Sophie Mirabella (Image courtesy John Graham)

Jonathon Ireland discusses former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella's recent claim that $10 million in hospital funding was withdrawn from the community because she was not re-elected effectively admitting that Coalition funding is decided on partisan political considerations.

LET ME START by saying something I never thought I would:

Thank God for Sophie.

I have never held the former member for Indi in any high regard. Her political persona as an MP revealed few personal attributes beyond untethered ambition and a complete disregard for decency.

Her catalogue of distasteful moments includes a wonderful photo with Tony Abbott in front of the infamous ‘Juliar ... is Bob Brown’s bitch’ banner and a look of contemptuous disgust when Simon Sheikh collapsed next to her on the set of ABC’s Q&A.

Ever the inflammatory conservative mouthpiece, she was embarrassingly ditched by her electorate in the 2013 election, in the midst of a national swing which propelled the Liberal Party to government.

Sophie Mirabella’s political career has been little more than a comical demonstration of the ability of blindly ambitious people to repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot. If anything, her real achievement is the dogged determination to prevent us from writing one final obituary on her political career.

Now she has returned to recontest the seat of Indi. This return has brought on her latest controversy.

Last week, in a debate with current division of Indi MP Cathy McGowan, she told the audience that she had a

“commitment for a $10 million allocation to the Wangaratta Hospital.” 

A commitment which, following her loss, was scrapped. Mirabella went on to say that this was

“$10 million that Wangaratta hasn’t had because Cathy [McGowan] got elected.” 

Amongst the outrage about her latest controversy, we should recognise her (admittedly unintentional) contribution to public discourse. She may have been unconsciously aiming a shotgun at her own feet but in one fell swoop she managed to tear down the edifice that funding should be free from partisan political considerations. In essence, she alleged that the Liberal Party had withdrawn $10 million in allocated funding as an act of vengeance against a community which had dared to not re-elect a minister-in-waiting.

Surprisingly, the backlash was somewhat muted. The Liberal Party continually emphasised that there had been no public commitment to additional funding for Wangaratta Hospital. Treasurer Scott Morrison and Minister for Health Susan Ley repeated this "public commitment"point ad nauseam. Opposition health spokeperson Catherine King curiously avoided the temptation to make political hay and said that she would “refer the matter to the auditor general”.

Eventually, the issue faded into the obscurity of sensationalism that is the 24-hour news cycle. Yet the point remains: was there a privaterepresentation to Mirabella that there would be a funding allocation made after the election, and was that commitment withdrawn because she was not re-elected?

If the answer is anything other than a resounding "no", then Sophie Mirabella has done us an enormous favour by exposing an extraordinary level of cronyism in this country. Cronyism – which solidifies power and influence by restricting opportunity and benefits to supporters –  is the allocation of public resources on the basis of partisan political benefit.

If Wangaratta was promised additional funding in any sense, then senior Liberals must be called to account for how and why this funding was not forthcoming. It may be a matter that funding priorities genuinely changed but such a contention lacks integrity without transparency. If Australian politics is as "clean" as former Prime Minister Tony Abbott contends, then the Government should publicly answer questions about how it determines funding prerogatives.

It is our money — we have a right to know.

It is an indictment on the acceptance of cronyist practices in Australian politics that the possibility that hospital funding was determined by an MP’s re-election hasn’t caused continued national outrage. I’m not naive — "pork-barrelling" of infrastructure spending definitely occurs and the spectre of cronyism is inherent in a political system which rewards ambition over talent. Yet there is something outrageously macabre about the notion that the funding of health resources should be subjected to political considerations rather than objective need.

A community’s health resources often determine life and death. Funding levels correlate with the facilities able to be provided in emergencies as well as how accessible medical treatment is generally. The bipartisan nonchalance of our federal representatives to the prospect that Mirabella’s re-election had any role in determining health funding is sickening. Perhaps our system isn’t as clean as people insist.

Sorry Scott Morrison but I don’t care whether the commitment was public or it was private, I am only concerned with whether or not a commitment was made at all.

If it was, then you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either Wangaratta deserved $10 million in additional health funding and it was withdrawn out of petty political vengeance on the people of Indi, or it never deserved the funding in the first place and it was secured because of Sophie Mirabella’s standing in the Liberal Party. In a country where Indigenous life expectancy is 10 years lower than that of the general population, the deliberate misallocation of health funding cannot be accepted as politics as usual.

The allegations made by Sophie Mirabella require a public and transparent investigation. At the very least, she must be called before a public body to explain the context of the Wangaratta Hospital commitments as she understood them.

More and more it is becoming apparent that it is time for a federal anti-corruption body. In the words of Louis Brandeis,

“sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” 

We will never know how much partisan consideration infiltrate and corrupt policy decisions until we expose them to public examination. Sorry Tony Abbott, but I have become increasingly unconvinced that federal politics is "clean" just because you say so. The time has come to shine the light on murky and underhanded backroom deals.

You can read more from Jonathon Ireland on his blog, The Young Contrarians, or follow him on twitter here

Cartoon of Malcolm Turnbull courtesy of John Graham. You can order other cartoons of John's from the IA store here

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