Cathy McGowan has no illusion about the fight she faces to retain the seat she won in the last federal election.
The Independent MP likens the election to a fiercely contested sporting event or “rematch” between her and her best-known rival Sophie Mirabella.
“I’d much rather see it as an AFL Grand Final … where there’s strategy and players involved and definitely we’re a team,” she said.
“In Australia we talk about competitions as fights. For example Carlton versus Collingwood, it’s a major battle, that’s how our culture works,” she said.
Indi became prominent at the beginning of the election campaign when Mirabella claimed the Wangaratta Hospital had missed out on funding because she lost the 2013 election.
Mirabella told Sky News “I had a commitment for a $10 million allocation to the Wangaratta Hospital that if elected I was going to announce a week after the election.”
It was then reported in the Benalla Ensign that Mirabella pushed McGowan away from a photo opportunity at a function in the electorate. Mirabella urged McGowan to deny the claims, to which McGowan responded “I think I’d actually rather leave it Sophie.”
While many voters were outraged by Mirabella’s revelation and by the divisive tone, McGowan wanted to play it down when she talked to UniPollWatch a day or so later.
“Other parties conduct their campaign through telling bad stories about one another. Slandering the opposition – what we’re not trying to do, is that,” McGowan said
We met at the Wodonga Campaign Hub, an old weatherboard house on a busy road that leads to Beechworth. ‘Cathy for Indi’ merchandise was displayed on a table and the so-called “knitting nannies” had stacked scarves and cushions in a back room ready for a fundraising event. There was a poster on the wall, outlining the “behaviors” for volunteers, which included being positive and welcoming, and being “your best self”.
McGowan arrived in her bright orange car – the same colour as all her campaign material – and sat down, willing to chat.
At that time six candidates had already nominated for the seat. Although Mirabella is her best-known rival, her greatest threat might be the Nationals’ Marty Corboy because Liberal preferences are more likely to favour him than McGowan.
But McGowan says she is not scared about who is running. “I just think it’s wonderful; diversity of opinions, of colours, it’s really good,” she said.
“This is actually about politics and you’ve got a choice … disregard the personalities and focus on the choice.”
Eighteen year-old local Biomed and Law student, Dan Rafferty, said that McGowan is a trusted figure in the community who makes a “genuine attempt to connect with the electorate.”
When asked about Mirabella, Rafferty said “she strikes me as arrogant and power hungry. Politically feeble.”
Wodonga hub coordinator, Julie de Hennin, was inspired to volunteer for McGowan because of “the passion with which Cathy is a politician, her capacity to engage with all ages and socio-economic backgrounds of people and her ability to be able to introduce people to politics.”
The volunteer, who is a farmer in nearby Talgarno, said she is perplexed by the Liberal Party’s choice of Mirabella. “I can’t understand why the Liberal party would have pre-selected her. Of course she would like her seat back again, [but] we wouldn’t be working for Cathy if we had a lot of support for Sophie.” she said.
McGowan said the Liberals’ failure to listen to voters’ opinions needs to change. She asks, “what’s happening with the major parties in how they regard these [rural] seats?”
Mirabella’s pre-selection, as a woman, strikes McGowan as odd. “The only seat that I know that’s got a woman running in it is Andrew Southcott in South Australia [who] has been replaced by a woman, but everywhere else it’s blokes! So something’s happening there that feels a bit odd,” she said.
Mirabella’s campaign has focused on what she can do for the electorate as a member of the Turnbull Government. The subtext is that an independent like McGowan could never be as effective. In response, McGowan said she has made the seat competitive. “As a result the tap has been turned on, money is flowing, ministers visiting. We’ve put Indi on the map … we’ve gone from backwater, no one paid any attention to us, safe seat, almost no resources to almost the exact opposite.”
McGowan was born in Albury and grew up on a dairy farm in Indigo Valley. She co-found and later became president of, Women in Agriculture; a group designed to include and make women heard, in agricultural conversations.
“I really love the fact that I’m an Independent; that I’m not part of the party machine and that old fashioned way of doing politics. I love the fact that I’m a local, that I’ve got really deep roots into the community, I know it really well and really care about it,” she said.
McGowan says her major motivation is to do things that are useful for the community. “It’s not to say I don’t do things in terms of thinking of the impact it has on voters; of course I do, but the main task is to represent the electorate, and am I doing that efficiently and effectively?” McGowan said.
McGowan paused when asked about the possibility of losing the seat after just one term. “It’ll be sad but the work won’t stop,” she said.
“It’s a lifelong representation and engagement; it’s a lifelong journey. The issues change, but the task doesn’t change. Eventually it’s not going to matter who the member of parliament is,” she said.
“I think the legacy work; engaging with young people has been a really vitally important part of it. They’ve been involved with the process, so they get the message that politics is for them; that they’re welcomed and that they’re not just an add-on extra,” she said.