Seven months that changed Australian politics: @drkerrynphelps #GettingElected speech at #indivotes @indigocathy’s #IndependentsDay conference

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston
- 32 mins ago
Margo Kingston
Kerryn Phelps election night party #WentworthVotes. Photo: via Guardian AU

Also read: How the pop-up @DrKerrynPhelps campaign for Wentworth came together: a @margokingston1 dinner party debrief

The role of people, preferences, policies, politics and power in Wentworth from October 2018- May 2019

AUSTRALIAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION 1999-2003

The Wentworth by-election was not my first foray into the Federal political arena.

In 2000 I was elected as President of the Australian Medical Association and Jackie and I had an apartment set up in Canberra because we spent so much time there.

Along with the expected issues managed by the AMA, like medical workforce, aged care and Medicare reforms, under my Presidency we expanded our agenda to cover a wide range of social and ethical issues.

Some of the issues I placed on the agenda included:

  • Climate change and human health
  • Refugee children in detention
  • Preparedness for bioterrorism
  • Physician assisted dying
  • Gender and sexuality
  • Indigenous health report card to encourage the states to lift their game

MARRIAGE EQUALITY 1998-2017

The late 90s also coincided with the beginning of our national conversation on marriage equality.

Jackie and I returned from our wedding ceremony in New York, and although it was not legally recognised anywhere in the world at that time, it started Australia thinking and talking about the right to equality for same sex couples.

This kept me engaged with Federal politics consistently over the years as we lobbied and argued our case with all parties across the political spectrum.

Along the way over 85 discriminatory Federal laws were changed as well as state laws on issues like same sex adoption and age of consent.

After twenty long years of advocacy, the result of the postal survey was announced on 15 November 2017 that the majority of Australians had voted YES.

Just a few weeks later Jackie and I were in the Speaker’s Gallery in the House of Representatives on 7 December 2017 when the overwhelming majority of MPs voted for equality.

That day showed us the Australian Parliament at its best. It marked the end of two decades of activism on that issue for us.

THE WENTWORTH BY-ELECTION

I was elected as a councillor on the City of Sydney in 2016 as number 2 on Clover Moore’s ticket, but our political relationship did not last.

I won’t go into the details of why that happened except to say two things:

  1. certain understandings I believed we had were recanted just days after the election and
  2. My experience was that that the so-called “independent team” was independent in name only. Independent thinking or expression or voting, as most of us would understand the term, was systematically discouraged. This was a group that operated in many ways just like a party.

That is a story for another occasion, but the experience certainly informed my ideas about being a true independent.

ROLE OF PEOPLE

Let me turn to the role of PEOPLE.

Early in 2018 a group of close confidantes started meeting with the aim of running a campaign for Lord Mayor of Sydney in the 2020 election (that election was due to be held last year but was postponed due to COVID19 to September 2021).

That had been my very transparent intention back in 2016.

Our group had expertise in finance, community engagement and logistics and design. None of us had run an actual election campaign before.

Our planning was well underway with design work and policy frameworks when the Liberal hard right knifed Malcolm Turnbull. 

Then people started calling, emailing, stopping me in the street and tweeting asking me to stand for Wentworth. 

I had some pivotal meetings with Bill Bowtell and Wendy McCarthy who told me they believed that an independent with strong local connections could win Wentworth in a by-election.

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. Part of what I’ve always done is to think “Why doesn’t someone do something about it?” and look around and you’re the person there who is in a position to do something about it.

I assessed my chances of success as unlikely, given Malcolm Turnbull’s 2 party preferred majority meant that we need close to a 20% swing to wrench the seat from the tight grasp of the Liberals. In fact, the seat had always been held by a conservative throughout its history.

In retrospect, what were we thinking?

It came to decision time for our fledgling organising group. I would not be able to run this campaign on my own. We held a meeting of our core group in our home in Potts Point and then I recused myself to give everyone a chance to express how they felt about it, whether they felt they wanted to put their effort into a Federal by-election campaign and then vote on it.

