Aged Care Minister Ken Wyatt has told a Victorian court he was approached by Sophie Mirabella to “get our evidence right” regarding claims the former Liberal MP pushed her political rival, Cathy McGowan, at an election event.
Mr Wyatt was a key witness in a civil case brought by Mrs Mirabella against the Benalla Ensign newspaper, published in Victoria’s north-east, which ran a story in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election, saying Ms McGowan, an independent, was pushed out of a photo opportunity at an aged care home.
At the time Mrs Mirabella was contesting the rural seat of Indi, which she lost to Ms McGowan in 2013. Mr Wyatt was attending the event.
“As a minister, if requested I tend to have a photo with the sitting member,” he told the civil jury trial, which is being held at the County Court in Wangaratta.
Mr Wyatt said he was approached by Mrs Mirabella, who had heard Ms McGowan was seeking a photo.
He said she had not wanted him to take the picture, as it could give her legitimacy as a “Liberal-lite” candidate.
“[Mrs Mirabella] moved around in front of me, put her hands on my chest and asked that I don’t [allow the photo] because it would legitimise an alliance to the Liberal party,” Mr Wyatt said.
He told the court Mrs Mirabella held her hands on his chest for about a minute.
Mr Wyatt told the court he was approached by Mrs Mirabella twice during the Liberal party’s federal council meeting in Sydney in June 2017 – two months after Mrs Mirabella launched her defamation suit.
“She said we have to get our evidence right,” Mr Wyatt told the court.
I said, ‘I’m a JP [Justice of the Peace] and it’s inappropriate’.”
Last week the court heard Mrs Mirabella secretly recorded the first conversation. That tape was today played in court.
During the six-and-a-half-minute conversation, the pair discussed the incident several times. Mrs Mirabella said she put her hands on his shoulders.
“No it was on my chest,” Mr Wyatt said on a number of occasions during the recording.
Mr Wyatt spent 25 minutes on the witness stand.
The record was made “unbeknownst” to Mr Wyatt, the court heard.
When her testimony resumed, Mrs Mirabella was asked about comments she allegedly made, saying that she wanted to get the “evidence right” – and she rejected them.
“It was my job to convince him why it was politically unwise,” she said.
“I told him he shouldn’t have the photo with her as it would perpetuate the myth that she was close to the Liberal Party when she wasn’t,” she told the court.
Mirabella says minister ‘didn’t see me push anyone’
During at times testy interactions with David Gilbertson, QC, who is representing the Benalla Ensign, and reporter Libby Price, Mrs Mirabella said again and again the she did not push Ms McGowan.
She also said Mr Wyatt had told her that he “didn’t see me push anyone”.
Of the secret recording of Mr Wyatt, Mrs Mirabella told the court: “I just wanted him to repeat what he’d said to me before”.
“I needed some evidence to show my lawyers that the [newspaper’s defence] was rubbish,” he said.
The newspaper admitted it got the story wrong but denied the story was defamatory.
The hearing before judge Michael MacNamara continues.