As the next federal election looms, there’s much more focus now on centre-right candidates running against Liberal incumbents in blue-ribbon seats across Australia, especially inner-urban seats in Sydney and Melbourne, but also more generally.
In this latest edition of @transitzonepod we continue our side-bar series on grassroots democracy and the growing independents’ movement, modelled by Cathy McGowan in Indi in Victoria and Zali Steggall’s success in ousting former PM Tony Abbott in the Sydney electorate of Warringah.
Right next door to the north of Warringah is Mackellar, held by Jason Falinski. Meet co-founder of “Mackellar Rising”, Dr Sophie Scamps and “Vote Tony Out” founder, Mark Kelly.
Mackellar GP Dr Sophie Scamps on the why and how of finding herself leading the charge for an #IndependentsDay community independent MP in blue ribbon #MackellarVotes
Edited transcript of our #transitzone podcast interview with Mackellar Rising co-founder Dr Sophie Scamps (the podcast also includes Mark Kelly, a Warringah campaigner for Zali Steggall at the last election who is working with Mackellar Rising).
Peter Clarke: We’re recording this podcast, another in our ongoing series on grassroots democracy around Australia, on the first of October 2021, at a very particular time. We’ve got the federal coalition roiling with climate change the big issue, the Glasgow COP is looming, the next federal election is looming, and this week in the National Press Club, we had the last Prime Minister from the Liberal Party Malcolm Turnbull excoriating Scott Morrison about the French submarines and repeating some of his denunciation of Morrison that he gave on the #transitzone podcast about the vaccine procurement failures, the rollout failures and the quarantine failure. So we’re recording this podcast today at a very particular moment in Australian politics.
Margo Kingston: Yeah, a moment where the ‘Voices for’ movement has clearly empowered liberal moderates in inner city, blue ribbon seats in Melbourne and Sydney to actually speak up. Three years after the hard right canned the NEG and Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership we see them weeks before Glasgow running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Just today, Bridget McKenzie said carbon capture and storage is the answer. And we’ve got new subsidies for that. I don’t know where it’s going, but if ‘Voices for’ achieves nothing but talking their representatives into actually representing them, that might be nice.
Peter: Sophie, introduce us to Mackellar. It’s a pretty salubrious part of Sydney, isn’t it?
Sophie: It is a beautiful electorate and we’re very very blessed with the natural environment around us, but we’re quite a mixed bag up here. I would say the backbone of this electorate is small business. We have some very blue ribbon, very conservative areas as well, and other areas that are very concerned about issues such as climate change…
So where I am in Avalon that’s been an artistic hub, but also lots of tradies and lots of small business so it is a real mix of people and professionals as well.
Margo: What really interests me about this movement is people like you, Sophie – successful GP, wife and mother, happily going about your life – and yet you’re thrust into a very nasty game. I gather you started just after the election when something hit you about climate change and you started this local organisation called Our Blue Dot. Just tell me when you went, ‘bloody hell I’d better actually get involved and try and change things’.
Sophie: I think it just grew and grew and grew. I think like many other people I have been waiting for meaningful action on climate change for decades, really. And for me, as a doctor, we base all our practice on evidence, we practice evidence-based medicine so science really is the king. And opinion doesn’t come into it because that’s when you make mistakes. So there was overwhelming evidence to show that climate change was happening – we could see it happening in front of our eyes as well – yet our government was still sort of fobbing us off with slippery slogans and not acting and muddying the waters of the debate.
And so I had this growing angst and growing anxiety and growing frustration. And I think it got to the point where I thought right, I’ve got to just do something now, and it actually was before the 2019 election. I thought, ‘Well, if our political leaders are not doing their duty – I just felt that that there was an abrogation of the government’s duty to care for and ensure that the population safety and security was foremost, and prosperity – so I felt if our leadership is failing us then I’ve got to do something myself and we can do that in our community.
And I knew from conversations that a lot of people felt the same way as I did. That sort of feeling of helplessness – I’m just one person, what can I do, what on earth difference can I make. But I knew there were a lot of us feeling like that so I thought if we start a group we can at least act in our own lives and in our own community. That was Our Blue Dot, and it really grew, it was quite a powerful community movement where people felt empowered and moved from that sense of helplessness into one of hope and action, and we can do this. And a big part of it was advocacy, so we started speaking as well as doing practical things in our community to reduce carbon emissions and waste.
