Cathy McGowan has broken her silence about the “altercation” which occurred when she and Sophie Mirabella were both at a Benalla nursing home event in 2016.
The Indi MP previously refused to tell her version of what occurred, but told Wangaratta County Court on Tuesday she saw Mrs Mirabella place her hands on the chest of Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt.
She said the “difficult situation” occurred when she asked for a photo with the minister at the opening of the Cooinda nursing home’s new wing.
“Mrs Mirabella didn’t want the photo taken, put her hands up to stop it happening, impeded it from happening. It was a very embarrassing situation,” Mrs McGowan said.
“She put her hands on his chest to stop him moving towards the plaque.”
Mrs Mirabella could be seen shaking her head as she heard the evidence.
She is suing the Benalla Ensign for defamation over allegations of a push.
Barrister Georgina Schoff said the story contradicted the evidence of Mr Wyatt, who had said he was not near Ms McGowan when Mrs Mirabella put her hands on his chest.
Ms McGowan said it was true the Benalla Ensign article, which claimed Mrs Mirabella pushed her, was factually incorrect.
“The push was true, it just wasn’t me who was pushed,” she said.
“Minister Ken Wyatt was pushed … in a very public way, that was true.”
She said she refused to comment on the push during the live Sky News television event the night after the story came out, or in response to other media inquiries, because she “was aware of the enormity” of revealing she saw Mrs Mirabella push a minister.
“I in all honesty just could not do that to Ken, to Cooinda, to my community,” she said.
Ms Schoff said Ms McGowan walked up face to face with Mrs Mirabella during the Sky News broadcast to “take political advantage of this story”.
“You knew quite well the audience would think ‘is Mrs Mirabella going to push Ms McGowan,” she said.
Ms McGowan said this was “absolutely not” true.
Journalist Libby Price claimed at the time the MP was her first source for the story and had said Mrs Mirabella “pushed in” to prevent the photo.
“I certainly spoke to Libby Price and I can’t, in any way shape or form, remember saying that. I’d be surprised if I said that,” Ms McGowan told the court.
She said she spoke to the journalist on the night of the incident and told her “an altercation happened, I don’t want to talk about it, can I leave it at that?”.
Ms McGowan did not contact Ms Price after the story was printed.
“I did not think it was my responsibility as a candidate to be monitoring the accuracy of the media in the North East electorate,” she said.
She said she did not believe Mrs Mirabella’s reputation had been damaged by the story.
Ms Schott told the court an article in The Guardian claimed Mrs Mirabella “aggressively blocked” a photo opportunity.
“You said that Mrs Mirabella’s conduct had been aggressive, rude and disrespectful,” she said.
Ms McGowan said she did not recall, but could not deny, doing the interview however she agreed with the words.
Ms Schoff said a tweet from the MP’s account after the social media reaction to the Ensign story reminded people to “be your best selves”.
“You were well aware of the vitriolic tweets by your supporters,” she said.
“Well that’s a long bow,” Ms McGowan replied.
She said the call for people to be their best selves was a catch cry of her campaign because trolls were vocal throughout the whole election.
Accusations left tearful Sophie shattered
In more than a decade in the public spotlight, Greg Mirabella had never seen a false story printed like the now infamous “push” article in the Benalla Ensign.
He and wife Sophie learned to become used to media attention during her time as the Indi MP, but the morning they first read the story was far more shocking.
“Sophie just broke down, she wept, she just put her head on my chest and wept,” Mr Mirabella told Wangaratta County Court on Tuesday.
“When Sophie came home that night, she was shattered, she barely slept.”
Mrs Mirabella always had a reputation as a politician who got things done, but one day their eight-year-old daughter came home and shared something her friend told her at school.
She said her friend’s mother had called Mrs Mirabella a “bitch” because “mummy punches people”.
Mr Mirabella told the court he had never shared this story with his wife before and she could be seen in tears hearing it for the first time.
He said she was worried the story would tarnish her legacy and she again had trouble sleeping in the weeks leading to this court case, becoming a “Netflix addict”.
Liberal Party field officer in 2016 Karen Rourke was the first to ask Benalla Ensign editor Libby Price to retract the story and questioned why Mrs Mirabella was not given a right of reply.
“She just said to me ‘well she would have denied it anyway’ and I said that was unacceptable,” Mrs Rourke said.
“(Mrs Mirabella) was distraught, she wasn’t even that upset when she lost the election.
“Her first thought was ‘my kids go to school here, what’s going to happen to them?’”
The story spread further than Indi when Margo Kingston, founder of citizen journalism site No Fibs, tweeted the link to thousands of followers.
Mrs Rourke said she was wary of Ms Kingston’s journalistic integrity because she had been seen wearing an orange “I’m with Cathy” T-shirt, which appeared to support Ms McGowan’s campaign.
Mrs Mirabella subsequently tweeted her denial of the push.
The case continues.