Wangaratta Magistrates’ Court is an art deco building on Faithfull Street. Tinted windows let golden light onto carpets of a grubby caramel colour — black spots with lighter yellow flowers. Faithfull Street is largely cafes and bars, edged by the tree-lined Ovens River that runs languid around the picturesque cathedral town. It’s here that the possibly self-defeating and certainly bizarre defamation case between former Indi MP Sophie Mirabella and the Benalla Ensign concluded yesterday, in Mirabella’s favour.

Benalla is a town 50 kilometres south west of Wangaratta. The paper had already printed an apology and retraction regarding the April 2016 story at the heart of the matter. The story claimed Mirabella had physically pushed her (ultimately victorious) opponent in the seat of Indi, Cathy McGowan — who belatedly agreed it hadn’t happened — at the opening of a new wing of the Cooinda retirement home. 

The uncontested fact that Mirabella hadn’t pushed McGowan made the prospect of a court case slightly surreal; there were no big arguments, just poring over the meanest tweets that came in the story’s wake, trying to tease out from witnesses just how upset the story made Sophie, with particular emphasis on the effect it had on her as a mother.

The apology — in October 2016 — ended up backfiring horribly when Mirabella sued anyway. The Ensign couldn’t go back to arguing it was true and so were stuck trying to argue it was substantially true, but on the day Crikey attended court the paper’s lawyers seemed to have largely ditched that.

They mainly argued that it hadn’t been the Ensign article that had cost her the 2016 election so much as Mirabella’s claim that the area missed out on $10 million for the Wangaratta hospital thanks to her loss of the 2013 election; and that her subsequent emotional turmoil was due to coverage of that gaffe as much as anything else. It was a nigh on impossible task for the defence, and one can only imagine what happened to their stress levels as witness after witness reiterated incredulously that the Ensign hadn’t contacted Mirabella or her office before the story was printed.

Mirabella attended court even after her testimony was complete, wearing the puffy mask of a mourner the day after a funeral. Her husband Greg gave evidence that other children were approaching his kids at school saying “your mum’s a bitch because she punches people”.

“She’s become a Netflix addict,” he added.

Of course, considering the retraction, and the fact Mirabella is now out of politics, gainfully employed by mining magnate Gina Rinehart, what possible reason could there be to dredge this up now?

Was the primary target of this Cathy McGowan all along? Mirabella, her husband and her office manager Karen Rourke all made a point of mentioning McGowan’s refusal to say she wasn’t pushed when the pair debated on Paul Murray Live, days after the story broke.

Crikey detailed yesterday the Entrapment-style contortions McGowan had to go through, attempting to leap from the square millimetre into which her silence had painted her. And one can’t imagine she did much to convince the jury that she had nothing to gain from allowing a story she knew to be false to gain traction. A local journo passed me a note during her testimony: “Cathy getting crucified”.

The prosecution played footage of the bad-tempered, heckle-filled PM Live debate, which shows McGowan looming over Mirabella after handing her the mic, and QC Georgina Schoff drawing something of a long bow:

Schoff: You got right into her personal space, didn’t you?

McGowan: Well, I asked her can she please talk to me because we were talking about the trains.

S: And I want to suggest to you that you knew very well that those in the audience who were watching that would be thinking is ‘Mrs Mirabella going to push Ms McGowan?’

M: Well, I can’t speak for the audience.

S: No, but that is what you hoped they would think, isn’t it?

M: Absolutely not.

And then, after just enough of a pause that it landed like a punchline: “I was thinking about trains”.

The most inarguably true thing she said during her testimony was that Cooinda reflected badly on everyone. Certainly, any updating of the records has to now include the revelations that Mirabella had been a far from ideal colleague to aged-care minister Ken Wyatt, having secretly recorded him, placed her hands upon him to prevent him moving and attempted to “check in” on the evidence he would provide to the case.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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