As someone who grew up in Sophie Mirabella’s seat of Indi and still has strong connections to the area, I’ve been bemused by some of the uninformed online commentary surrounding her possible demise.
Despite the plethora of information available, this weekend a small cohort of prominent feminists dismissed independent candidate Cathy McGowan as someone who does not warrant the praise she has garnered from her electorate whilst simultaneously bemoaning what a sexist country we live in because a few people were mean to Mirabella on Twitter.
This poor application of feminist theory needs to be stopped in its tracks.
To properly understand people’s reaction to the possibility of Mirabella losing her seat, it’s necessary to understand the politics of Indi, its people, and the history of both candidates.
Indi covers a large part of eastern Victoria.
Its people pride themselves on their community spirit. They volunteer in their local schools and clubs, charities and churches, and they stand beside each other when the bushfires rush through every couple of years and then do it all over again in times of drought.
They see themselves as stoic, hard-working and dignified; qualities they believe stretch back to the area’s pioneers and traditions of the High Country stockmen.
Before Mirabella, Indi had never had a politician parachuted into the area. Nevertheless, Mirabella romped home at the 2001 election thanks to being gifted a safe Liberal seat. But the people of Indi were expecting something in return. They assumed Mirabella would pitch in and become a part of the community. She never made the effort.
Stories abound of Mirabella being rude and dismissive of the people who approached her.
She was often late to meetings or cancelled. She was barely in the area or if she was, she didn’t make much effort to let her presence be known.
She disappointed many when a deal she helped finalise saw local tobacco farmers who had lost their livelihoods receive less compensation than they should have. Rightly or wrongly, that disappointment turned to suspicion when it was revealed that Mirabella’s electoral fund had received a $15,000 donation from the same big tobacco company involved in the deal.
So why did people keep voting for her?
Part of the explanation goes to the culture of the area. Not only is Indi conservative it’s also traditional. Indi people believe in loyalty.
They stand behind the party they believe will stand behind them. However, that loyalty will only stretch so far.
The lack of funding for local hospitals and doctors was reaching breaking point.
Public transport connecting small towns to rural cities was inadequate. The train line upgrade between Wodonga and Melbourne has been an unmitigated disaster.
And where was Sophie? Sophie was on every television and radio show she could manage, declaring her party would stop the boats.
Stopping boats doesn’t mean much to people who live 2000 kms from the mouth of the Murray River. Not too many Indonesian fishing trawlers are making it up that far.
For the last two elections I’ve listened to people morosely tell me they have to vote for Sophie because there’s no-one else. They don’t trust the other candidates because they are either too left-wing for comfort or more often, they are completely unknown. It was safer to stick with what they knew. The ALP has never put meaningful funds into Indi because they saw it as a lost cause and if the ALP couldn’t compete, there was little hope for unsupported and unknown independents.
Cathy McGowan changed all that.
McGowan already had a positive reputation when Voice for Indi started. She grew up in the area, had worked in rural communities all over Indi for many years, came from a large Wangaratta-based family and had the support of many influential locals.
She was also positive, approachable and friendly. The final nail in Mirabella’s coffin may be that where Mirabella had nothing but party slogans, McGowan and her team had a plan for Indi’s future.
No doubt McGowan’s extraordinary team will see professional campaigners all over the country look to the work of Voice for Indi to learn from them but credit also has to go to McGowan herself. She is intelligent, articulate and has a deep understanding of the electorate. She is also, in line with people such as Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan, Bruce Baird and Tony Windsor, known as a conservative who believes in social justice.
The electorate was buzzing with excitement for months in the lead up to the election.
The idea of Indi returning to the values it sees in itself – community spirit and respect for each other, a focus on the needs of the local people – were reflected in the Voice for Indi campaign. Mirabella was caught flat-footed. It was way too late to try to connect with the communities she had ignored for over a decade.
As the votes are counted and it looks like McGowan may possibly win, the people of Indi have taken to social media to celebrate. There’s a palpable anger behind some of the comments and some harsh things have been said of Mirabella.
But contrary to the proclamations on the weekend, that anger is not rooted in sexism.
To say that the response to Mirabella is unique because she is a woman is not only incorrect, it overlooks the vitriol expressed when unpopular male politicians lose their seats, such as John Howard to Maxine McKew. It also overlooks the cruel delight many took in the demise of Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson.
It is also snobbish to assume, as claimed, that those who are celebrating the idea of a Mirabella loss are predominantly inner-city lefties and not locals and those connected to the area. Country people use social media, too.
We cannot declare sexism every time a woman is stridently criticised, especially if we do not first put all the relevant factors in context.
Mirabella is an awful local member.
She is not some sort of Annie-Get-Your-Gun feisty gal-hero fighting against the patriarchy. She is a politician who has shown incredible disdain for her constituents and has not represented them effectively. People are angry about that.
Crying sexism in this particular situation not only undermines feminism’s credibility, it undermines everything the McGowan has achieved. It also creates an unfair portrayal of the people of Indi, and elevates Mirabella to the thoroughly undeserved position of virtuous victim.
McGowan ran an incredible campaign in the face of a formidable opponent who was only to happy to allow others to deceptively paint McGowan as incompetent and a puppet candidate.
Feminists should be focussing on that.
MORE ARTICLES BY CORINNE GRANT ON THE HOOPLA
*Corinne Grant is a stand-up comedian, MC, presenter, writer and broadcaster and has performed both nationally and internationally. In addition to her years on Rove Live and The Glasshouse, she has appeared on everything from Spicks and Specks to Dancing With The Stars to Good News Week. She has co-hosted successful national radio shows, performed countless solo live shows and appeared everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to the Kalgoorlie Arts Centre. Corinne’s first book, Lessons In Letting Go: Confessions of a Hoarder (Allen and Unwin) was released in September 2010 and went into reprint just months after its release. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_grant.