Mirabella came from student politics, which relies on disengagement from an intelligent electorate. You can get elected to a student representative body with as few as fifty votes - I've done it myself, and so did Sophie Panopoulos (as she was then), especially with a well-known political brand behind you. Basically, if you really want a job that few others want, and work at convincing a small number of others that you're serious, chances are you'll get the votes. Then, you'll find yourself among the small number of others who want to lord it over the refectory, and over grants to clubs and societies.
The main criticism with student politics, particularly among people who have taken other routes into state or national politics, is that it teaches practitioners to fight intensely for issues and baubles that don't really count for much. Worse, it doesn't really teach bridge-building or the necessary skills to marshal broad support for a particular issue, particularly with people who will support you on no other issue. Local government might teach you that, so might NGOs, or perhaps getting involved in a union/professional association - but not student politics. Learning how to distinguish the various flavours of marxist and then fight (for or against) them is both a absorbing pastime on campus and utterly useless beyond it.
Sophie Mirabella embodied all of the worst aspects of student politics and none of the best. She learned nothing about building small-c coalitions, but learned how to build a small, tight-knit and ruthlessly committed knot of supporters who could get her anywhere she wanted to go. This was what she took to the monarchist movement in the '90s: she was always kept away from events where people might need persuading, but where there was a little-watched debate against some diffident republicans putting their case as though it were inevitable, she would all but sink her teeth into their ankles and make sure any undecideds left the debate undecided as the republicans limped away. She'd done her homework but those who could match her there were threatening, personally threatening. She got nasty early and had no game plan for those who could stand the heat. People who backed off when she got personal vindicated her self-image as a strong person.
For Mirabella herself, intensity paid dividends. For those who weren't paying attention it was easy to see her as just another hack on the make.
These were the qualities she brought to Indi. This is an electorate with no dominant centre: a few prominent townships of roughly equal size but no central media market. But for the constitutional prohibition on electorates crossing state boundaries it would be focused on Albury. Someone who's big in Wodonga, say, will be unknown in Mansfield, etc. The region is consistently conservative but, curiously for those accustomed to politics-as-bloodsport, apolitical. Politics is practised subtly, indistinguishable from other business and community transactions. In regional communities you simply have to work with others whether you like them or not, and you're going to lead a miserable life if you don't so get along and go along.
Mirabella was used to living a miserable life. She worked in the family business at Laverton and attended St Catherine's at Toorak. She looked down on those who dropped by the business as much as her meaner, narrower schoolmates looked down on her; she realised that business put her through school but not to the point where she made more of an effort into helping the business grow. She was a high-achieving Melbourne Uni law graduate but none of the big firms or corporates would touch her. She graduated about the time Jeff Kennett led the Coalition to government in Victoria, but couldn't get a staffer job. For five years she had a lover whom she couldn't introduce to her family, and whose family disdained her. A compartmentalised electorate where few people swapped notes suited her down to the ground.
Colin Howard believed that Mirabella would be set for life with such a conservative seat. He overestimated her ability to build large but loose alliances rather than small, tight alliances surrounded by moats of hostility. People were either fiercely loyal to Mirabella or they hated her, and over a dozen years the latter came to outnumber the former; certainly more moved from the former to the latter than vice versa. She had, for better or worse, become part of the community she represented. Those who came to feel Mirabella did not, and ought not, represent local communities faced the dilemma of how they could remove her without rending the very conservative fabric that they blamed her for damaging.
Over time her opponents became united and committed while her inner circle rotated in personnel and became fewer, absolutely and relatively to those whose bridges had been burnt from her end. Having your support base small but tight might be good for your own self-definition but it's a lousy way to operate as one who must smooth over local concerns, or bring focus to them.
The staff in her office turned over regularly. Back when the government ran job ads in the papers, jobs in Mirabella's office were advertised frequently. Country people look to government jobs as sources of continuity in a world beset by fluctuations in seasons and market prices. MPs rely on long-serving staff to provide ongoing service and to become experienced readers of community concerns. Turning over staff is a bad look at the best of times, and unproductive, but Mirabella burnt more than just the individuals who worked for her with her flaky demands and ingratitude.
It must have been galling for local campaigners for mental health services to find Mirabella claiming credit for their work. More significant, however, was that such a movement gained sufficient traction to get a meeting with a federal minister without the imprimatur of the local member. Few would have begrudged Mirabella a photo op or a good-news press release had she been part of the campaign. The then-government helped her opponents by bypassing her - a breach of parliamentary protocol in normal circumstances but one of those things that falls away under conditions of total warfare generally, and where you have a particular disdain for the individual opponent in question.
The fact that she wasn't involved, insisting that other issues were more important, is telling. The fact that she's claiming credit for something in which she played no part is a bit sneaky. The belief, however, that she'd get away with it is extraordinary. That's your real indicator of an absence of emotional connection, an understanding that any group in the community who are committed enough to get top-level meetings in Canberra without help from the local member are going to be pissed off if that member decides she's going to snatch all the credit, thanks very much.
A local member needs to build relationships not only with, but among, a local community; particularly in communities that haven't been as atomised and deracinated as many urban and suburban communities have. I don't care whether you've read enough French philosophy to regard that as bourgeois, and to regard that as a bad thing. Which brings us to this.