When I was called back into the room, we had made the switch from planning for a distant local government election to now a pop up Federal by-election campaign with just over a month to pull together a full campaign.

I had to deflect media speculation for about ten days while we frantically worked out whether we could pull it together in the relatively short time.

We announced on 16 September and the election was to be held on 20 October 2018.

We needed a seasoned campaign management team, and I was introduced by my old friend and mentor Wendy McCarthy (who became our campaign chair) to Darrin Barnett and Anthony Reed. Darrin had worked for Julia Gillard when she was Prime Minister, and they both had campaign experience.

We found office space in Edgecliff in the Wentworth electorate.

The word was out and people just started turning up. They told us what their skill set was and they went to work.

To be honest, most of the time we were just winging it.

In that crazy month, Wentworth was the only show in town.

There were 16 candidates all seeing the potential to raise their particular issues.

The Liberals held a snap preselection and chose Dave Sharma, a former adviser to Alexander Downer and former ambassador to Israel with no connection to the electorate.

The national media descended on the electorate.

So did every activist group from GetUp to Stop Adani, Friends of the ABC, Extinction Rebellion, Refugee advocates, and animal rights advocates and the Dying With Dignity lobby.

I spoke at candidate forums, held press conferences, stood at train stations and ferry stops.

We door knocked as much as we could.

We had to do a lot of listening and a lot of talking.

PREFERENCES

Independents are likely to need preferences, because it is a high bar to get over 50% + 1 vote on first preferences, especially in seats long held by one of the major political parties.

In the Wentworth by-election we were tapping into the deep anger at Malcolm Turnbull’s ousting, and the deep vein of dissatisfaction with the lurch of the Liberal party to the Right and the lack of action on climate change.

On 16 September 2018 a group of around forty of us, family and friends, dressed in the purple T shirts that became very recognizable met in the car park of our clinic in Double Bay and we marched along Knox Street to the waiting media scrum in Kiora Lane behind the Woollahra library.

There I announced my intention to run.

We had certainly discussed policy but the minor detail we had not yet discussed was where we would allocate preferences.

I think I was asked the question by a journalist.

My initial response was “PUT THE LIBERALS LAST”.

Well didn’t that set the cat among the pigeons!

I was told “NOOOOO! It’s a Liberal heartland seat!

“Telling a conservative electorate you want to put the Liberals last will write you off.

If you win, the government loses its one seat majority and Wentworth will want you to assure them you will not block supply.”

“You can’t preference anyone BUT Liberals if you want to have any chance of winning!” I was told.

We had an emergency meeting. Words were not minced. I won’t use some of the more colourful expressions, but the gist of it went along the lines of “You are going to have to rip off the Band Aid”.

The opportunity to rip off that BandAid came just a few days later, on 20 September.

Jackie and I were down in Bondi and we got a phone call that Scott Morrison and Dave Sharma were about to do a press conference in Transvaal Avenue in Double Bay.

Up to this point we hadn’t clapped eyes on Dave Sharma so we thought here is a chance to rock up and disrupt the proceedings.

We drove into Double Bay and parked the car. Several of our purple clad people who had been swarming the electorate had arrived earlier. They told me that Dave Sharma had seen me arrive and had bolted.

Scott Morrison was nowhere to be seen.

The national media was all set up in the centre strip of Transvaal Avenue. We waited. And we waited. And we waited.

Word went around that Morrison and Sharma had pulled the plug.

Why waste an opportunity like this? Jackie urged me to step up to the microphones.

Flanked on either side by volunteers, I ripped off the BandAid.

I would be preferencing the Liberals.

I think that was the first time I had ever been accused of “backflipping” on anything except a springboard at a swimming pool.

That was my first lesson in preferencing as an independent. You can’t.

SUPPORT OF OTHER INDEPENDENTS

I was soon contacted by Cathy McGowan who offered to come by and give me some worldly advice. You might call it a survival guide.

