Liberals of my generation were convinced of two things, apart from our own special brilliance. Firstly, that the Fraser government had failed so utterly that the Liberal Party could and should be recreated from scratch. People who revere John Howard and regard the Liberal Party as something he invented and shaped in his own image have a bad case of this. I remember one debate supporting pokies as "voluntary taxation", not just focusing on the revenue stream that would enable other taxes to be cut but also the very idea of non-compulsion in the collection thereof.
The second thing of which we were utterly convinced is that being a staffer offered an apprenticeship to modern politics that was quicker and more comprehensive than building a community profile over decades and then eventually convincing that community that you should represent it in the hallowed halls.
Panopolous was briefly a staffer in the NSW government, as was I; she ended up working in a cafe soon after moving from Melbourne to take up the role, as I was told by someone who enjoyed her change of employment more than I did. I went to that cafe and while she refused to take my order, she plonked down the coffee so that it splashed me. "Sorr-ee", she said, and it's the last time I saw her. Yes, it was years ago, but I still don't remember having done anything to her to deserve that. Those who did deserve an apology, members of the Stolen Generation, were denied one from Sophie when she boycotted the House on that memorable day in 2008 on utterly bogus grounds.
I noticed that she missed out on becoming a staffer when Howard came to office, and apparently she had never been a staffer in the Kennett government. It's one thing to admire her, as many conservatives did from a distance, but it's quite another to have her in one's office, berating the receptionist and patronising public servants. Her peers, like Tony Smith and Mitch Fifield, got those jobs. Even people who were freshers in Liberal student politics when she was la grande dame, like Josh Frydenberg and Kelly O'Dwyer, got those jobs.
It never occurred to me that Sophie Panopoulos would make it as a Liberal MP in Victoria. I assumed she would just be preference fodder for vacuous box-ticker candidates like Tony Smith, and then go on to be some sort of backroom player in that state. I should have known better: both Bronwyn Bishop and David Clarke in NSW offered nothing besides the talent to make other people confuse her sheer rage and inadequacy with energy and depth. I expected her to become a spokesperson - like Melinda Tankard Reist, the sort of person who'd start off with a good cause but whose lack of discipline in the face of a media whirlwind would see her branch out into the bat-shit apocalyptic, or even someone who started there like tobacco gobshites.
It's the "should have known better" that explains why moderate and other Liberals at the time let such a person slip through a selection process that should be more rigorous at vetting people. Not only that, but having beaten such a system makes perpetrators scorn it, in the same way that Groucho Marx jokingly didn't want to join a club that would have him as a member.
Anyway, make it she did and out came the attack-dog lines, hoping to give her opinions an intensity that they lacked in integrity: Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan as "terrorists", Gillard as Gaddafi, blah blah blah.
The only way you could have any sympathy for such a person is for her to be attacked by Belinda Neal, less an opposite than a mirror image on the House benches. The same slightly questionable use of personal relationships to get the mentoring that young men apparently get more readily. The same hatchet faces and repellent personalities, except to those who must be charmed: kiss the hand you cannot bite. As Labor politics might have given Neal a veneer of compassion for the downtrodden, so in conservative politics Panopoulos might have sought some appearance of status and class from defending the monarchy, the Bush Administration, the Howard government, etc.
I have no idea what the truth is in this or that. Those issues are yet to play out in court and other forums and none of what appears here should indicate any opinion one way or another on issues that have nothing to do with me really. I have noted the division between those who can help Sophie and those who can't; I note the arc by which one person started off as powerful and helpful to Sophie and who over time became less powerful and helpful to her.
Like US politician Newt Gingrich, Panopoulos/Mirabella spends so much time with mouth-breathers that she is regarded, and regards herself, as intelligent to the point of genius. I remember seeing the video from which this image was taken:
Never before or since have I seen her look so utterly calm and in control. That was the moment she truly arrived. I have no idea whether or not it was the happiest day of her life, but surely it must be close. Surrounded by nongs and imbeciles, she was beatific: I half-expected her to do that air-scooping wave that the Queen does.
Part of the problem with the intensity over-intellect approach is that you're going to lose it at the wrong moment. That's what happened when she got chucked out of the House at the most crucial juncture of her career. She's a member of shadow cabinet in a hung parliament; had the carbon price votes gone the other way she could well have become a Cabinet Minister with billions of taxpayer dollars at her disposal. Now, she got sent off at a point where her side was miles in front but her opponents were starting to catch up. In sport, players who do that become known as pikers and are spoken ill of for decades.
