Who the heck is Mitch Catlin, anyway?

Three years ago, a gossip columnist archly described Mitch Catlin as being “best known for walking celebrities into marquees at the Melbourne Cup”.

How, then, has this marketing man found himself at the centre of the biggest political storm to engulf Victorian politics in months and, according to some, brought the state opposition to its knees just months out from the state election?

Mitch Catlin, pictured in the Lexus marquee on Derby Day, 2018.Credit:Jesse Marlow

Catlin’s appointment as chief of staff to Opposition Leader Matthew Guy raised eyebrows last September, given his relative lack of political experience. It’s understood Catlin was initially slated to be Guy’s communications director but, when another appointment fell over, moved instead into the chief-of-staff role.

True to style, Catlin’s appointment was announced via a well-briefed story by one of Catlin’s favoured scribes at the Herald Sun, complete with a glowing summary of his work history and supplied quotes from unnamed “supporters”.

“Colleagues have described the openly gay Catlin as intelligent and insightful”, the piece read, accompanied by paparazzi-style photographs of Catlin, Guy and his deputy David Southwick drinking takeaway coffees on Spring Street. It concluded: “Keeping the focus on the boss, Catlin confirmed he had joined the team but declined to say any more.”

Behind the scenes, his appointment rankled some.

Former marketing man Mitch Catlin has found himself at the centre of a political storm.Credit:Jesse Marlow

Within the party, and particularly among supporters of former leader Michael O’Brien, the emergence of Catlin as a key figure from the very start of Guy’s leadership fuelled suspicions he had been involved in plotting the coup against O’Brien (Caitlin did not respond to requests for comment. Guy’s office declined to comment.)

Others, including among Melbourne’s marketing set, were simply surprised to see a man seen as a “total genius” of public relations now working in political office.

Catlin did have some skin in the game. He worked on Liberal member Nick Russian’s bid to become Melbourne’s lord mayor (Russian polled a solid fourth), and helped deal with a story that briefly threatened to destabilise that campaign, when Russian’s wife Rozalia was spotted shopping at Tiffany’s during one of Melbourne’s interminable lockdowns of 2020.

Most of his experience, however, has been with high-end corporate clients. After leaving the media – he was a television journalist with Seven – he worked in public relations and marketing, spending almost five years as Myer’s PR and events general manager before moving to Swisse Wellness in 2011, for almost four years.

In 2014, he registered the name for his own PR company, Catchy Media Marketing and Management, although its website has since expired.

It was this company that stood to gain from Catlin’s approach to billionaire Liberal donor Jonathan Munz, when Catlin sought more than $100,000 in payments, in addition to his taxpayer-funded salary. Munz said that when he received the email “he rejected it out of hand”. Catlin resigned on Tuesday after The Age revealed the sorry affair.

Few Liberals will go on the record to share their thoughts about Catlin. One senior figure unleashed a barrage of unprintable descriptions of Catlin when contacted, while another disparaged him as a “name-dropper” who won favour with Guy, with his promises to bring in big donations from corporate supporters.

“A lot of people who knew him quite well have reached out to me saying, ‘we knew this would happen’,” that person said.

“It was only a matter of time before he came unstuck.”

Publicly, senior Liberals are keeping schtum (with the notable exception of former leader Michael O’Brien, who pointedly posted on Twitter, on the day of Catlin’s resignation: “Sick of dodgy politics? So am I.”

But privately, they are reeling. Some predict Guy will lose the leadership, while grimly acknowledging where this turmoil would lead less than four months before the state election.

“I think on the surface, they’re all talking it up as if it’s a storm in a tea cup, but I think deep down, they’re pretty well aware of the severity of it all,” one said of the leadership.

And of Matthew Guy: “I just don’t know how he can survive it, to be honest.”

Mitch Catlin and, inset, Opposition Leader Matthew Guy.Credit:The Age

Talk to people about Catlin, and one episode is mentioned again and again. Not, perhaps, for the reasons Catin might prefer.

Three years ago, Nine star Karl Stefanovic – then facing relentless social media pressure in the wake of his divorce and new relationship – was the subject of a speculative column in the Herald Sun (by the same faithful scribe) describing his apparent signing of a deal to have Catlin kickstart his “reputation reinvention”.

Catlin, readers were told, would help Stefanovic’s “on the road to redemption” to remake his “brand”. Trouble was, it seemed the Herald Sun knew more about this arrangement than anyone else.

“Mitch is a man of enormous confidence and self-promotion”, a well-placed source with knowledge of the episode told this masthead. “He and Karl had a conversation in a marquee at the Melbourne Cup. That’s all it was.” The arrangement, such as it was, was not to last. Catlin declined to tell the Sydney Morning Herald whether he had “leaked” the story himself.

One person who worked with him before he joined Guy’s office, however, said Catlin was a “bloody good publicist”. They pointed to him bringing US comedian Ellen DeGeneres out to promote “G’day USA” in 2013, and Nicole Kidman for an appearance in the Swisse marquee on Derby Day at Flemington in 2012.

The latter was, that source said: “total genius, to be honest … It was all anybody was talking about.”

But to be genius in PR – knowing which journalists to court, whom to take to lunch, and which celebrities to bring out to Australia to promote your brand – is not the same as being clever in politics.

“He is a rat-cunning, savvy lifestyle product publicist,” one person who knew him well observes.

“So to make this launch to politics, apart from the disdain he had for [Daniel] Andrews, I did think it was a weird move, and the first thing I did think was, ‘gee they must be playing him a shitload of money’ because I thought, you know, why would you?

“I did find it a little bit strange.”

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