The Sydney Morning Herald

Will to power

Author: Fenella Souter
Date: 26/05/2012
Words: 4488
Source: SMH
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 10
Her uncompromising opinions and confrontational style have made Sophie Mirabella the new poster girl for the Liberals' hard right, but her rise risks being overshadowed by a row with her former lover's family. Fenella Souter meets her.Sophie mirabella looks harried.

She bustles up the stairs of the Greek Orthodox church in South Melbourne for an Orthodox Good Friday service with the pained look of a woman with too much on her plate, two small children to wrangle, an agenda not going quite to plan, and possibly a scandal still to be faced down. She's running behind schedule and by the time her party has swept into the courtyard, most of the congregation is inside.

Mirabella, eager to introduce her daughters to Greek Easter, had rushed away from our interview an hour earlier to "make sure the girls are ready". The scale of the task is now apparent. The little girls are turned out as splendidly as Velazquez infantas - their pretty blonde and ginger locks flowing, 21-month-old Katerina dazzling in a dress of cream taffeta, sturdy 3 1/2-year-old Alexandra in green. Both wear smart little dark-blue velvet boleros and - since it's never too soon for the Liberal Party's sorority accessory - pearls.

Mirabella, 43, has on a black suit, silky blouse and low heels. Her hair is swept into a smooth bob; her wide, elastic mouth freshly crimsoned. Compared to the collection of small, working-class Greeks who filed in earlier, the triptych of Mirabellas has the glossy look of minor European royalty, if not the unflappable demeanour. Herding one of the children is an unsmiling woman with a scrubbed face and a wiry grey bun pulled tight on her head, her thin frame hung with the shapeless black garments and flat shoes of a village widow. This, surprisingly, turns out to be Sophie Mirabella's mother, Barbara.

The tableau captures the two worlds of Sophie Mirabella (nee Panopoulos): the modest, milk-bar-migrant sphere of her childhood and the blue-

ribbon universe she has struggled her way into, relying on brains, a spiky refusal to be thwarted and a clamorous allegiance to the driest of politics.

Elected as federal MP for the north-east Victorian seat of Indi in 2001, she sat on the backbench for six years under John Howard, loyal but unanointed. In 2009, after a year in an outer ministry, she was appointed shadow minister for industry, innovation and science. Mirabella's stroke of great good fortune has been a shift of power within the Liberal Party: now in the ascendancy is a NSW-spawned species of hard-line social conservatives whose politics fit with hers.

"Mirabella has been loyal to the social-conservative right of the Liberal Party," says Monash University political scientist Nick Economou, "and the leading light of that group is Tony Abbott. She's been rewarded."

She diligently pursues all the party's usual suspects - climate change, carbon tax, mining tax, refugees, welfare, gay marriage, hijabs - but her other trademark is the caustic, confrontational manner she slips into as easily as a Greek colonel into a coup. Her public reputation is as an inveterate scrapper, whether she's hectoring some hapless opponent on Q&A, smiling all the while, or piercing an ALP jugular across the parliamentary floor.

Says prominent Liberal MP Christopher Pyne, who first knew her through student politics, "Sophie hasn't changed much. She's always been hard at the ball. She takes the fight right up to the Labor Party ... and she's loathed by them." Mirabella was one of only five Liberals who stayed away from Parliament in 2008 during the national apology to the stolen generation, declaring she didn't like being cornered by Kevin Rudd and wasn't convinced any Aboriginal children had been "stolen" from her state of Victoria. Between March and August last year, in the space of 36 parliamentary sitting days, she was ejected from the House five times. In October she was unable to vote against the carbon tax she has so stridently opposed because of a 24-hour suspension for defying the Speaker. It was, she says, "unfortunate".

"I had a chat to Tony and he was pretty good about it," she tells Good Weekend, her lipsticked mouth shaping one of the perfect, velvety red Os it can form in an assortment of sizes. Tony Abbott says his recollection is that "she didn't miss any particularly important vote because of that suspension".

Early last year, Mirabella accused Julia Gillard of being "as deluded as Colonel Gaddafi" when it came to the popular view of the carbon tax. In June 2008, she made a reference to Gillard's childlessness - saying Gillard wouldn't be needing Rudd's "taxpayer-funded nanny" - but was outraged the next day when then Labor MP Belinda Neal, on the receiving end of a remark by Mirabella about being a "man-hater", muttered in Parliament that the pregnant Mirabella's "evil thoughts" would make her child "a demon" (a comment made more offensive, one imagines, if you happen to believe in demonic possession).