We felt that if we spoke to our representatives at all levels, councils, State and Federal and let them know what we were feeling within the community, to feed this sort of anxiety back that we really wanted action on climate change, and we wanted meaningful actions, that that would help them come to a decision to represent us.
But part of the issue is we felt that we were just not being heard and that was a very typical experience, people just felt that they were not heard and it was very difficult to have your voice heard.
Whereas, I would say, a vast proportion of people in this electorate really want action on climate change, our MP was still voting for coal and voting along the same lines as the Nationals such as Barnaby and Matt Cannavan, so he really wasn’t representing this particular and unique electorate.
Peter: Sophie when somebody like you, a liberal voter, says they’re fed up with the lack of leadership on climate change, there must be underpinning that a belief system, a values framework… What is that framework?
Sophie: I think that framework is very simple: We owe it to not only ourselves but we owe it to the future generations to actually act to ensure their their security and safety in the future…
One of the very first actions I did was to make a poster to put up on this area of road near us with the kids and my kids’ friends. And I was having a conversation with the 12 year old boys and I said ‘This is going to be an issue for you guys, unfortunately’, and a 12 year old boy turned around to me and said, “Yes, because you adults have failed us”. And it was, not a slap in the face but a wake up. We can’t leave this to the children, we just can’t. We are the adults, we have to step up and do something.
It’s a strange thing, I actually for a long time looked around for somebody else to lead this movement in the community. I didn’t look at myself, I really was looking around trying to find somebody to act as a leader that we could kind of work with, and had a few conversations trying to convince a few people.
And then it dawned on me, Sophie, why isn’t that person you, of course, it’s you. You’re the one with the passion and the interest. And I would say that to anyone that’s listening – if you’re looking for somebody to do something, then absolutely look no further, that person is you…
Subsequently talking to Cathy McGowan, she has that whole mindset ‘If not you, then who?’ It’s time to step up, we need to flex that courage muscle and step up ourselves and behave in a way that’s adult-like, and be the change that we want to see.
Margo: Sophie. I gather that Jason Falinski sent out a tick-a-box form on what issues concern the electorate after the bushfires, and he actually didn’t have climate change as an issue. So when you turned up to his mobile office did you ask him about that?
Sophie: Definitely. So he had a mobile office to meet people in the electorate. And it was at the start of 2020 in February when there was still smoke in the sky from the fires and we’d all been through that horrific period of furious fires.
And our member had letterboxed everyone with this survey so people could tick which issues were most important to them and climate change didn’t appear on that list and so people were understandably very upset about that. And so there were a lot of people at the mobile office who really just wanted to talk about climate change, and were really quite distressed. And at the end of that session, I don’t think it went terribly well for Jason, I said, ‘Look if you truly are a moderate then we need to hear your voice, we don’t want to be hearing from the Matt Cannavan’s, the Barnaby Joyce’s and the Craig Kelly’s all the time with this sort of outlandish climate denialism.They’re the ones getting the airplay, we need to hear a strong voice from you that you want to see change and that you are representing this particular unique electorate that really wants to see action on climate change’.
And the answer that came was what actually galvanised me. He didn’t feel that he was able to do that within the party framework because there’s a party line to toe, and that’s what they have to do. So to bring about change from within the party is very difficult, particularly if you’re a backbencher with not much power.
Margo: Sophie, you were a co-founder of Voices for Mackellar, one of the most successful and professional groups to do all this listening and bring people together of all stripes and stuff. It came up with a Mackellar report that the top issues were climate change and political integrity. One thing that really struck me was that Voices for Mackellar, which is very ‘be your best self, nice’, asked Jason Falinski to a community policy forum and his answer was ‘this group was not a community group, it was just another GetUp, and if it was a business the Australian Competition Commission would prosecute them for false and misleading advertising’. How did that go down, and what does that say about where he’s at and where you feel the electorate is at?
Sophie: I think there’s a bit of fear on Jason’s behalf there, because as I said the Voices of Mackellar really came about because people were finding that it was very difficult to have your voice heard.
