15 September 2013

The student who never learned

Sophie Mirabella, mirabile dictu, has lost her seat on the very cusp of becoming a Cabinet Minister. I've noticed that my previous post about her has received quite a lot of traffic since Cathy McGowan announced her nomination for Indi, but is that the limit of the significance of that event? I think it shows the limits of a model of politics that has passed its peak without a new model to replace it being readily available and replicable.

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:
  1. Building bridges is a basic skill of politics; and
  2. So is holding a safe seat against enemies within and without your party; but
  3. 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
  4. At an election where most electorates swung toward the Coalition, those that swung away sure are worth examining; and
  5. 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.
Naomi Parry is right when she points out that Mirabella was first elected in 2001 with 62% of the vote, and that was whittled down to under 49% by a succession of female candidates like Zuvele Leschen, Jenny O'Connor, Robyn Walsh, and McGowan herself. The history of the Liberal Party is replete with strong, powerful women like Ivy Wedgwood, Margaret Guilfoyle, Rachel Cleland, and Beryl Beaurepaire - Mirabella could have learned from them and built on their achievements, but it's too late for that now. Here we get into questions about whether female candidates are seen to/portray themselves as better bridge-builders and networkers than males, and questions of agency in a patriarchal context, and - look, I don't know why you even come to this site for that because I have to go elsewhere to get across it.

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.
Does this mean Mirabella's failure and dysfunction has "broken the business model" of student pols and their disengagement-dependent methodology to national politics? Hardly. In a month or so we could well end up with each of the incumbent and alternative prime ministers being a student politics veteran from Sydney Uni named Anthony. Mirabella has only been 'robbed' of what was 'rightfully' hers if you have no respect for her agency or that of voters in response. She's a clever person in many respects but not in terms of how to deal with people, and what they want from government.

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?


  1. While we're on the subject of dysfunctional Victorian Liberals, what's the deal with letting Kroger out? Is it the same deal as with Peter Reith?

  2. Wow! Great piece of writing Andrew. Interesting insights that help explain why it is so. Some salient lessons for other student politicians aiming for the big house but are wet behind the ears from student politics. Thanks for the analysis.

    1. Anon, I'm sure no one *aims* for the Big House, although some pollies may end up there.

  3. What now for Mirabella?

    I said to my partner yesterday, she'll probably get Steve Bracks' job.

  4. Surely describing someone as "no worse than Cory Bernardi" is akin to saying "no denser than depleted uranium"?

  5. I suspect you could drill down to the current imbroglio at Wangaratta Council in which Ms Mirabella and her husband have been involved to find even more examples of what not to do in local politics.

    1. Bonnie has taken a direct hit. Interesting to see how Clyde responds

    2. Victorian Local Government Minister has just sacked the Council, on the basis of a report into its governance delivered before the Federal election campaign began in earnest.

  6. Now, to be fair to Helen Razer, she is very, very good at knocking down straw men. You must give her that.

    1. Definitely. I liked the way that she roped me into her piece by telling me what I do and should think.

  7. I bow to your knowledge of student politics Andrew, but I do have a slight acquaintance of it now due to my daughter and her friend running successfully for positions in their university last year. Their idealism and intention to fight for what they believe to be a better way of doing things is obvious. It appears to me, also, that the Liberal faction in the Student union are very different. So while it's absolutely true that my daughter and her friend will have some of their edges knocked off on the way to adulthood and will probably gain some bitterness and pragmatism along the way, I perceive their young Liberal counterparts as being all about Realpolitik and running interference and destroying from the very start. This is the matrix from which Mirabella would have sprung.

  8. Tim Wilson from the I.P.A is from student politics as well..

    Watch that network unfold in the years to come.

    Spot on analysis of student political hacks.

    Jason Yat Sen Li et al are another breed thats outside of that mould!

    Thats a better alternative and theyre smarter.

    Take a bow sir!!

    1. I think Li is one out of the box, but still say that the disengagement model of student politics can't last.

  9. Andrew...you forgot something else.

    Shes a first generation migrat withan ethnuc chip on her shoulder.