One of the 20-or-so bills passed as part of the carbon price was to transform the steel industry. The Leader of the Opposition made a point of touring steelworks as part of his campaign to drum up opposition to the whole carbon
The whole scope of Australian industry is pretty broad and even a committed person would struggle to identify how exactly the carbon mechanism will affect it. So, Mirabella falls short of lofty expectations - but is it really that lofty to expect the Shadow Minister to produce something more than press releases? You can criticise Abbott for saying no, no, no all the time - I certainly do - but in the absence of solid backup by someone with nothing better to do than provide it, the guy has to say something.
Let's go to a policy issue squarely within her scope and competence. When I knew Sophie Panopoulos she was big on voluntary student unionism (VSU). She was a MP in 2005 when the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Bill 2005 was passed, and spoke glowingly of it. She might not have been a prime mover behind that legislation but she was entitled to be proud of it in a way that pollies do when one of their big causes gets enacted. When that was reversed she was suspended from Parliament - in a hung parliament, where her persuasive skills might have seen this achievement retained.
When she was chucked out Peter Slipper was in the chair. Slipper has never been the Coalition's poster-boy and is much, much less so now. It's one thing to disrespect such a man and to play to your pals who all disdain him too: but in an environment where so much is at stake, where the Liberal Party expects that every man and woman will do his/her duty, a senior frontbencher should have enough discipline to keep the focus on the main game. Note how Jamie Briggs was slapped down for expressing an opinion, and contrast it with Abbott's apparent indulgence of Mirabella dropping the ball on the try line.
Tony Abbott will not get rid of Mirabella. Others tear down wacky right-whingers; he builds them up and defends them no matter what. It is likely that the next leader of the Liberal Party will give her a spell in the back paddocks, but Abbott will stick by her to the death. If he really had to get rid of her, if her public image became so bad that it affected Lib polling and the backroom boys began to lobby him to get rid of her, it would be the sort of thing that would make Abbott wring his hands. This isn't because Mirabella commands some vast number of votes - she'd influence no vote in Canberra beyond her own. On the other hand, he'd have doubts it for the rest of his life - and this is a guy who just doesn't do self-doubt and examination.
Indi (Mirabella's electorate) is within the Murray-Darling basin. If Tony Burke and Craig Knowles aren't all over that electorate they have really lost their touch. This isn't to say that Labor can win Indi, though stranger things have happened. They do have a once-in-a-generation chance to mess with the heads of a political opponent who has given them so much grief, in that opponent's heartland, at a time of hung parliament - and if they pass it up Labor activists will be right to disown them.
The Liberals of Indi took her on the basis that she was a go-getter and someone with a future. Having your local member in Cabinet is no small thing for any rural community. There must be some doubt as to whether they'll get there with the incumbent; I bet Panopoulos/Mirabella has burnt so many bridges with local Libs that she'd now be up for some sort of levy in that legislation passed today. Is there a Liberal preselection candidate in Indi (or moving there soon) who could knock her off? Will there be an exception to the Thou Shalt Not Knock Off A Sitting Member rule made for our Soph - and if so, is there a Wangaratta Windsor or a Benalla Katter who can win an election without having a party behind him/her? Do the Victorian Libs want to put another jewel-in-the-crown in play by hanging onto her?
Mirabella is, however, representative of a generation in the Victorian Libs who have been around long enough to appear on the public stage and make a few errors but not long enough to get the big jobs and make the big decisions: Tony Smith is bored bored bored but has not proven himself successful at anything since he learned how Peter Costello likes his coffee. Greg Hunt has put in so much work defending the indefensible that he will find it hard to rebuild any sort of credibility. Mitch Fifield is going the way of Chris Pyne or Michael Ronaldson, a politician of no achievement besides getting himself re-elected. These people were going to run the entire Liberal Party, and with it the country: now, they are just going to watch the demise of one of their own (oh yes) with a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God helplessness.
The rise and fall of Sophie Panopoulos Mirabella MP involves more than just one person and those who care about her, who have watched her go από την ύβρη προς Νέμεσις in such a short time. It involves the death of several big ideas:
- that you have to be accepted for the front you present to the world;
- that you accrue class and status for yourself by defending those with class and status;
- that you can reshape the Liberal Party and the country any damn way you please, and that anyone who doesn't like it can just piss off;
- that intensity makes up where integrity falls short; and
- that ferocity conquers all.
When you're like her, as many Liberals are, you can't self-examine and apologise without unravelling. If you thought the unhinging was bad, just you wait for the unravelling.