And not only was it difficult to have your voice heard in this electorate and similar electrodes, but we were actually undermined and dismissed as well. If anyone had a concern about climate change they were dismissed as inner city latte sipping lefties, which just isn’t the case – these very reasonable and sensible concerns about the future.
And then the other thing, when Scott Morrison said, ‘Well we’re not going to hit net zero by discussing it in the wine bars and the cafes and the dinner parties’, for the people you’re trying to represent, that’s a very undermining way to represent them. Actually I think it was a tactic to silence people…
Voices of Mackellar really had a good think about how it would set up the framework, and we really felt it was important to be nonpartisan and neutral, because of course we want to hear from voices across the political spectrum. That’s really important; you don’t only want to hear from one part of the electorate, you want to be as broadly reaching as possible. Voices of McKellar has been going out of its way to be nonpartisan, to then to be told that it was a front for GetUp!, which it just wasn’t, it really upset a lot of people. But Jason has privately apologised for that sort of depiction of Voices of Mackellar, but it just reinforces the idea that it was very difficult to have your voice heard…
At the end of last year, Sophie and Anya Geddes, an events organiser with World Vision, decided to form another group to actively mobilise the community and find a candidate…
Sophie: When we were talking about Voices of Mackellar, there was a comment that Voices of Mackellar weren’t real people. And so we’re trying to get on the Instagram, we’re getting photos of people wearing their Mackellar Rising T shirt (saying) ‘I am real’ and stating why it’s important to them to get genuine representation…
Which is a really big thing, because in our society where we don’t speak politics, it’s sort of looked down upon for people to be stepping up and saying this is not good enough. (It) shows that we are real people in the community.
Margo: Malcolm Turnbull in our interview said it’s so crucial when you haven’t got a hated MP, when you’ve got a wishy washy one, to get a strong candidate. This is a safe liberal seat – you need a liberal who feels that the Liberal Party is no longer liberal. How have you gone about trying to find that person because if you’re a successful person of integrity, why on earth would you step into this minefield? How are you approaching finding the right person to represent and, in a way, embody the values of Mackellar?
Sophie: … We’ve been putting it out there every time we have a meeting or something, we will say, ‘If you know of somebody that you would recommend, send them our way’. We really want somebody who is from the community and does know what this community wants.
It’s a role of service really. The Voice of Mackellar did ask that question in their kitchen table conversations – what characteristics would you like to see in your representative, not your leader, your representative – and a big one was this idea of service. So it’s not somebody’s career path to power and privilege. It’s about serving the community, and equally very highly important was that they’re committed to listening and consulting with the communities. No more the Emperor, but somebody who is working with the community. So they’re two really strong concepts.
The other one, of course, is basing decisions on science and evidence and doing that consistently and not just doing it when it suits you or serves your purpose. That’s been a big problem, and I think that’s what’s led Australia astray for many years.
So while we are building the tribe and getting the word out and building the community movement, at the same time we’re also building the campaign structure, so that’s definitely a long way along the track. We’re already doing fundraising, we’re already talking to marketing and advertising people, we’re doing the research (so) that any candidate who does come forward can be satisfied that this is going to be a highly professional campaign and there’s a very good chance of winning.
And one of the really strong things behind that is this huge crowd of people behind them that really will support them. Any candidate who does come forward will be somebody who reflects the values and embodies the values and concerns of this community.
Margo: Are you talking to people at the moment who you think could be the right candidate, Sophie?
Sophie: Yes we are. Yes.
Margo: How many you got?
Sophie: I’d say we have four, in particular.
Margo: Would you consider standing?
Sophie: What we want is the person who has the best chance of winning and who the community will get behind, so I think we’ve still got a bit of time up our sleeve. So for me personally the most important thing is that we get somebody who can absolutely win this election.
Margo: One of the things that has just amazed me in this Voices movement, is that it is basically led by women who haven’t been involved in politics before. What’s your experience of that and what do you think is the reason why this is happening?
Sophie: I think we’re all just totally fed up. We can’t take it any longer.
I think a lot of us have been very busy with our careers and raising our children, and I would say that a lot of us are engaged but not active. So you’re sort of listening on the sideline, and I’ve heard Zali say the same thing, ‘I cannot stay on the sideline on this anymore shouting at the TV’.
You have to get involved.
