My interest in community independents began when I covered the successful Cathy McGowan race for Indi in 2013, on Twitter and through my website No Fibs. In 2018, I became Kerryn Phelps’ unofficial Twitter campaign manager for the Wentworth by-election and focused on independents at the 2019 election, under the #IndependentsDay hashtag. After the election, I decided to write a book about the independents I followed, and, with filmmaker Squig, who produced ads for three independents during the campaign, we attended dinner parties hosted by candidates who chose as guests people crucial to their campaigns. The idea was to gain insight into how the campaigns came together and how they worked.
In July 2019, my mother, with whom I lived for more than a decade, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I dropped the book idea.
When I saw that Kerryn was to be a keynote speaker at Cathy’s summit on how to stand as a community independent, I thought I’d publish a piece on the dinner party at her place, for participants.
The trigger for every independent campaign is different, and Kerryn’s began as a pop-up response to the overthrowing of a Prime Minister, the candidate was a celebrity and the electorate was small, influential and, in parts, rich.
The key elements of all community independent campaigns were also in place – a coalition of voters across the political spectrum, serious organisational team members, and, maybe most importantly, the fun and even joy of working in a team for a common goal. There’s a big bonus: a blow-by-blow of how Kerryn led an impossible – successful – push for legislation to help sick refugees on Manus Island and in Nauru. Independents really can achieve miracles in parliament.
I hope participants enjoy listening in on Kerryn’s dinner party.
Wentworth, a Federation seat, is Australia’s richest and houses some of the most economically and politically powerful people in the country as well as many renters. It’s the fundraising jewel in the Liberal Party’s crown and Australia’s second most compact seat, comprising 38 kilometres of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, overlooking Sydney Harbour and Bondi Beach.
Wentworth includes the highest percentage of Jewish voters in the nation and the 5th-highest percentage of same-sex couples. 63 per cent of voters have a tertiary degree, and many others are students studying for one. It has never been held by the Labor Party.
In 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull won 67.75pc of the two-party-preferred vote.
At the by-election on October 20, 2018, Liberal candidate Dave Sharma suffered a two-candidate-preferred swing against him of 18.96pc and Dr Kerryn Phelps won it with 51.22pc.
At the 2019 election, Dr Phelps lost narrowly, after winning a !6.44pc swing against the Liberals compared to the 2016 election. She lost 51.31pc to 48.69pc
Kerryn Phelps and her partner Jackie Stricker-Phelps
Karen Freyer worked at the BBC and CNN before gaining her Harvard MBA. Now working a with Kerryn at City of Sydney Council, she joined Kerryn’s team at the 2019 election as a strategist and door-knocker.
Julia Hatsatouris, a retired teacher, was an on-the-ground volunteer.
Tony Coburn is a consultant at a major law firm and the election numbers man.
Yvonne Coburn, a former lawyer and now leadership consultant and executive coach, is a former Liberal Party member and elected councillor, was also a strategist and influencer.
Darrin Barnett worked for Prime Minister Julia Gillard and set up a political consultancy business with Anthony Reed when she lost the 2013 election. He was Kerryn’s media manager for the by-election, chief of staff to her as an MP and her election campaign manager.
Margie Blok, a former editor of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Title Deeds section, was an on-the-ground volunteer.
Julie Hannaford, film and television producer, volunteered full time in the campaign office.
Gabi Stricker-Phelps, now 21, is Kerryn and Jackie’s daughter and organised the youth group supporting the campaigns.
Dr Kerryn Phelps (celebrity TV doctor, Australian Medical Association (AMA) president, a leader of the same-sex marriage campaign, shortest serving member for Wentworth) and her partner Jackie live on the 15th floor of a Potts Point Apartment near the CBD with views of the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
It’s exactly four weeks since election night, when Wentworth, despite the unanimous ‘expert’ view that Dave Sharma would easily retake Wentworth for the Libs, was too close to call on the night. Postals won it for Sharma, but the result officially turned Australia’s richest electorate marginal. I thought the mood would be down; I mean she lost, not by much, but she lost. Instead Yvonne Coburn says hi with a big smile and alludes to a well-known Leonard Cohen line, “Sometimes the vessel has to break for the light to shine in.”
