BY JOHN MOYLE
Few independents have had their entry into federal politics as highly anticipated as that of Dr Kerryn Phelps. For weeks the polling results for the upcoming by-election for Wentworth have carried provisos that the candidate positions would be affected if Dr Phelps decided to run, and now she has. “It wasn’t on my radar three weeks ago,” Dr Phelps said. “When Malcolm Turnbull was dumped, people in their hundreds came up to me and said that they were really angry with the Liberals and ‘will you please run’.”
Declaring her candidacy on the weekend, Dr Phelps was immediately greeted by the results of a recent ReachTel poll which put her at 12 per cent of the primary vote for the Saturday October 20 by-election. Nowhere in its 117 year history will you find evidence to suggest Wentworth would vote any way but conservative, with the Liberals holding the seat since the party’s formation in 1944.
That was, until the Liberals’ spectacular meltdown in Canberra which saw Malcolm Turnbull, Wentworth’s most popular member ever, assassinated by Peter Dutton and his team of climate change deniers. The conservative comfort zone immediately evaporated, and had the Liberals scrambling for a candidate who could at least rescue some of Turnbull’s majority, but instead of a clear way forward, ended up with a Melbourne Cup race of candidates who confused and angered many in the electorate.
After a marathon pre-selection which lasted until 1.30am last Friday morning, the Wentworth branch of the Liberal party finally selected former Australian ambassador to Israel, David Sharma. “I don’t think that flying someone into Wentworth is going to go well for the Liberals at all,” Dr Phelps said. “The fact is that the candidate they have chosen hasn’t lived in Australia for much of his adult life and doesn’t know his way around the electorate.
“It seems to me that the people of Wentworth need a local with local knowledge.” While most Sydneysiders will recognise Dr Phelps’ political profile from her role as a City of Sydney Councillor, she has been a general practitioner in Double Bay for over twenty years and knows the issues affecting the area.
“The issues that I see important in Wentworth at the moment are the end of the leadership circus and maintaining a strong economy,” Dr Phelps said. “We also need to start looking at issues like salaries for aged care, health care and childcare workers so that we can maintain our essential workforce.” The elephant in the room in Wentworth also sits in the Liberal party room.
It’s an elephant which has trampled a number of Liberal Prime Ministers, and that is the subject of climate change action. Wentworth is possibly a far more progressive seat than the Liberals give it credit for and climate change action looks like being the single biggest issue if the views of Labor and the Greens are taken into account. “We need to look at climate change action – the government doesn’t have a climate change policy at the moment and the future of our country and our planet relies on every country doing their part,” Dr Phelps said.
Other policies Dr Phelps will take to the electorate include reviewing Australia’s refugee policy, and in particular the impact on the lives of refugees on Manus and Nauru. “I think that the way that the refugees are being treated in those places is a blight on the Australian character and it is a shocking thing for our reputation as a nation,” Dr Phelps said. With her background in medicine and many years of public advocacy of a strong general practice, public health and medical politics it is not surprising that the government’s erosion of Medicare is at the forefront of her policies. “The government has frozen Medicare rebates to the point where they have cut general practices to the bone and general practices are the foundation of our health care system,” Dr Phelps said.
Preserving retirement incomes and bringing some certainty to retirees is also high on her policy list. “I don’t think that it is acceptable from both major parties to have people who have spent their lives planning for retirement have their futures destabilised by government changing policy.” This is not Dr Phelps’ first taste of political life as in 1999 she was elected to the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, and the following year was elected Federal President of the AMA.
“Working with the AMA for several years we were in Canberra for half the week so I understand how that system works and how the decision making works,” Dr Phelps said. Dr Phelps stresses that she will be running a grassroots campaign as an independent and will not be beholden to any political party. “I’m a true independent and I am not intending to do any direct preferences,” Dr Phelps said.
Having to rely on a dedicated team of volunteers to get the campaign to the announcement stage, Dr Phelps says more volunteers and crowdfunding will be needed over the next five weeks.
A website KerrynPhelps.com has been set up for volunteers and donations.