22 April 2016
by Michael Koziol

Sophie Mirabella denies shoving Indi rival Cathy McGowan, says government pulled $10m hospital funding

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former MP Sophie Mirabella in Canberra last weekend.

It has been an eventful and perhaps ominous start to the unofficial election campaign in the knife-edge Victorian seat of Indi, where former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella is trying to snatch back her old electorate from independent Cathy McGowan.

What started with reports of shoving at the opening of a nursing home has turned into a showdown on national television, replete with accusations of reverse pork-barrelling and voter blackmail.

Ms Mirabella has emphatically denied reports in a local newspaper, the Benalla Ensign, that she "very publicly pushed Ms McGowan out of the way" of a photo with federal Liberal MP Ken Wyatt at the opening of a new nursing home wing last week.

And at a tense public debate broadcast by Sky News on Thursday night, the former MP made sensational claims that the Abbott government withheld $10 million in funding for a local hospital because she did not win the seat.

"I had a commitment for a $10 million allocation to the Wangaratta hospital that, if elected, I was going to announce the week after the election. That is $10 million that Wangaratta hasn't had because Cathy [McGowan] got elected," Ms Mirabella said.

"So the question is: who can best deliver that funding in a Turnbull Coalition government? It's about who has the ability and the knowledge and the contacts in government to go to the top of the list. Cathy wasn't able to do it - I will be."

It was not immediately clear why the government would not have announced the funding before the election. Fairfax Media has contacted the office of Health Minister Sussan Ley and Northeast Health Wangaratta for comment.

Cathy McGowan

Earlier in the night, Ms McGowan declined to confirm or deny reports that Ms Mirabella shoved her. She had previously released a statement that said Ms Mirabella "intervened to prevent the photo being taken", describing it as an "unfortunate incident" but one she wanted to put behind her.

Ms Mirabella accused the Benalla Ensign of defamation and said editor Libby Price had not contacted her before writing the story. Price was not a witness to the events but said she confirmed the story with four sources.

A witness told Fairfax Media there was no physical altercation. But it is understood Ms Mirabella was angry that Mr Wyatt was going to pose for a photograph with Ms McGowan, telling him: "Do not get in a photo with her ... you need to help the Liberal candidate."