We eat a simple meal of salmon and greens, and I discover there hasn’t been a debrief since May 18, and that this is it. Everyone is up, like they’ve been waiting for this chance to work out what happened and if anything comes next.
Kerryn is a councillor for the City of Sydney. She was elected on Mayor Clover Moore’s ticket, but they fell out in a specular Eastern-Suburbs-of-Sydney way. She says she’d just pulled together a small group to challenge Clover for Lord Mayor in the 2020 election (postponed due to COVID-19 to September 2021) when the Liberal hard right knifed Malcolm Turnbull.
Then people called, emailed and tweeted her to stand for Wentworth. Margie accosted her in the local liquor store. She’d never done politics before, “but I thought what a pack of tossers, and they’re in charge of us? This is appalling, so when I ran into Kerryn I said ‘stand and I’m there’.”
Julia’s only previous involvement in politics was handing out how-to-votes for former member Peter King because Peter’s son was at school with her son. She called Jackie who she has known for forty years since they were young teaching graduates. “I said if Kerryn’s in I’m there. I’ll do pre-polls, I’ll do election day. I’ve lived in the area for a time, I’ve taught in the area and I know a lot of people.”
Why did Kerryn consider standing?
“I had a real determination to do something about the climate change issue and the treatment of refugees and the lurch to the right of the Liberal Party and what I saw as a very disturbing direction that the country was taking,” she says. “Part of what I’ve always done is thinking why doesn’t someone do something about it and look around and you’re the person there who needs to do something about it. I had to ask my support team for the council election if they were prepared to shift focus for the Wentworth by-election. Their support was an essential prerequisite.”
Okay, she had support, lots of it, but she had no idea how to run an election campaign. She adds that she decided to run after Darrin and his business partner Anthony sat at this table.
It’s a very big deal for a politically-ambitious celebrity to put it on the line for a pop-up campaign she’ll probably lose. I steal a glance at the composed, frighteningly-intelligent woman beside me and realise how much I admire her.
I ask the volunteers at the table, why get involved? Was it because Turnbull was rolled or because of the reason he was rolled: to stop any action on climate change?
Here’s where Yvonne and Tony – who’d never met Kerryn before the by-election – enter the fray. She is Jewish, a former Liberal councillor representing the very Jewish conservative suburb of Dover Heights. He scrutineered in other election campaigns.
“The two things go together,” Yvonne says. “Having a candidate who genuinely embodied the principles of small-l liberalism and was all about actual change was incredibly motivating for us to join. It was about having somebody who with great authenticity was prepared to take a stand. I actually resent, at one level, that people say it was because Malcolm was rolled – that was really unfortunate but it was a much bigger thing.”
Yvonne had left the Liberal Party some time earlier. After serving as a Liberal councillor on Waverley Council she and Tony moved to Victoria for a time. “I watched the general trend in the party of being more concerned about internal factional fighting and politics as opposed to really thinking about what constituents wanted,” she says.
So when Turnbull resigned Yvonne went to see Kerryn and Jackie. “I really cross-examined both of them, actually. I thought these are amazing women and they genuinely care about the community and things I care about so I brought Tony along to the next meeting (Kerryn: “For the next interrogation”).
Tony: “Both of us were very disappointed with the turn inside the Liberal Party over the last two or three years, and the failure of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was the last straw. We wanted to go along and see how we felt about this candidate. We’d heard great things about Kerryn, and we both had the sense that she was likely to be an evidence-based person so we visited her campaign office during my lunch hour.”
Yvonne: “I wasn’t going to do anything behind people’s backs, so I told Liberal people ‘I’m supporting Kerryn and this is why’, because the bottom line is I actually care about real leadership, and about supporting someone who effectively will make a change and care about the things I care about”.
“So I became an adviser to Kerryn and an influencer in terms of the community, certainly in terms of the Jewish community, and helping my friends to understand that a vote for Kerryn didn’t mean they were moving so far across to the left that they couldn’t stomach that.”
