In a piquant postscript to Australia’s federal election, the nation’s “nastiest politician” is on the verge of being ousted by a sheep farmer whose campaign was inspired by the TV series The West Wing.
Postal and absentee votes are still being counted in the seat of Indi, in northern Victoria, held by Sophie Mirabella, a close colleague of the Prime Minister-elect, Tony Abbott, for the past 12 years. But, with the gap widening between her and Cathy McGowan, an independent, defeat seems almost certain for the famously abrasive MP.
In a development worthy of a TV thriller, Ms McGowan’s outlook brightened considerably following the discovery this week of more than 1,000 misplaced ballot papers, all favouring her. Today Ms Mirabella, who was set to become Mr Abbott’s industry minister, ruled herself out of a cabinet position – effectively an admission of defeat.
The knife-edge contest in what was regarded as safe Liberal territory has been watched with barely disguised pleasure by the 44-year-old’s enemies, including members of her own party. Ms Mirabella was labelled Australia’s “nastiest” MP recently by a retiring independent, Tony Windsor, one of the most respected members of the last parliament.
The stories about her are legion. Denouncing the former Labor government’s carbon tax, Ms Mirabella claimed Julia Gillard was as “delusional” as the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
A former lawyer, Ms Mirabella can be just as venomous towards her own colleagues. She told a veteran Liberal senator, Bill Heffernan, to “go and pop your Alzheimer’s pills” and called Malcolm Fraser, a former Liberal Prime Minister, a “frothing-at-the-mouth leftie” for criticising the “war on terror”. She accused four Liberals who opposed mandatory detention for asylum-seekers of “behaving like political terrorists”.
Ms McGowan’s campaign was masterminded by a local farmer, Phil Haines, who told ABC radio that his only political experience was gleaned from watching The West Wing. Nonetheless, he and others raised nearly A$125,000 (£73,209) from more than 1,000 small donors. On election day, 650 volunteers handed out leaflets at polling stations across Indi.
Grassroots activities such as door-knocking and community events were supplemented by an energetic social media campaign run by Ms McGowan’s younger relatives. The 58-year-old was also endorsed by a well-regarded former Victoria National Party MP, Ken Jasper – despite the Nationals being the junior partners in Mr Abbott’s conservative coalition.
Ms Mirabella – who shot to prominence as an outspoken monarchist in the run-up to an unsuccessful referendum in 1999 on an Australian republic – is a socially conservative right-winger. She believes in low taxes and low government spending. She has called for a ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves at school.
In her own words
On the carbon tax: “If Ms Gillard believes Australians want to pay higher electricity and higher petrol prices, she is as deluded as Colonel ‘my people love me’ Gaddafi.”
Of MPs who opposed detention for asylum-seekers: “If you spit the dummy because the vast majority of the people in your party won’t agree with you, and you in effect behave as a political terrorist, well, I think you lose credibility.”
Of Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children: “Many children in the past had been removed for their own protection … This hastily put together apology will be divisive for Australia.”
Addressing the Liberal senator Bill Heffernan: “Oh, why don’t you go and pop your Alzheimer’s pills?”