Cathy McGowan, Sophie Mirabella, and Indi

For the first time in her Federal career Sophie Mirabella has faced a serious challenge to her control of the seat of Indi. It’s provoked a bit of national media attention and some mirth.

Skeletons... she has a few.

Skeletons… Sophie Mirabella has a few.

I grew up in Indi, I live in Indi, and back when I still believed in the possibility of reform through the electoral process, I campaigned in Indi.

Initially I said Cathy McGowan doesn’t stand a snowflakes chance in hell of winning in Indi.

McGowan has an energised campaign, but it’s an energised campaign of traditionally labour, Greens and soft left independent voters. Alan Lappin for instances polled nearly 6% in 2010. Mirabella won with 52% of the primary.

It doesn’t matter how much the soft left is energised in Indi, Sophie Mirabella polls a clear majority in her own right.

And she polls like that despite being widely disliked. Her performance inside and outside the parliament is often considered unbecoming. There is the receipt of large donations from big tobacco (whilst engaged in these negotiations) and just a general dislike of people who come across as “a bit too big city”, it all plays against her.

The conservative majority vote for her even if they don’t particularly love her.

On the surface, I’d write Cathy McGowan off. But before you do, have a look at this, the 2010 results for the state seat of Benambra (emphasis added):

O’CONNOR, Jennifer Greens 3658 11.09%
TILLEY, Bill Liberal 18424 55.86%
MACAULAY, Haden CA 2241 6.79%
CAVEDON, Robert FAMILY FIRST 1125 3.41%
WILLIAMS, John ALP 7537 22.85%

Contrast them with the 2006 results for Benambra (emphasis added):

MAHOOD, Lisa ALP 10358 32.97%
ROBINSON, Helen Judith Greens 2109 6.71%
BAXTER, Bill Nationals 5680 18.08%
CORBOY, Martin FAMILY FIRST 842 2.68%
PEARCE, Shane 296 0.94%
TILLEY, Bill Liberal 12135 38.62%

And then there is Benella:

CORDNER HUNT, Kammy Greens 2756 8.28%
HUNT, Rochelle CA 2546 7.65%
ALLEN, Rowena ALP 6124 18.39%
WILLIAMS, Nicholas 804 2.41%
SYKES, Bill Nationals 21072 63.28%

Indi is a conservative seat, but it’s Benambra that keeps Indi Liberal rather than National.

And even within Benambra there are a solid minority who would rather be represented by a National.

For the Greens and for Labor this is of little significance. But it shows how Cathy McGowan could win, if she can bridge the sectional interests of people who would rather a National, and the soft left who would vote for anyone who wasn’t Sophie Mirabella.

It’s a delicate act of positioning. She has to appear National enough in one corner if the total non-Sophie vote is to go below 50%, but left enough to ensure she outpolls Labor on primaries and has a chance on preferences.

The result are positions like these:

Q: Did you agree with the commonwealth government intervening to stop Alpine cattle grazing?
Again about me agreeing about things. In those very controversial issues it’s not matter of me agreeing, it’s saying there’s complexity of views about that particular issue. And when I’ve been speaking to the cattle people, and I’ve been speaking to some very strong environmentalists, I’m saying let’s wait and see what happens with the government and then my role is to represent your views. And I understand the complexity and my job will be to work with you to make sure the government of the day hears your views. I’ve had great admiration for the way members of parliament like Bill Sykes, who’s the member for Benalla, has been working with his community on these things.”

It’s evasion Kevin Rudd would be proud of!

In terms of her electability, I learned two things today that are politically more significant than the strong support she is receiving from Labour and the Greens.

The publican at the Dederang pub has endorsed her. The Dederang Pub has had something of a “no politics” rule for over thirty years. Dederang is politically conservative dairy and beef country located in the Kiewa Valley. Cathy Mcgowan signs now dot the Kiewa Valley Highway.

She went for a walk with Ken Jasper. (I’ve also heard rumours of a walk with Bill Sykes at the sale yards in Wangaratta, but I can’t get this confirmed).

Endorsements are subtle in a community like this, but it’s a powerful signal.

She could win. Just. Maybe. Unlikely. But still.

A few final comments.

  • The anti-Sophie campaign that has played out online actually plays in Sophie’s favour. She might be an outsider in terms of this electorate, but compared to the left of the big cities, Sophie is “one of us”. Rural communities might express their disapproval of one of their own, but if they see one of their own under attack by outsiders, they close ranks. Doesn’t matter how much they dislike that person.

    If the internet ridicule of Sophie was well known amongst the small “c” conservative support McGowan is trying to split from the Liberals, they would close ranks behind Sophie.

  • I don’t hold out great hopes for Cathy McGowan politically. The overt appeal to a bit of pork barrelling sits uneasily for me, and the kind of politics she will have to play in order to get elected and stay elected in Indi should disgust anyone who’s enamoured with her from the left. She would not be able to win or hold this seat without functioning as a conservative MP.
  • Irrespective of my dislike for McGowan’s politics, it would be interesting and politically significant (in terms of the future of rural Australian politics) if someone like Sophie Mirabella was unseated by someone like Cathy McGowan.
  • In terms of capitalism, if Independents in the style of Peter Andren, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakshott do eventually wrest control of regional areas from the Liberal and National parties, it could might have disruptive effects for coal and gas exploration. The interests of the agricultural petit bourgeoisie do not align with the mining industry.
  • In this vein it’s interesting to see how much the Nationals campaign highlights repealing the so-called mining tax. I would have thought they would skirt that issue, considering how the Greens have been trying to use the impact of coal and gas development to develop political links with the Nationals traditional support base amongst small agricultural capital.

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