Back in 2005, Mirabella famously hurled the term "political terrorists" across the party room at Petro Georgiou and fellow moderate Liberals when they threatened to cross the floor over Howard's mandatory-detention policies. In 2010, she called Malcolm Fraser a "frothing-at-the-mouth leftie" for questioning the so-called war on terror. In February, she told colleague Bill Heffernan to "pop his Alzheimer's pills".

Yet Mirabella insists she distinguishes between "attacking the personal and the political". It's why she doesn't find the bearpit of Parliament brutalising: "Over time I've learnt to distinguish between the people and the issue. The strongest feeling I would have [for someone else in politics] is contempt, because you see people, day after day, their human frailties, their insecurities, the twitch of their eye or the shake of their hand, so it's far more humanising than people think. So at worst I might think they're weak and spineless."

Those who dislike her politics and her style are blunt: comments range from "a truly appalling woman" and "sneering, rude, nasty" to "relentlessly aggressive" and "totally lacking in human empathy". Zuvele Leschen, the ALP candidate in Mirabella's blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Indi at the 2007 and 2010 federal polls, says of her, "She seems incapable of common decency. She can't put aside politics long enough to have a human conversation. All the other local MPs, Nationals or Liberals, past and present, there's no difficulty talking to them, no difficulty sitting down for a coffee or ringing their office and asking if they can chase things up. I do that to Sophie's [office], too, but I just get a very different kind of response when she's involved."

Her supporters favour terms like "committed", "fearless", "vibrant", "true to herself" and "passionate". She describes herself as passionate, Abbott describes her as passionate, and when NSW MP and fellow hardliner Scott Morrison rings Good Weekend unsolicited to praise Mirabella, he gives the word a bruising workout, reaching for it 10 times in 13 minutes. He says Mirabella "cops a lot of abuse" - they swap hate mail - and speaks highly of her ability in her shadow portfolio, working hard behind the scenes. "She has got herself into every boardroom, every factory floor, every small business she could ..." Abbott, who regards her as a friend as well as a colleague, concurs: "She's done a really good job in the industry portfolio, which is not typically a 'women's' portfolio. It's at the interface of economic theory and practice and she's done extremely well."

Before she agrees to an interview, Sophie Mirabella wants to meet for an off-the-record "chat". We go to an unassuming cafe in Port Melbourne, where, trying to lose weight, she orders the burger with bacon, egg and cheese, hold the bun and chips. She is short, with rounded limbs and neat little starfish hands, nails worn down to the quick. Her skin is fine, her eyes dark. She is more attractive than she often appears in photos, as well as more pleasant company than her public persona suggests.

Mirabella is wary because of the story that ran in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald last September, revealing her relationship with the late Colin Howard, distinguished law professor, and the circumstances surrounding his will,

in which the father of two adult children and

five grandchildren, and a man suffering from Alzheimer's, left his entire estate to Mirabella. His children say he also gave her more than $100,000 to help her get elected to Indi in 2001.

At lunch, Mirabella gives nothing away but cries when the subject of Colin Howard comes up. It seems she is prepared, reluctantly, to correct some aspects of a story she calls "gutter journalism".

We meet the next day and begin with the milder subject of her background. Mirabella's parents left their rural Greek village in 1956 to come to Australia as economic migrants. Settling in South Melbourne, they worked for 20 years in factories. Her mother, married at 16, worked shifts at Kraft (the Panopouloses may be one of the few migrant families convinced of the health benefits of Vegemite). Her father, Peter, who died in 2004, eventually scraped together the money to buy a milk bar at Laverton, in south-west Melbourne. Sophie worked there regularly on weekends and during the holidays.

"I had a great choice: do you want to do housework or work in a milk bar? I'd be left there at the age of 12 to run the milk bar by myself if my

father needed to go and do something." She

absorbed the individualist work ethic early on. "If you want something, you've got to do it. No one is going to do it for you. That's what I grew up with."

Yet for all her admiring remarks about her

parents' by-the-bootstraps pragmatism, Mirabella gives the impression - a tendency to teariness, the furious emotions, the knee-jerk defensiveness - of a child who had to learn to toughen up. A more fragile, uncertain self seems to dwell fretfully below the belligerent public image (friends insist a more caring self lives there, too). Later she tells me that when she was dux of her final year of high school, her father gave her a quick hug and said, "Now you have to complete the degree." "I was like, 'Yeah, right, can you be a bit more enthusiastic?'"

She won't agree that it's the kind of parental attitude that can lead to a lifetime of approval-seeking. "No, it's a reality check," she says crisply. "You're only as good as your next gig."

