Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt has told a court Sophie Mirabella physically prevented him from getting in a photo with her political opponent by placing her hands on his chest.
But he says the contact was never a “push”.
Former Indi MP Mrs Mirabella is suing the Benalla Ensign for defamation after an article in 2016 claimed she pushed Cathy McGowan.
The newspaper’s defence is the claims were “substantially true” because it says Mrs Mirabella actually pushed Mr Wyatt.
“No, she did not push me,” he told Wangaratta County Court yesterday.
“Mrs Mirabella moved around in front of me, put her hands on my chest and asked that I didn’t have a photo (with Ms McGowan) because it would legitimate an alliance with the Liberal brand.”
His evidence was that her hands stayed on his chest for the entire conversation of about a minute.
“The exertion of her hands on my chest would have prevented me from turning, had I wanted to turn,” Mr Wyatt said.
“I moved sideways and then we left.”
Mrs Mirabella secretly recorded a conversation she had with Mr Wyatt at a Liberal event in June last year, which was played to the court yesterday.
She can be heard to say she did not remember placing her hands on his chest.
Under cross-examination from Benalla Ensign barrister David Gilbertson, Mrs Mirabella again said she could not remember.
“I’m a touchy person … I may have touched him on the shoulder or on the front,” she said.
“I wasn’t trying to push him, I wasn’t trying to stop him going anywhere.”
Mr Wyatt also gave evidence that Mrs Mirabella approached him again later at the event.
“She came up to me and said ‘we need to have a discussion because we need to get our evidence right’. I told her the comment was inappropriate and I was a Justice of the Peace,” he said.
Mrs Mirabella later told the court she did not remember that conversation.
“Why would I say that to him?” she said.
“I wasn’t trying to get him to change his story, I just wanted him to repeat what he had said before.”
Mr Gilbertson accused her of harassing the minister.
“It’s a very serious matter to try to collude with a potential witness,” he said.
Mr Wyatt also contradicted Mrs Mirabella’s evidence that the two of them walked up to Ms McGowan side by side to decline to have a photo taken.
He said he was metres away from Ms McGowan when Mrs Mirabella’s hands were on his chest, then he left with his staffers to attend another event.
Article brought reputation down a notch
The credibility of Sophie Mirabella was under examination in court on Monday as the defamation trial entered its third day.
Benalla Ensign barrister David Gilbertson said the Liberals’ election campaign was hurt less by the push allegation than a “gaffe” on Sky News where she said Wangaratta Hospital missed out on $10 million in funding because she was not re-elected in 2013.
“I take personal responsibility for the gaffe … I shouldn’t have done the debate,” Mrs Mirabella said.
“I mucked up because I was upset and I didn’t explain myself properly.”
Mr Gilbertson questioned why the former Indi MP chose to use the word “assault” when talking about the allegation, when the Ensign story had stated “push”.
Mrs Mirabella had given her support in 2016 to the Enough is Enough campaign, which advocates for tougher bail laws and sentencing for sexual and violent offenders.
Campaign founder Tania Maxwell said the Liberal candidate was interested and passionate about standing up for victims of violence.
“There were some people who actually gave me a little bit of flak about having Sophie there (at a community rally),” she said. “People came to me afterwards and said their previous thoughts and opinions about Sophie’s career and reputation had changed since she spoke.”
Liberal Party Indi electoral conference chair Tony Schneider said he saw the story as another attempt to sully Mrs Mirabella’s reputation.
“It was reiterating the narrative that Cathy McGowan’s campaign team had been building since three years earlier about Sophie’s reputation … being unpleasant, not a nice person, aggressive,” he said.
“It was pretty powerful and it brought her reputation down a further notch.”
The case continues.