Tony: “On a two-candidate preferred basis, up on Dover Heights where Yvonne’s base is, Turnbull achieved a vote just over 80 per cent in the 2016 election and at the by-election Sharma was in the low-mid 60s, and for mine, it had a lot to do with you getting out there with Kerryn, and doing some door-knocking,”
Kerryn: “Yes, we had some surprised looks on their faces in Dover Heights when Yvonne and I turned up at their doors in Dover Heights and said hello.”
Yvonne: “What was beautiful was that everybody was talking about Kerryn being supported by Labor operatives, but, hello! We’re talking about people who’ve always voted Liberal, their parents have always voted Liberal, it’s who they are. Rebranding themselves was very big.”
Margie was chief volunteer for Potts Point and Kings Cross. She did every market till by-election day. “Day one, never done this before, put my purple T-shirt on, up to the market, and know most of these people,” she says. “In the beginning people were skeptical – what does she think she can do? Why? So we had to say why Kerryn was going to be good, and I had known Kerryn for a long time so I could talk off the top of my head that this was a very good person. And I helped write a page of policies we could all share. Unfortunately I fell over two days later after I began campaigning and broke my ankle. So I’m on crutches, and I got a lot of sympathy in the moon boot and crutches.”
I turn to Julie.
“I’ve never been involved in politics before. I’m in the film industry; traditionally I’m a Labor-Green voter, but Malcolm Turnbull inspired me with his positivity. So for the first time in my life I voted Liberal,” she says. “I’m a person desperate for positive change. I was emotionally devastated with the Julia Gillard treatment. I grew up on the northern beaches in a misogynistic culture, and Julia Gillard was the mentor of hope that I always wanted. When she was so mistreated by the misogyny and chauvinism I was devastated. Similarly with Hillary Clinton. Malcolm was my next hope, then he was mistreated and ousted. I knew Kerryn, we’d worked together a long time ago, in 1984, on the ABC’s Everybody’s Health program, where she was the resident doctor. I just wanted a strong, intelligent, independent woman of integrity to give me some hope that there are women who can be role models for the next generation”.
“We went through Howard, with his regressive policies, and Abbott as Minister for Women, and I was just desperate for something good to happen. So I heard on the grapevine that Kerryn might stand and I was in my bedroom sending my vibes ‘stand, stand, stand’. She announced and I turned up in the office and said, ‘Hi, I once worked for you and I’m here now’. And I stayed for the entire time full time.
“It was a big commitment but I wanted to commit because I believed we could make a change. It was not egotistical, I wanted positive change. I worked with Darrin on policies, on press releases, videos, we had a core team of about 14, and I have to tell you it was like being in a little film crew. It’s always wonderful to work in a small team where the goal is beyond self. That core team was all of us working 24/7, we were getting texts from Darrin at midnight, and Google alerts, Google alerts, Google alerts, but we all worked as a team supporting each other, helping each other. It was collaborative.”
Julie was one of many who just turned up and asked to help, including on policy.
Kerryn: “I’d be at the railway station or the Rose Bay ferry wharf and they’d say you have to be back at the campaign office at 11 o’clock. And I’d walk and there’d be this amazing national or international expert on something giving me a tutorial on an issue – refugee law climate policy, energy policy, superannuation policy – and they’d line people up for me through their contacts, or contacts of contacts who wanted to come in and be a policy adviser for me to develop policy. We pulled together an extraordinary manifesto of sensible, economically conservative, socially progressive policies over a few weeks.”
Jackie: “Kerryn and I have been walking our dogs through Rushcutters Bay for eight years, and there’s this woman we put in my telephone as ‘Lyn with the poodles’. So I walk into the campaign office and there’s Lyn with the poodles. And our volunteer Penny had found her, because she was a brilliant superannuation expert.”
Julie: “She’d retired and was looking for things to do; and she not only lectured and presented forums for Kerryn, she stood at Paddington every day, by-election and election, every day.”
Enter John Hewson, former Liberal Party leader and member for Wentworth.