Either way, she was a precocious child. At 12, planning a career as a barrister, she decided that Albert Park High School was not sufficiently

academic. "So I opened up the Melways, found where we lived and thought, 'I can't travel too far, it's got to be on these two pages.' I did some research about private schools and I enrolled myself in a couple. I was really offended when I got a phone call from St Catherine's saying, 'Do your parents know about this?'"

She was accepted into St Catherine's, Toorak, a tony school she insists was "more diverse" than Albert Park, which was almost "monocultural" because 75 per cent of the kids were from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

At 13, a curious Sophie Panopoulos borrowed a book from the school library called "something like A Beginner's Guide to Communism". Marx and Engels didn't take, however, and Ayn Rand won the day. Her elder brother, Mario, now an economist, had already embraced conservative politics and her parents, while not political, she insists, were very socially conservative.

"I started off as a socialist and sort of progressed, so by the time I finished school I was still the same person, a rugged individual. I appreciated the impracticalities of socialism and the strength of individuals, whether it's to build an economy or make choices about their lives."

After St Catherine's, it was on to law at ivy-clad Melbourne University, where she cut a memorable figure on campus as a student activist, president of the Melbourne University Liberal Club and vice-president of the Australian Liberal Students' Federation, and was very vocal about issues like voluntary student unionism as well as more

out-there causes. Journalist David Marr recalls Panopoulos enthusiastically arguing for the abolition of the United Nations during, he believes, a 1988 campaign for constitutional reform. "I think she was exercised by how dreadful any kind of rights regime is," he says drily. "I vividly remember how beautiful and dynamic and nuts she was." (Mirabella says she doesn't recall the occasion.) In the late '90s, she was admitted to the Victorian bar.

Despite this textbook rise - and this hunger, perhaps, to fit in - her natural home was not to be within the bosom of the elite Melbourne Liberal establishment. Says Labor Senator David Feeney, who knew her as a student from the other side of campus politics, "The Liberal establishment in Victoria has never owned Sophie. She has always run with a different herd: the Abbott/[Bronwyn] Bishop hard-right group, which is mostly a NSW phenomenon ..." She's also from the wrong side of the class divide? "There's a bit of that, but I think her failure to crack that crowd was complex. She is a very confrontational and aggressive partisan politician and she rubs people, people within her own party, up the wrong way."

Still, it was on the back of that quintessentially establishment figure, the Queen, that Panopoulos first rode into view. She burst into the public arena in the 1990s as an unlikely champion of the constitutional monarchy in the republican debate. Says Monash's Nick Economou, "She got noticed because she didn't conform to the stereo-typical monarchist ... [people like] Kerry Jones, rolling through the north screaming about government conspiracies, or David Flint, longing for the good old days when Charles I was on the throne. Here was this young, good-looking woman who looked like she ought to have been a republican."

Shoulder to shoulder with her at the 1998 Constitutional Convention in Canberra was Colin Howard, a debonair Englishman who had previously been a dean and professor of law at Melbourne University. He was also a QC and a noted constitutional lawyer who had served as adviser to the Whitlam government during the dismissal in 1975.

Panopoulos and Howard met in 1994, when she was 26, and became involved the following year. Few people, not even Panopoulos's parents, knew that she and Howard, 40 years her senior, were lovers and living together. There was a degree of subterfuge involved in keeping it that way. For example, she co-signed a lease on a flat with Howard's daughter, Lesley, with whom she was friendly, to provide another address. For a political conservative, it was a surprisingly unconventional relationship.

By all accounts, Howard was besotted with Panopoulos and proud of her. In a letter to his son, Mervyn, in 2000, he described her as starting out as a "brave but stranded young political fringe dweller" who, with a "touch of political genius", had become a "Liberal legend". "As she said to me the other day," he wrote, "if she wins this election [for Indi in 2001], she is made for life."

Colin Howard is said to have told his children that to help her win, in the face of some internal opposition to her preselection, he gave her more than $100,000 in the lead-up to and during the campaign. Mirabella denies this. (Other substantial funding came from a small, Mirabella-focused group called Friends of Indi, which passed on a $15,000 donation from British American Tobacco, a donation Mirabella was slow in declaring and that arrived six months before BAT closed

tobacco-growing operations in the electorate. BAT's withdrawal had faced opposition from local growers but Mirabella helped drive a settlement.)

In 1997, colin howard had made a new

will naming Panopoulos executor and sole beneficiary of an estate that is now worth more than $1 million, and the will remained unchanged after their relationship waned in 2002. Panopoulos had moved to Wangaratta after her election victory and was seeing other people; the job she was to have given Colin in her electoral office didn't eventuate. They remained friendly, however, and stayed in touch.