    Obama isnt like that at all..why?

    He was cool at Uni and worked at a grassroots level in Chicago before he went into Law.

    He was a leader and editor of the law review who gained respect from all students on campus.

    Mirabella and others don't have that at all

  10. One last thing...

    The Greek bourgeiose hate her as well.

  11. This really is a great piece. Not only have you encompassed the core of her problem as a politician, but I also almost felt sympathy for her.

  12. Don't know about her being a good mother, or sympathetic to other mothers - recall the Michelle Rowland sick child, family leave issue earlier this year. Having had first hand contact with her over a number of years she is manipulative, devious, bullying, ungrateful and destructive person. And these are some of the kinder things I can say about her. Interesting that in discussion with many people over the past five or so years on politics and politicians, almost without exception the most disliked person in Federal Parliament is (was) Sophie Mirabella.

    1. No comment on that, other than to say she doesn't deserve the decades of benefit of the doubt between now and when her kids write a Mommie Dearest-style memoir.

  13. I recall an issue about an arts or community festival in the Indi electorate a number of years ago. Apparently Mirabella was offended by not being consulted or her views on how things should be run were not shared by the management of the festival. My recollection is that she used her influence to have the organiser/manager replaced. The new manager was her husband, Greg, who had had no previous involvement or interest in the festival. The salary for the position as I recall was in excess of $60,000.

    1. Lachlan Ridge17/9/13 2:20 am

      Wangaratta Jazz Festival. Mirabella's staffer was the president. A great little community run festival in 2006 went all corporate with the appropriate blandness ensuing. Luckily the sane people around McGowan have control of it again and it is no longer a sausage factory for Mr Mirabella.

      I wonder if Mic Conway had Sophie in mind when he wrote Wangaratta Wahine?

  14. I loved this piece - especially the bit about tobacco farmers

  15. Andrew, you've almost made me feel some empathy with Mirabella. Brilliant writing!

  16. Sophie to put it bluntly is a privileged bigot...

    We have a bloody African American president for goodness sake.

    The next generation of leaders are studying him at all the elite schools....

    For fucks sake...how long can this conservative b.s last??

    Its embarrasing to our reputation to have idiots like Mirabella et al in there at all.

    My student politic recollection is the young liberals that only liked upper middle class Jews only...the rest they despised for some reason

    A bunch of shallow creeps that were disfunctional.

    Self hating in nature...sad really

    Great blog Sir...take another bow!

  17. The Border Mail is one of the media organisations that can hold its head high on the competence of their electoral coverage.

    Although Fairfax owned, you would never know it from an editorial point of view. Apart from a few spelling and grammatical clangers, I'm proud to have it as my "daily".

  18. Probably not, Lachlan. I think the song's older than she is. Still, it's a nice thought.

  19. Sophie also personifies having the worst aspects from both of her cultures

    Being Greek and Australian

    The smoking, foul mouthed and agressive traits from University and her professional conduct over the years demonstrate these characteristics from Bogan Australia.

    I saw her with her child in public and she was with a young woman who was a complete bogan and her assistant..

    I was shocked that a parliamentarian would keep such company with her child....

    Now it all makes sense..

    The ethnocentric and religious conservatism of her Hellenic culture were the ugly traits of being Greek....especially her wedding day..

    Journalists in this country never engage in a thorough sociologically analysis when they write on any individual in the public eye.

    Children of migrants always turn it on for the establishment especially the media..

    They need a sense of approval and acceptance from an Anglo Australian establishment to overide their own inferiority complex..

    With Princess Sophie, she takes this to an extreme and the niceties are hiding a nasty character behind the mask.

    They overcompensate by becoming more bigoted and extreme to win their acceptance and approval...

    Narcissism sets in and a political animal emerges.

  20. Thank you a well wrought piece of analysis to brighten my morning. However, 'She said that she had met Mirabella and found her "perfectly nice"' made me sit up. I seem to remember when journos were hard bitten types who could see through private school polish and a glib tongue. But then I am getting old..........