Jackie: “One of our volunteer’s daughters was at school with his daughter, and she thought he would be a really good person for Kerryn to talk to because he knows everything about climate and energy, and she gave me his phone number and I rang and he said he’d love to talk to her, and he did. (He also door-knocked for Stop Adani, did a forum for Kerryn and advocated for her election on television).
Kerryn: “He sat down with me for hours and helped me to really understand the economics of climate and energy policy, from a standing start – a massive learning curve.”
Jackie. “And a lot of people invited Kerryn into their homes – the Israeli model –- to talk to people who then went and talked to their friends.” (Kerryn did one the week before our dinner, on climate change, for 40 people).
It was a circus, the by-election, a circus of national media and 18 candidates and Liberal members from all over Sydney and beyond, Getup! and Stop Adani activists, and people who, well, just turned up to do their own thing.
Julie: “Someone came down from Lightning Ridge who we didn’t know, and he just wobble-boarded a Kerryn corflute for about nine hours a day then packed up and went home. Flagrant India, which was directly over the road from our office, bought food for us during the day. When he was delivering menus he delivered a Kerryn poster, and he delivered lunch to Mr Lightning Ridge every day.
“Two Chinese men from Wetherill Park (40 kilometres from Wentworth in Western Sydney) – the father was in his 80s and a son who was in his 30s – wanted to meet Kerryn because Kerryn to them was freedom and independence. They waited for Kerryn from ten in the morning till three in the afternoon, then we arranged for them to go to Bondi Junction where Kerryn was. They wanted to meet her because she supported the refugees.”
Margie: “A lot of people out of the area were engaged. A man who has a sheep property at Bathurst, Charles Boag, he came down and said ‘wouldn’t miss this for quids’.
When a safe seat is under threat, let alone in a by-election when numbers in parliament are tight, the people in the party under threat get nasty. Very nasty. It hadn’t been seen in Wentworth before, and the people around the table told painful stories of friendships strained and traditional Liberal Party supporters estranged.
Margie: “By-election day I woke up at 4.30 and hobbled over to our booth to here and check out our booth because I was booth captain and I’d never done anything like this before, and they’d defaced all our stuff, and we’d bugger all money to put our things up. They had that ghastly, enormous – the size of that wall over there – picture of Kerryn with the worst photograph that’s ever been taken, and Bill Shorten in her colours thank you very much.
“By 7am they had swamped the place, there were maybe 30 young Liberals, aggressive, the most awful, awful, awful people, they were shoulder charging people, and by 10.30 in the morning there was a particular Liberal boy there who was extremely abusive and rude to me, incredibly rude about Kerryn, saying ‘Why are you doing this?’. The Labor guy, he just said, “Margie, enough” and at 11.30 he went and got the AEC (Australian Electoral Commission) fellow out and he was spoken to severely and told to move away and back off.”
Tony: “At Dover Heights we had three people handing out how-to-votes, and at about 7.30 a bus arrived with what seemed like about 30 people in blue T-shirts, some of whom said they were from Brisbane, and I had two of them on my shoulder just taunting me for the whole day, ‘Hung parliament. Disaster. How can you do it. How can you do it. Disaster’.”
Julia: “You’ve got to get on with people. If you win or lose you’ve got to get on the next day. This election there was a lot of nastiness. There were people I’ve known for a long time who were really abusive.”
Kerryn’s been quiet so far, but when Yvonne asks her about the Medevac Bill, those halcyon days – for me at least – when the crossbench held the balance of power and a breakthrough was possible on big, important matters that seemed always stuck, she comes to life. I am riveted.
“That was an extraordinary experience and Darrin and I worked hand in glove because I couldn’t have done it without Darrin and his connections in the Labor Party,” she says. “The Labor Party had been fiddle-farting around with its refugee policy for a really long time and they were completely paralysed, they weren’t game to step up and do something because the right couldn’t agree with the left”.
“I said to the refugee advocates, ‘What is the biggest problem?’ They said we cannot get medical care to the people who need it, because the doctors were recommending transfer to Australia for treatment and the bureaucrats under the minister’s instructions were blocking all of those medical transfers and setting up legal obstacles.”