In 2008, Howard was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the early symptoms of which had become apparent perhaps as early as 2004. In 2006, Panopoulos married Greg Mirabella, and

at Christmas that year Howard told his son, Mervyn, he had given the couple a large sum of money - believed to be in the tens of thousands - to help them buy a farmhouse in Wangaratta for $695,000.

In early January 2007, Mervyn wrote and questioned Mirabella, pointedly but civilly, about the appropriateness of the Mirabellas accepting such a gift, worried that it was eating into his father's source of future income. A UK-based fund manager, Mervyn made it clear he "had no need of Colin's money". Mirabella fired off a scorching reply, which read in part, "The words you have chosen are both incorrect and insulting. I do not expect that you ever did or ever will understand Colin's relationship with me." She said she had not "solicited" any gift, nor did she believe the money came from his capital resources. Within days, Mirabella travelled to Melbourne and she and Howard went to have documents witnessed that assigned her power of attorney and enduring guardianship.

Relations with the children deteriorated. In March 2007, Colin Howard sent a letter to Mervyn breaking off all contact. The letter was typed above his signature, now grown quite childlike. An extract: "No one who has had the misfortune of seeing any of your recent explosions into vindictive hypocrisy would ordinarily risk seeing another. But I am not writing on behalf of myself. I am writing to correct an obvious and indefensible injustice to another ... Any further such correspondence to Sophie or me will be ignored. I wish never to hear from you again, on any excuse at all."

The Age and Herald have sighted letters, "warm, loving and intimate", over the previous decade that show how out of character the correspondence was. Howard was said to adore his son.

Howard began spending time away from Melbourne and told his daughter Lesley, with whom he dined regularly, that he'd "promised his new friends not to say where he was". Later, he disappeared altogether. Much later, in September 2008, after Mirabella called Lesley to tell her Colin had been hurt in a fall and was in intensive care, the children learnt he had been living in a farmhouse on the Mirabellas' Wangaratta property, 400 metres from their house. Greg Mirabella had been caring for him, visiting during the day.

After his official diagnosis of Alzheimer's later in 2008, Howard was placed in a home. Mervyn Howard visited and says his father, somewhat confused, was pleased to see him: "It was very

emotional. He thanked me for finding him." Colin Howard died in September last year, aged 83.

Mirabella had engaged lawyers earlier in 2010, after the Howard children had again queried matters. Wrote Mirabella, "I have been advised that family members sometimes feel that they have a right to ask about a parent's affairs but in fact they have no formal legal right to do so." The year before he died, Howard's affairs were put in the hands of the State Trustee and a public guardian. There are now confidential proceedings before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Mervyn and Lesley Howard say they want to pursue all avenues to discover details of their father's later years. They have also said that if they were to contest the will and win, any money will be donated to a charity or foundation.

If Mirabella did receive $100,000-plus in election contributions from Howard, the issue of whether she breached the Electoral Act by not disclosing it remains unresolved, partly because the Australian Electoral Commission has a three-year limit on investigating such matters. Mirabella has said simply that "all declarable items have been declared".

Mirabella falls unusually quiet when we turn to the subject of Colin Howard. She gives clipped "yes" and "no" answers or delivers a kind of steel-tipped, head-girl stare. She and Howard met, she allows, at a conference. No, she didn't know him at university. What attracted her? "Colin was a fiercely independent intellect, disarmingly honest whilst being an absolute gentleman. He was a very easy man to admire and to love."

Referring mainly to The Age/Herald story, she had told me earlier not to "believe everything you read in the papers". Now she seems reluctant to support the charge. "Oh look, there are matters subject to legal proceedings. Secondly, I wouldn't stoop to ... even respond to some issues."

Isn't she concerned that people might draw certain unfortunate conclusions, about the age difference and so on, unless she gives her version? "People have relationships where there are age differences. It's not unusual. These age differences can be tragic because obviously one person is not going to be around ... but it's really ... it's still quite ... I'm still coming to ..." Her eyes well with tears and her voice grows unsteady. "I'm still grieving so I'm not really ready to ..."

Having said the story was misleading, however, could she at least suggest which parts she meant?

"I'm a public figure, I can understand an interest in the lives of public figures, but it is appropriate at times to draw the line," she says evenly. But later she can't help erupting: "Colin deserved better than a gutter journalist hiding behind tombstones at his funeral." (For the record, senior Age journalist Michael Bachelard, who wrote the Mirabella piece, wasn't at the funeral.)