It fails on two, eminently Razerian levels. First, 'universal' hatred? Really? Like Bashir al-Assad, or whoever wrote Patrick out of Offspring? Second, it misses the point.
Mirabella was never some kick-arse babe whose default pose was a snarl and a raised middle finger and Razer is wrong to portray her as such. Canberra, like other small towns, relies on people at least making an effort to maintain dialog with others in order to get business done. As Shadow Minister for Industry facing a government with which business relations were strained, she would have been a magnet for lobbyists and would have known how to play that game. Consider three basic facts about politics:
- Building bridges is a basic skill of politics; and
- So is holding a safe seat against enemies within and without your party; but
- Last Saturday, quite a number of politicians who were better at building bridges and other basic political skills than Mirabella lost their seats to candidates who didn't work half as hard as Cathy McGowan did; and
- At an election where most electorates swung toward the Coalition, those that swung away sure are worth examining; and
- Politics is tough. Everyone learns on the job to some extent, but basic lessons should have been learned long before your name is called out by a returning officer. Nobody who's been in the game for as long as Mirabella has can claim any excuse, and nobody who's been as pitiless as she has gets a break (unless, like Helen Razer, you haven't been paying attention). Mirabella is like the football player who drops the ball with seconds to go in a tight game - 'universally hated' for a while perhaps, but suck it up because that's how you earn the tall dollars: it's all part of the game.
Last year Fenella Souter from Fairfax rang me about my previous post on Mirabella, in preparation for a piece on her in The Good Weekend. She said that she had met Mirabella and found her "perfectly nice", and wondered how anyone could find her otherwise. I gave her some examples, and how she resorts to that early on in an argument (or even an idle chat) rather than as a last resort, when pushed to the edge. I talked about the points listed above, and what I'd hope for from a member of parliament let alone a prospective Cabinet Minister. She paused and reiterated: "Yes but she was perfectly nice, I just don't understand ...", and I thought: she has retained just enough of that St Catherine's polish to put one over you.
Razer says that Mirabella is no worse than Cory Bernardi, and that's probably fair. The difference is that Bernardi made it to State President of the Liberal Party (in South Australia) and retains enough support there to lead the party's Senate ticket in that state. Mirabella has no real clout on the Victorian Liberal executive - again, we go to questions of political skill and competence here.
To divert for a moment, SA also shows the state of the modern Liberal Party. That state elected two Liberal Senators and also gave 1.8 Senate quotas to Nick Xenophon, whose support base consists largely of moderate liberals. Had extremists like Bernardi and Nick Minchin not preferred a small, tightly-controlled Liberal Party over a genuine 'broad church', the Coalition would have a majority in the Senate and be able to pass whatever legislation it could get away with. Show me a tightly-controlled political party and I'll show you one safe for morons. A looser, cat-herding arrangement brings quality to the fore.
There are two personal issues that Liberals try to drag into the debate over Mirabella, and where they succeed they only make her critics look petty. The first, they insist, is that Mirabella is a loving mother. That may be so, or it may not; either way, it has no bearing on whether or not she should represent a community in parliament.
The second is that all this gloating over Mirabella losing her seat is somehow akin to Liberal attacks on Julia Gillard while she was grieving the death of her father. MPs lose their seats as a verdict of the people on their representation in parliament; Julia Gillard's father was not put to death as a result of his daughter's unpopularity, real or imagined. Even if it were true, and that those who felt nothing for Gillard's grief are now pained at Mirabella's, perhaps we might see a change in the way that politics is practised. I doubt it, but I've been wrong before.
The better parallel is with the ALP's drawn-out execution of Belinda Neal, Mirabella's tormentor and sister-from-another-mother in many respects. Even better: the rolling of the then Sophie Panopoulos by the Melbourne University Liberal Club. Many of those who turned on her were people she had known and worked with closely. The same would happen as she walks the streets of Wangaratta or Benalla, watching people who had been loyal supporters averting their gaze. Yeah it probably is painful, but the time has come to stop blaming others for her problems and to stop assuming that it is possible to compensate for them.
What now for Mirabella? How ya gonna keep her down at the Wodonga law practice at now that she's seen the Cabinet table (well, almost)?
- The Napthine government won't touch her with a bargepole. Think of all the problems facing that government and consider which ones Mirabella might make better - and there you have her essential problem in a nutshell. She might get a job writing a report for them or for an employer organisation, but only if she does so from outside the office - you wouldn't want her monstering the admin staff and junior researchers.
- Abbott needs to reward Mirabella, not as some sort of favour but to show his new government that he will not leave them in the cold should they stumble. It's true that I don't think highly of Abbott or Mirabella, but if Abbott starts disparaging her or gives her nothing despite decades of loyal support, then he is a damned swine on top of everything else and his own team will rightly start to disengage from him. It's not at all impossible to envisage Mirabella in Sydney again, doing this or that with and for "Tony" and "Bronwyn"; she owes them so much and they need to be seen to be returning the favour.
She shares that failing with more people in politics than you might imagine. The tightly-controlled, 'disciplined' model of politics is designed for people slightly less dysfunctional than Mirabella, and slightly less talented in many respects. What lessons will those people learn from the demise of Sophie Mirabella, if any? Sophie who? Wasn't she one of those women from the Gillard era?