Darrin: “They were doing it according to the profile of the person, not the medical need. Effectively, if you’re a single bloke on Manus Island you’re not going to get evacuated, so someone died from a cut on his foot.”
Kerryn: “So I said the way we do this is we get a couple of doctors to give an opinion and then you can make things move. And the refugee advocates wherever they were arrived in our office and set up camp and stayed for two weeks. At any one time we had 21 people sitting in my office on chairs, on floors, on the lounges. Forget me having an office, if I wanted to have a phone call I went to the toilet.
“We had shadow ministers coming in and out and the reason we got away with it without the Liberals twigging until the night before it went to the Senate was we were right down the end of Parliament House with no through traffic, so people were just wandering through coming to my office and no-one could see them coming or going to this hive of activity. And I said to Shane Neumann (Labor’s Immigration Spokesman), ‘Will you agree to this?’ and he’d say in principle, ‘Yes, I have to go back to the caucus’.”
Darrin: “This was all playing out while Kids Off Nauru was still a campaign. There’s no doubt that the Wentworth by-election put Kids Off Nauru on the map. There was always a big set of events for that campaign planned for that final sitting fortnight.”
Kerryn: “So we were out the front of Parliament House with hundreds of people, little kids, placards, refugees, Jimmy and Jane Barnes, there were truckloads of petitions, and Andrew Wilkie (independent MP for the Tasmanian seat of Clark) and I carried this massive petition into the Prime Minister’s office – which we never got a receipt for.
“We had #6000doctors, and we said we know you’re behind the Kids Off Nauru campaign, we need you to get behind Medevac legislation. So once we announced what we were going to do the 6000 doctors signed the petition within 48 hours, and the AMA came in behind it, which brought a dozen medical colleges in.
“Then as we were getting agreement with the Labor Party I had to individually talk to Richard di Natale, Adam Bandt, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie and get their agreement. All the refugee lawyers contacted their external legal advisors who drafted and redrafted the legislation.
“I knew from my time as AMA president that you need to listen to what everyone is saying and know what the different political agendas are, and find a compromise that is politically satisfactory, even though not ideal, to everyone. We had Ged Kearney, Tony Burke and Anthony Albanese talking to us about what the friction points might be.”
Darrin: “Anthony Albanese got shadow cabinet to come and talk to you one-on-one and then went back into shadow cabinet.”
Kerryn: “We then had to work out how to get the House of Representatives to debate this and pass it before everything finished. We didn’t have the numbers to suspend standing orders because you have to have an absolute majority, so Quiton Clements, who works for World Vision (he’d been chief of staff to two Senate presidents) piped up and said, ‘Ha, but there is a nondescript miscellaneous Home Affairs amendment bill going through the Senate on this particular day’. So we said this is miscellaneous and bolted it onto that bill and it went through the Senate and then we waited for it to come back, but Hanson and Bernardi filibustered in the Senate so it took much longer that we expected and then Morrison said ho, ho, ho Merry Christmas and closed down parliament.”
Darrin: “Labor had to do it so it would go to national conference in December with something on refugees for the left – people like Tanya [Plibersek] and Ged were insisting that something be done. But because of the filibustering the bill just sat there as the first notice of business for 2019. So Morrison got all the kids off Nauru, so he could run the more potent line that all those left could be rapists or murderers.
“The Government went feral over the break, and Mike Pezzullo [head of the Immigration Department] was of the view that Medevac was a pull factor, then Shorten and Tanya did a briefing with him and said it would be limited to those already on Manus and Nauru. So Pezzullo said that meant no pull factor – he didn’t have to say that, I think that was his way of saying he wanted to keep his job under a Labor government. For us, that was when it all calmed down, that was the critical piece of information that allowed Labor to say we had the briefing Pezzullo was thinking that Labor was gunna win the election… and for us, that was when it all calmed down.”
Okay, for me it’s a tragedy Kerryn didn’t sneak in again. I’m thinking Sharma will want to get in the ministry so he’ll keep his head down. For me, Kerryn would have been a natural leader on the crossbench, and a shining star for Wentworth. Still, she came bloody close.
