The performance of Cathy McGowan at a Victorian county court yesterday was so far the surreal peak of generally surreal trial. The independent MP for Indi was called to testify in Wangaratta by defence lawyers for regional paper The Benalla Ensign, who are being sued for defamation by former Indi MP Sophie Mirabella over an April 2016 story claiming Mirabella publicly pushed McGowan at the opening of a new wing of a retirement home. The paper’s concession that they’d gotten the facts of the story wrong put McGowan in a tricky spot. She has never publicly denied the original story.
So, when taking the stand, McGowan took a similar line to the paper. She said she had not been pushed, but maintained she had witnessed Mirabella pushing aged care minister Ken Wyatt to prevent him taking a photo with her; thus, in her estimation the substance of the story was true. Her exact words were:
I was a witness to an event that was reported in the paper; the details of the event was in my opinion a matter between the reporter and Cooinda, it was none of my business to verify for media whether or not that fact was true …
Under cross examination from Sophie Mirabella’s lawyers — who targeted her on credibility, and made much of the fact that she had known Benalla Ensign editor Libby Price for many years — McGowan was unable to remember a lot, but was very clear on certain details, with a very Clintonesque interest in the linguistic details of a question, remarkably adept at answering questions she had not been asked, and ultimately concerned with the very nature of truth.
When a politician is under oath, some verbal bobbing and weaving is inevitably required. All these traits reached a climax when Mirabella’s lawyer Georgina Schoff QC grilled McGowan about her ethics, in light of her failure to publicly correct the record regarding the night of April 15:
Schoff: … your supporters had signed a pledge, had they not, to uphold values promoting honest and respectful conduct?
McGowan: That’s right.
S: And you considered that that was very important in politics?
M: And I still do.
S: It is important in politics, honesty is important in politics because those who cast a vote need to do so knowing the true facts, don’t they?
M: I don’t agree, I would argue with you about true facts and I would argue about politics and I would definitely disagree that the community thinks they get access to true facts.
S: I’m not asking you what the community thinks, I’m asking you whether having the true facts is important in a democracy where electors cast their votes?
M: Having an ability to debate the facts so that the community can make their own decision about what they think is true is very important in democracy. Who gets to make the decision about truth is a very different question and one of the things that I think it extraordinarily important in a democracy is that people get to participate so that they can have the arguments to test the veracity of different perspectives. Because one of the things that happens in our democracy, it is a competition and you have two main teams saying, I’ve got the facts and I’ve got the facts. So one of the things that happen in an election campaign is the community make their decisions on the balance of probability as to which one they are going to trust or believe more highly. Yes, that’s what I think.
S: You knew as a matter of fact that Mrs Mirabella had not pushed you, didn’t you?
M: That’s true.
S: That was not an issue that was open to any debate at all, was it?
M: I absolutely think within the community of Cooinda it was well and truly discussed. We all know …
Judge Macnamara: You’re not answering the question that was put to you so please listen to the question.
M: I beg your pardon.
S: The question was that as far as you were concerned there was absolutely no question about this statement, it was false?
M: Part of it was true, the noun of the sentence was false, the push was false, the push was true, it just wasn’t me that was pushed.
S: Right, okay. Is it true when it says Mrs Mirabella very publicly pushed Ms McGowan out of the way —
M: It is true when it says — I mean, I can’t speak on behalf of the journalist, I’m sorry, I can’t do that.
Judge Macnamara: No, well, you’re not being asked to?
The trial continues with closing statements today.