A desperate letter sent by besieged Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella to constituents bragging about her political record has backfired after its central claims were rubbished by prominent locals at the centre of the boasts.

In the letter, sent to Indi voters last week under an official parliamentary insignia, Mirabella claims that she had successfully lobbied the CEO of mental health service Headspace, Chris Tanti, to install a Headspace centre in the border region. In fact, the “end the silence” campaign was driven by local Fairfax newspaper the Border Mail and a delegation of local activists who travelled to Canberra last October to lobby then-mental health minister Mark Butler.

Former Albury mayor and local businessman Stuart Baker agitated for the centre after his daughter committed suicide. He told Crikey this morning he was “just annoyed … It was an insult to the people; Sophie was not very involved at all as far as I know.”

Tanti says the decision on where to site the centre was a question for the federal government. He says Mirabella “did make representations to me about the case for a new centre in Albury/Wodonga, which was part of a broader community lobbying effort”.

In another boast, Mirabella says “we had a successful local campaign to pressure Simon Crean to build a $65 million Border Cancer Centre in the region, after promising to fight for one at the last election”. Funding for the centre was announced by Crean on Q&A on May 2, 2011, but most of the lobbying was in fact conducted by the local community and directed at then-health minister Nicola Roxon.

Dr Craig Underhill, respected border oncologist and clinical director at Hume Regional Integrated Cancer Service, told Crikey he was “surprised” when he opened the direct mail envelope to discover the missive.

“There’s two issues here — one, is that Simon Crean wasn’t the one pressured, Nicola Roxon was. The letter read like she was central to the funding. But it was a much broader effort by a number of people over a number of years. [pullquote position=”right”]We met with her on two occasions, but most of the lobbying was done by the community[/pullquote]. The community group that led the lobbying was the Albury-Wodonga Cancer Foundation,” he said.

Crikey asked why the claims had surfaced now, and Underhill said: “There’s been allegations made that she hasn’t done a lot for the area … I think all politicians are inclined from time to time to take credit for funding in their electorate, but in her case she believes it.”

Marriane Warren served as a community representative on the cancer centre steering committee and told Crikey Mirabella’s claims were “exaggerated”.

“There were 5000 signatures in support … in 2011 we went to Canberra to lobby on behalf of the community. It was a wet, cold day and she didn’t attend. She was not a central figure, and I was pretty disappointed that she would use that,” she said.

Mirabella is locked in a bitter battle with local independent Cathy McGowan for Indi, which she holds by 9%. A Reach-TEL poll released at the weekend suggested she would hold on with 43.5% of the primary vote, but McGowan supporters say that with three weeks to go they can drag the former Melbourne University Young Liberal President’s vote under 40%.

The battle for Indi has intensified after Crikey revealed 12 days ago that a Mirabella staffer, Adam Wyldeck, had sent an internal campaign email reporting his boss was getting “getting severely outflanked and outgunned” by the McGowan juggernaut.

The Greens and Labor announced today that they would preference McGowan before Mirabella, substantially increasing the possibility of a continuing rural independent presence in the federal parliament. Mirabella says she was referring to the community, not herself, in the letter.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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