I wasn’t politically active at all, but it just grows and grows and got to the point where I felt I needed to act. And then you think, ‘We’ve been undermined, our voices have been undermined for so long and silenced, actually no, my voice is worth something’.
And I know there’s a lot of people out there in this community that feel very much the same way I do, and so let’s come together and let’s build this, and become a strong voice that can’t be ignored. Because, really, you can’t fight against the community, the community is what you’re supposed to be representing.
But I would agree with you that there are a lot of women who are involved in this movement, not only here but also in other electorates as well. It does seem to be largely women led.
Margo: How many children do you have Sophie?
Sophie: I’ve got three children.
Margo: What is your children’s attitude to you, apart from being a full time GP, being a full time political activist – what’s their reaction?
Sophie: So they know, they understand. One of the reasons I’m doing this is because I want my children to grow up to know that they can actually make a difference, that their voice counts. I want them to believe that they can make a difference. Otherwise you just feel helpless. So that’s one of the reasons I’m doing it, and I think they’re very thankful. I say to my daughter, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got all these things I need to do today’ – she says, ‘You’re doing great mom, you’re doing great’. The same with my son, and he’ll take about maybe the dinner I didn’t cook the right way, and I say, ‘I know but I just did this thing all day’ and he say, ‘OK Mum, I’m glad you’re here, let’s keep doing it’
Margo: Sophie, What’s your feeling about how the current tumult is playing in the electorate?
Sophie: It looks like mayhem, doesn’t it. It’s the 11th hour before the COP26, which is in a couple of weeks, and they’re scrabbling around trying to make some sort of policy, This should have been done decades ago, they’ve had no plan, business has been calling for plan – corporate, small biz – everyone’s calling for a desperate plan on climate action so that we can transition towards a prosperous future and now they’re scrabbling at this sort of 11th hour to try and piece something together so that we don’t look completely foolish at the upcoming Climate Change Conference. it’s embarrassing.
Peter: Sophie, I’d love to hear your views on whether this election that we’re facing in the next number of months or early next year will also be a COVID election…
Sophie: I actually think it’s larger than the pandemic. I think it’s also climate change and I think it’s integrity. I think it’s a widespread failure of leadership from this government, and they failed to lead on the vaccine procurement, the quarantine. They’ve left it up to the States to really roll out the vaccine program and also to do the public health initiatives on that as well, so they really haven’t been able to step up and take the lead on these things.
They haven’t learned on implementing a Federal Integrity Commission which is really important to probably the vast amount of Australians, a no brainer for most people and people are sick to death of the rorts and the corruption going on. That’s something that needs to happen. There’s been no leadership on that – if anything there’s been stalling.
And there’s been absolutely no leadership on climate change, so I think it comes down to a much broader failure of leadership of this government.
There’s a lot of talk and there’s a lot of slippery slogans and spin, but when it comes to planning they’ve just been shown up time and time again…
It’s just a catch up, and they’ve really not planned or shown leadership. They’ve had their opportunity.
Peter: Hung parliament or a minority government that could go either way, almost anything’s possible. It could be Morrison as Prime Minister trying to put together a minority government but it could be Labor. How would a blue ribbon liberal seat independent go with dealing with a Labor government as opposed to a Coalition minority government with Morrison.
Sophie: The way I look at it is that the independent, it comes back into the community so if your community wants you to act a particular way on an issue, then that’s what you listen to. So it’s about issues not ideology, so the good thing about a community backed independent is that they are able to negotiate and debate and discuss in a collaborative way with politicians from all sides of politics. So that’s the actual strength of an independent in a blue ribbon liberal seat…
And the other thing is that at the moment the Coalition has to really try and win over the Matt Canavan’s and the George Christensen’s so it’s really gone way over to the far right, to the extreme.
And so having more community backed independents means they have to actually turn their attention to the more centrist and sensible pragmatic way of thinking and doing and trying to get progress on issues. It’s not about ideology, it’s about the issues, so for me that’s the absolute key to what we’re doing,..
What we’re doing in Mackellar and similar movements popping up in lots of different electorates across Australia could mean a strong crossbench, which would be a really interesting watershed moment in Australian politics.
And I think it would be really good for our democracy as well, because our democracy has been undermined by the party politics and this whole toeing the party line thing. Democracy is all about representing the people and I think the parties have moved away from that.