businessman, former Liberal member, and McGowan backer, says to me in a cafe in Albury. He looks like he might say something more, but stops. "Yeah," he sighs. "I've got to be my best self."
In 2013, Cathy McGowan's bid for Indi was supported by a young army of Melbourne-based "Indi expats".
After the election, the Australian Electoral Commission investigated – at the urging of some in the Liberal Party, Fairfax Media understands – whether some of these voters were correctly able to claim their parents' addresses to enrol in Indi.
Last year, McGowan's niece, Maggie McGowan, and a family friend, Sophie Fuchsen, were charged with electoral fraud.
The two women allegedly enrolled to vote at their parental homes in Indi when their current residential addresses were in Melbourne. The matter will be back in court next month.
Sophie Mirabella denies any suggestion that she encouraged the AEC to investigate the women. Some Indi constituents have raised her own enrolment record in the 1990s, when she lived with a lover but registered at her parents' address in another electorate.
"At all times, of course I have been properly enrolled," she says, but will not go into details.
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