Rebekha Sharkie came to Sydney for the day to campaign alongside me too.

POLICIES

Then it came to the all important matter of policies.

We knew we had to present a full suite of Federal policies because as the election drew closer, I would need to answer some very detailed questions about my position on pretty much everything. After all, the electorate would need to know what I stood for.

It turned out that our team in the campaign office had quite a network.

Before long, we had meetings with experts across a range of policy areas…

Jackie and I met a fellow poodle owner in the park and one day she turned up in the office as a volunteer. Turned out that Lynne Ralph was a recognised expert in financial services and superannuation.

We met with Friends of the ABC about funding for the national public broadcaster as well as leaders in the creative arts. I was one of the ABC alumni myself, having worked on the EveryBody health program there some years before.

John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party and one of my predecessors as member for Wentworth spent hours talking to me about the complexities of the economics of climate change.

Tim Buckley schooled me on the fossil fuel industry.

Anne Summers provided us with the foundation for our Women’s policy.

I went surfing with World Champion Layne Beachley to protest oil drilling in the Great Australian Bight and its potential impact on our ocean and beaches.

I spoke at a conference in Bondi on ocean plastics.

I joined protests against the proposed Adani coal Mine

Even though Wentworth is light on sheep farms, it is strong on animal rights, and banning live sheep exports became a bigger issue than any of us expected.

Physician assisted dying or “dying with dignity” had a candidate, Shayne Higgison, and she asked for my support for changes to the state legislation along the lines of the Victorian legislation.

A group of retired judges met with me to explain the need for a Federal Integrity commission and how that would work.

#KidsOff Nauru campaign had started around August and the By-election campaign became a lightning rod for protests against refugee children being held indefinitely in horrific circumstances on Nauru.

I met with Daniel Ghezelbash, a young academic who was an expert in refugee law from Macquarie University to develop policy on indefinite offshore detention, along with a speed course in international refugee law.

For the Liberals, they just went with “a vote for Phelps is a vote for Labor and Bill Shorten” along with a scare campaign about the horrors of a hung parliament.

POLITICS

Now we come to the politics.

In the weeks before the election, the electorate was engaged in politics in a way I have never seen before or since, and I could tell that sentiment was in my favour.

Whether that was enough to carry us over the line to an election victory was anyone’s guess, and would certainly come down to preferences.

We had to make the most of every dollar donated. We were up against the might of the Liberal party with their huge donor base.

Every time we put up corflutes on telegraph poles they were mysteriously torn down.

False rumours were started about my medical fees.

Another thing became clear. All of the Liberal leaflets and letterbox drops and advertising and robocalls focused on me. It was as if the other fourteen candidates didn’t exist.

Our cause was helped along by a series of “own goals” by the Liberals whose campaign was, frankly, pretty clumsy.

A $2million pledge to Liberal-dominated Bronte Surf Club, a promise to introduce legislation to end discrimination in religious schools (which never eventuated) while pushing for discrimination against teachers in public schools and a wildly controversial announcement that they would move the Australian embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

They were looking chaotic and panicked.

The night before the election we found every polling place literally wrapped in plastic sheeting depicting me and Bill Shorten , in my campaign colours. That really cemented the idea that this was a two horse race. Liberal vs Phelps.

After weeks of pre-polling it came to election day.

We started before dawn with our volunteers setting up for the day, jostling for position with squadrons of young Liberals and other party faithful.

We had a catering team who would go from booth to booth delivering snacks, lunches and water and checking on our volunteers’ wellbeing.

I tried to physically get to as many booths as I could on the day.

Polls closed at 6pm, the exact moment a massive thunderstorm hit the Sydney area.

Our team of volunteer scrutineers arrived at each polling booth. Some of our volunteers from the day stayed over to supervise the counting.

A small group of us gathered in our lounge room in Potts Point to watch the election results come in.

We were casually dressed and we dug in for what we expected would be a long night.