  21. I'm genuinely sad Razer has pulled the pin on her opinion-writing career over the reaction to that article. Her voice will be missed in our public discourse. I often enjoyed her contrarian thinking, even if she seemed at times too gleefully vicious in her evisceration of easy targets on the left.

    But I'm not surprised that there was ultimately no joy or profit in her approach.

    That Mirabella piece was written to formula: construct a stance that opposes the broader left-feminist response, mock the hipsters and the trust-fund campus activists and offend as many other ideological allies as possible.

    And in this case the bit missing from her analysis was indeed ideology: Mirabella is not hated because she is a woman, she is hated for her laziness and her loathsome views. She was rejected by the electorate because she served them poorly, and because she was taken on by a savvy campaigner with strong networks in the community.

    And in another familiar tactic, Razer has toned down her stance in a subsequent blog post. She tells us that what she was /really/ doing when she was insulting our intelligence was letting us know that we're indulging in a pointless gesture. Our reaction to Mirabella is just a feel-good moment of solidarity that gives us an illusory sense of change.

    Well, maybe there's some truth to that and I admit I will take whatever pleasure I can from this dismal set of circumstances. I would have been just as delighted if it had happened to Pyne or Admiral Morrison or any other member of Abbott's first XV.

    Somehow, though, I don't think the lessons to be learned from Cathy McGowan's campaign will prove to be illusory, nor lost on those contesting other 'safe' rural and inner-urban seats.

  22. Very interesting article. What has happened in Indi is fascinating, and i hope other electorates will take up similar methods to have their voices heard.

    One thing; I want to defend student unions. Ive been involved in student politics and personally Ive always tried hard to build agreement with the university, as well as explain to people just what the Guild does. I also think this article far overestimates the influence of Guilds/student politics on a persons personality.

  23. Naomi...

    I too had the pleasure of watching that glorious political seed being planted in student politics.

    Remember that nasty M.U.S.U episode.

    Google Landeryou and it is not good.

    Those links are still in the labour party sadly.

    Very corrupt network there!!

    We need to attract the fine calibre of people like Jason Yat Sen Li to breed a different generation of leaders.

    I was watching the swearing in of ministers today and saw Joe Hockey adjust Christopher Pynes tie...


    That network was formulated at their University and old school...

    It's a lazy old boys network that never grow up.

    While Julie Bishops away the boys will play!!

    Peta Credlin is a woman to watch as the next generation of leaders..

    Christopher "no friends from the left" Pyne is a joke...what disgusting parent would have such a limited network of friends for their children??

    Thats student politics for you...i do however think they have met a wide circle of people as a result of their positions...

    Its not all bad..i think??

    Wait and see the hilarity that entails..

  24. @ Andrew Macrae: "....Razer has toned down her response in a subsequent blog post"... this comment by her at 1 minute to midnight on a similar piece from Cathy Alexander is charming:

    Helen Razer
    Posted September 14, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Cathy. Honey. Don’t you know it is okay to hate Mirabella because she is hate-able? Hate because hate. Apparently.
    I was writing a piece almost exactly the same as yours over the Guardian at the same time and 500 comments and some hate mail and a reprimand from Malcolm Fraser later, let me tell you: don’t spoil the hate wank.
    Mirabella is the petroleum jelly by the bed of the reclining left. Don’t ruin this sexy leisure-hate by mentioning that policy is more important than politician.
    McGowan, apparently, is a symbol of hope. And damn, but the leisure-left loves its symbols.
    Now. I am going to go and take a makeup-free selfie of myself and McGowan to prove how much I care about refugees!!!!!!!

    Effing idiots.

    Good piece, doll. I only wish you’d copped more crap for it to take some of the stink off my back.

  25. Hell, I'm just glad the sour faced cow isn't in Parliament. There's already enough morons in the Abbott "government" without adding in Mirabella. Congratulations to the good people of Indi for keeping the bastards honest!!