One of the people on Mirabella's suggested list of colleagues and friends to contact is Susan Bruce, a former John Howard staffer and now private secretary to NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell. Susan Bruce and Mirabella met at university, where Mirabella struck her as "one of the smartest girls I knew", and they have remained friends. Bruce seems happy to talk about some aspects of Mirabella's relationship with Colin Howard - she sometimes stayed with the couple at Howard's terrace house in Carlton. This is the house Howard bequeathed to Mirabella, along with some $38,000 in cash, plus furniture and personal effects.

"It was a very private relationship," Bruce says, "but having said that, they were obviously a very committed and loving couple." They shared a strong intellectual connection, she says, as well as a physical relationship. "They were totally relaxed in each other's company. Sophie is a very lovely, affectionate person and takes care of the people that she loves and that was quite apparent ... A lot of boys her age were either intimidated or no match. Here was this man who wasn't afraid to take her on and have these heated and passionate intellectual conversations."

Can Bruce see how the matter of the 40-year age gap, a will that disinherits two children, and a man with Alzheimer's being cared for in a remote farmhouse by the will's beneficiaries, might be read?

"What you read in the paper isn't always the truth," she says, echoing Mirabella's words. Which parts are untrue? "That sense that this is something that Sophie drove. To me, it doesn't do justice to the relationship the two of them shared."

Does she think the bequest came as a surprise to Mirabella, or had her friend known about it since the will in 1997?

"My understanding is that she didn't know about it at the time and found out about it much further down the track ... I guess it's just been a fact for so long I can't really comment on it."

on a brilliant winter's day in june 2006, Bruce was one of the bridesmaids at the marriage of Sophie Panopoulos

to Lieutenant-Colonel Greg Mirabella in Wangaratta's Anglican cathedral. Liberal Party luminaries like Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop were among the guests. So was Colin Howard.

Mirabella seems rather surprised, and pleased, to find herself with a husband and two small children in her 40s. (Greg Mirabella also has two teenage daughters from a previous relationship, one of whom lives with the couple.) Mirabella's mother moved in for two years when the first baby was born and for some time after the second arrived, for which Mirabella is grateful while also rolling her eyes at the memory.

Greg Mirabella resigned his commission so his wife could manage her parliamentary work and is now the girls' primary carer, helped by an au pair five days a week. Sophie tries to get home between parliamentary sittings, "even if it's just for a day".

When I suggest that her public image is of someone very socially conservative, she says sharply, "Yeah, very socially conservative and who's got her husband looking after the children!" Earlier, Mirabella had summed up her ideology thus: "I'm an individualist free marketeer who believes the best unit in society is a strong family." Yet such are the realities of political life and parenthood that Mirabella gets to spend little time with the children she adores.

For that matter, she's a "realistic" free marketeer, which seems to mean that sometimes she's not one. She presides over an electorate with both agricultural and manufacturing interests. In January, it was Mirabella who urged the Coalition to rethink its plan to cut subsidies to the car industry by $500 million. In early 2007, she supported the Howard government's $16.8-million package to buy out tobacco growers in the Wangaratta/Wodonga region when British American Tobacco wanted to shift its operations overseas. The government money boosted a $10-million buy-out package offered by BAT and saved the multi-

national corporation $30 million on a new two-year contract with growers.

in the south melbourne church, mirabella's

little daughters soon grow restless as the chanting drones on. Alexandra takes to swinging athletically off the back of a pew. Mirabella looks furious, or perhaps it's disappointed. As we leave, she thrusts the littlest one into Greg Mirabella's arms at the door of the church and again seems on the brink of tears. Perhaps it's all been too much: the Colin Howard matter, one of her junior staffers making headlines for spending $906 on a taxi from Wodonga to Melbourne because he "didn't do buses", plus the usual exhausting juggle of work and family and, in her case, politicking.

Still, the future looks assured. "She's going to make a very good minister for industry in the next Coalition cabinet," Abbott declares to Good Weekend. Her rise beyond that is anyone's guess. Party leader? Prime minister?

"I can't see her going that far," Nick Economou hazards, while acknowledging she's good on her feet. What's going to stop her? "Probably Scott Morrison, someone from NSW. They hold the whip hand at the moment." Or will it be Mirabella herself who proves the obstacle?

"I think it's, 'Watch this space'," says one Liberal Party member. "She's so mercurial, that might get her into trouble. Will she end up like Margaret Thatcher, or will she be like other people who have spun up like fireworks and crashed? It will be interesting to see, because for certain she ain't no Mother Teresa."

 
 
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