Around 7.30pm that night, Anthony Green made the call. In his opinion, it was a clear victory for me.

We were in shock.

We had achieved the almost 20% swing we needed to win the seat and the government had lost its one seat majority.

Jackie, Wendy McCarthy and I got in a car together and headed for North Bondi Surf Club.

What we thought would be a party to thank all of our volunteers and supporters for such a huge effort became a victory celebration well into the night.

The next morning, Sunday, I was due to appear on Insiders on the ABC, and on the early morning programs for the other networks

As I went off air at the ABC I heard Peter Van Onselen in the studio say something like “I have information coming through the postal votes are strongly in favour of the Liberal Dave Sharma. The result may not be as clear cut as we think”.

Sharma never conceded. The Liberals dragged it out for another two weeks, well after the result was clear and we were forced to wait for the Electoral Commission to formally declare the result.

I had won by 1851 votes.

It was 4 November 2018.

Parliament was due to sit on 26 November. That meant I had just 22 days to set up an office, employ a chief of staff, a media manager and five electoral staff, set up all of our processes, get across the legislative agenda, write a maiden speech and find somewhere to stay in Canberra.

I felt the pressure of making sure that my first speech was worthy of what we call in medicine the “retrospectoscope”. That is, it had to have the potential to stand the test of time. I wanted to focus on the theme of the human experience and how that is impacted by political decisions. In my non-existent spare time I worked up a draft including some stories from my family history, my own journey, my statement of values and a vision for the future.

Meanwhile back at the office, for the sake of convenience and to save the government money, we decided to move into Malcolm Turnbull’s former headquarters.

When we arrived, the place had been stripped and there was not a single piece of paper, not a single computer record, not a word of a formal handover of any of the electoral matters like immigration appeals or grants processes. Nothing.

We had to build from zero in under three weeks. Eventually one of Malcolm Turnbull’s former staff did come in for a few days to provide us with something of a handover.

Even after an intense and exhausting campaign, some of our amazing volunteers stayed on to help with the transition and I will be forever grateful to them for putting their own lives on hold for a cause in which they so strongly believed.

26 NOVEMBER 2018

26 November, my first day in Parliament.

Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie talked me through the swearing in process. They walked me to the door of the House of Representatives and as the doors swung open, they walked one on either side of me the dispatch box.

Their calm and experienced presence was a great boost to my confidence.

Later that day I was scheduled to deliver that first speech. As I rose to speak, Scott Morrison and most of the Liberal and National MPs to my left stood up and walked out of the chamber.

The photographer Alex Ellinghausen caught that moment on camera.

To my right was a totally different picture. Bill Shorten had asked all of his Labor MPs to stay for the speech.

I appreciated the respect that showed.

All of the crossbenchers stayed too. Even Bob Katter, at least until I got to the part about being gay and marriage equality and he had something urgent to attend to somewhere else.

Over that first week in Parliament I was treated to daily threats to refer me to the High Court under Section 44, with no justification.

At every press conference about any substantive issue there would be one journalist or another quizzing me with obviously planted questions about my eligibility to serve in the Parliament. It must have driven them collectively mad to have to accept the result of that by-election and they were trying every trick in the book to invalidate it or to intimidate me.

The next day, 27th November, an extraordinary thing happened. Liberal MP for Chisholm Julia Banks quit the Liberal Party and joined us on the crossbench. The crossbench now held the balance of power.

BALANCE OF POWER vs POWER OF BALANCE

Much was said about the independents and other cross benchers having the balance of power.

I preferred to think of it as “the power of balance”.

Rather than government being able to just push legislation through the lower house with barely even a debate about its merits, here was an opportunity to do things differently… introduce some fresh new ideas, influence the agenda, improve legislation. Who knew where this could lead?

Was this the chaos the people of Wentworth had been warned about?

We soon found out just how much balance the crossbench could bring to the Parliament.

Enter Medevac!