The election campaign was different, very different… the national media circus, the first-time creative activism by constituents, Getup! and Stop Adani, and the Liberal Party nastiness moved across the harbour to another blue-ribbon seat, Warringah. The Libs spent another million dollars in Wentworth, but this time they didn’t attack Kerryn, they ignored her, publicly at least, and plastered Dave ‘modern Liberal’ Sharma everywhere.
The campaign, in short, became more normal, though still very hard-fought. The Liberals changed tack from relentless advertising against Kerryn to virtually ignoring her, instead spending this million dollars on ads for Sharma, everywhere.
Karen: “Some volunteers peeled off now the seat-of-the-pants excitement was gone and the election wasn’t about Malcolm, but others joined.
“I was quite involved in the Labor Party, and really frustrated with organised politics and how it rewarded longevity rather than skill, and I was really inspired by a true independent succeeding who had arrived where she was through intelligence and skill rather than mates and just being there for a very long time and not having done anything else. One of the greatest things that we’re missing in politics is that it’s not representative of the population. You have all these white guys who’ve done nothing else but politics and we give them portfolios they have zero experience in with huge amounts of money and I think that needs to change. And what I really valued about Kerryn was that she was talking about and addressing the issues that were on everybody’s minds and effecting change. And that I found to be so refreshing. I was inspired by it.”
So does the purple army disperse, or is this the beginning, not the end?
Everyone bar Jackie wants Kerryn to stand again, to her surprise, and all would help her have another go.
Yvonne: “I have had so many people say, Yvonne, the only reason we didn’t vote for Kerryn is we were terrified Shorten would get in; and so many people have said to me since the election, she cannot give up, she is the voice of reason, she’s the change we’ve been looking for, please tell me she will continue. I want her to not give up because she has a really important, national voice.”
But Jackie believes the time has come to take Clover on for the Lord Mayoralty. Kerryn is noncommittal.
I say, if not Kerryn, someone else maybe mentored by Kerryn?
Yvonne: “People are starting to have real conversations about the existing situation and about what they would like to see for the future and that kind of real community engagement is something I’m seeing more and more. I’ve been along to quite a few young womens’ groups and there is an energy there and a sense that we need to get off our butts and do something. So what I’m hearing in terms of these conversations is we are engaged we are ready and we are waiting for our leader to make a decision about what she wants to do. There is a genuine commitment to going beyond the status quo. I think there’s an increased awareness that future generations are looking to us for something else, and I think there’s an increased consciousness. Like I said to you, ‘Sometimes the vessel has to break for the light to shine in’. It’s true, and I think that vessel has broken and the light is starting to come in.”
Tony: “We’ve got 500 or 600 people who are still enthusiastic, who are still posting messages on Facebook. We can reach them again. We’re talking about a highly-educated group of people, with a duty to this country. And I accept that people are worried about the hip pocket and there’s ego involved, but there’s also an intellect in this seat, and lots of opinions. We could have forums in which we harness that opportunity, I think it’s not over yet. We had no time. Both elections were pop-ups. The by-election was a pop-up, because Kerryn you rightly gave a huge amount of energy into getting something done in parliament. We as a group could run a three year election campaign this time.
“We have the ability to engage with this electorate in a way which is a bit different to the way you might engage with the general public, if you can just capture their interest. In the by-election campaign we were able to pull together residents who were experts in different fields, to volunteer. What if we took those connections and said let’s start educating some people on what good policy would actually look like, which if I may say so is entirely the way Kerryn thinks, which is very evidence-based.”
Yvonne: “We don’t need a new party. I think it is a movement. I think it’s stronger than just a party but how do we do that in terms of effecting real change? The younger generation is looking for that. They don’t want any more parties, they don’t want same old. We need people to actually say, enough’s enough.”
Darrin: “Wentworth is winnable for an independent again, and it needs to be someone with a profile. I would help Kerryn run again. Someone with a profile can win Wentworth again.”
As we leave Squig says, “I wonder if we witnessed the first meeting of Voices for Wentworth?”
Postscript: Kerryn recently announced she would stand for Sydney Lord Mayor. A Voices for Wentworth group has formed.