During the Wentworth by-election campaign, one of the big issues, as I said, was Australia’s treatment of refugees, specifically the Kids Off Nauru campaign and the festering sore that is Australia’s policy of indefinite offshore detention of refugees who arrived by boat after 19th July 2013. Detention became indefinite because successive governments had failed to work out a resettlement plan for the people trapped in limbo by a reckless political ideology.

One of my first meetings in Parliament House was with refugee advocates who were looking for support to find solutions to this chaotic policy area.

WHY DID WE NEED MEDEVAC?

During the by-election campaign I had learned all I could about Australia’s policy on refugees and people seeking asylum.

In my first days in Parliament, I had a series of meetings with doctors and other healthcare workers who had first hand knowledge of the situation on Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.

The picture of an urgent humanitarian health crisis emerged.

Australia has a policy of indefinite offshore detention for people attempting to arrive, by boat, after 19 July 2013. Traumatised people punished for arriving on the wrong date by the wrong mode of transport.

There were reports of children who had given up the will to live, diagnosed with a condition known as traumatic withdrawal syndrome.

There were reports of physical and sexual violence.

  1. people had died in offshore detention.

I heard report after report of urgently requested medical transfers obstructed, where those transfers of critically ill people were achieved only through protracted legal action.

One man, Hamid Khazaei had died from an infection in his leg because his urgent transfer was delayed.

In 2016 the Coroner in his case recommended changes to Australia’s treatment of refugees in detention.

Nothing happened.

Nothing had happened for twenty years.

During those meetings with people on the frontline, I asked what one thing they believed would have the most effect on improving the current impasse.

If there was one thing we could achieve what would that be?

I was told that one thing was finding a way to get around the legal obstructions to medical transfers of critically ill people for treatment in Australia.

From my experience in the AMA , I thought that the situation was not dissimilar to the way we manage these sorts of cases in remote parts of Australia.

When a medical condition cannot be treated locally, the treating doctor contacts the specialists in a larger centre with the equipment or the expertise to manage the case. If treatment is not possible locally, the patient is approved for transfer for treatment.

Working with the doctors who had been on Nauru, they agreed a system like that would work.

MEDVAC CENTRAL

So we got to work drafting legislation.

My office became medevac central. Along with my own electorate staff and volunteers including two lawyers on our team, we had up to 21 people working in our small space. As we drafted the legislation we would test it with various legal minds around the country.

We had various members of the Shadow Cabinet coming and going.

We had meetings with Bill Shorten, Anthony Albanese, Penny Wong, Tony Burke, and Shayne Neumann and Richard di Natale to negotiate some political sensitivities and in particular any questions around national security.

On the last day of Parliament for the year one of our advisors found a piece of legislation dealing with miscellaneous aspects of Home Affairs. This, we decided, was miscellaneous and about Home Affairs so we bolted it on and Independent Senator Tim Storer introduced it into the Senate. After a long filibuster by Senators Bernardi and Hanson our legislation passed the Senate by one vote.

We had waited anxiously all day for it to come back to the House of Reps, but time was against us and Scott Morrison closed Parliament for the year.

Over the Christmas break the government tried every trick in the book to scare the Australian people into thinking that treating sick refugees was somehow going to mean they would be at risk of murderers, rapists and pedophiles flooding the country, that they would get bumped off surgical waiting lists or social housing lists. All false of course.

We would have to wait until Parliament returned the following February for the legislation to come to the House and with a few more negotiated amendments it passed into law, again by one vote with support of Labor, the Greens and most of the independents.

That became known as the Medevac law.

Of course we had the legislation but the government made no efforts to set up the processes for making any of the changes to protocols.

That fell to a group that became known as the MERG, or Medical Evacuation Response Group, hundreds of highly qualified medical specialists who volunteered their time to set up a robust process to assess cases and recommend transfers where that was medically the right course of action.

FEDERAL ELECTION May 2019

Just seven months after the Wentworth by-election, we were back at the polls.

Despite fulfilling all of the promises I made to the electorate, we lost by the narrowest of margins.

In terms of the politics, most of the attention and electoral donations moved to Warringah where Zali Steggall was taking on Tony Abbott.

We gave it everything we had but it was clear that the people of Wentworth did not want a Shorten Government, did not want Labor’s proposed changes to franking credits and did not want to lose the ability to negatively gear investment properties.

And so against the odds we saw the return of the Morrison coalition government.

The government made one of its top priorities after re-election the repeal of the Medevac legislation.

With everything else the government had responsibility for, their top priority was to stop sick people getting medical care in Australia.

The repeal of the legislation passed the Senate by one vote, ironically the vote of newly elected independent Senator, Jacquie Lambie. We don’t know what she was told or what she was promised. We may never know. But it broke a lot of hearts.

MEDEVAC: THE OUTCOME

SO what was the outcome of that landmark MEDEVAC legislation?

All of the children were released from Nauru with their families by February of 2019.

Hundreds of people were transferred to Australia under this law and many are still locked up in detention or confined to “alternative places of detention” or APODs, also know in lay terms as “hotels”…in rooms without windows that open to fresh air 24 hours a day for the past year and a half.

During the COVID19 pandemic of the past year, many people have come to understand the impact of mandatory hotel quarantine for just two weeks.

These people, needing urgent medical attention, were locked up for over a year, after seven years in offshore detention.

Just in the past few weeks, about sixty people were unexpectedly released from APODs into the Australian community

Today there are still 290 people held against their will in PNG and Nauru.

Countless Parliamentary and Departmental Inquiries, UN investigations, reports by the Australian Human Rights Commission and whistleblowers have repeatedly told us the same story of systematic abuse, violence and medical neglect of people held in detention centres.

That brief time that the independents held the power of balance in the House of Representatives showed what can be done to shift the dial by doing politics differently..

SO WHAT IS THE FUTURE FOR INDEPENDENTS?

My story will be familiar to many independents who have tried to mount an election campaign with little or no experience, minimal resources or infrastructure and up against the might of the major parties. Few have done it with so little time to prepare.

WHY INDEPENDENTS?

  • Community minded
  • Represent the people not a party
  • Encourage better legislation through more nuanced and challenging debate
  • Every vote is a conscience vote
  • “Power of balance”

It takes the right candidates in the right electorates at the right time.

The electorate of Hughes is one obvious example for the next election.

What do independents need?

They need policies that reflect the views of a significant number of people in their electorate.

They need strong community connections and hundreds of volunteers to devote their time to campaigning.

They need funding from donations. Any election can be very expensive.

Infrastructure would help, including accounting and legal templates

Candidate briefings including campaigning strategies and materials, preferencing (or not preferencing).

Volunteer training modules would be helpful.

Training for electorate staff (most staffers with experience have party political affiliation)

Our chief scrutineer made a video which we sent around to everyone who had volunteered to scrutineer.

Media management is essential, particularly where budgets are tight.

The way ahead has many challenges.

As dissatisfaction with the major parties grows, and the sentiment towards community minded politically centrist independents increases, so too does the determination of the major parties to maintain the status quo.

Australians are essentially tribal, and the major parties provide a tribe for people to identify with. The major parties will leverage this.

I sense a growing feeling that community-minded independents are becoming a tribe too.

Where independents have been successful, they have rallied around a cause, worn the identifying colours and engaged in the political process with a shared vision for a better world that they may not see reflected in the policies or the conduct of the major parties where a conscience vote is a rarity.

We now know it can be done. Tony Windsor did it, so did Rob Oakeshott and Cathy McGowan who passed the baton to Helen Haines. Zali Steggall did it in Warringah. Jacqui Lambie did it for Tasmania in the Senate. And I did it in Wentworth. I am sometimes asked if it was worth it for just seven months as an MP. Indeed, I sometimes ask myself the same question.

The answer is an unqualified YES.


Support an independent media voice. Support No Fibs Citizen Journalism.
Monthly Donation