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Dr Kerryn Phelps – The Independent Member for Wentworth

By James Hutton on November 27, 2018 in People

The good doctor, by Paul McMillan

Following the parliamentary resignation of former prime minister and incumbent Liberal MP Malcolm Turnbull, a by-election for the Australian House of Representatives seat of Wentworth took place on October 20, 2018. Against all odds and expectations, local GP and independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps emerged the victor with a historic 19 per cent swing against the government. We caught up with Dr Phelps just prior to the Australian Electoral Commission’s official announcement…

Congratulations! How are you and how have the last few weeks been?

Well, it might be a little premature for congratulations because even though we’re in a position, we are told, where we are going to win the by-election – by we, I mean our entire campaign team – the official word hasn’t come through from the AEC. So, how do I feel? Excited about the prospects of what we can achieve moving forward, and really quite excited about the possibility of changing the culture of politics.

Why did you decide to run as an independent in the Wentworth by-election?

Well, it was all fairly sudden because I wasn’t considering running in federal politics at all. In fact, I had pretty much thought that wasn’t going to be for me, having considered it several times over the years. I’d been activated by a few issues in the past like marriage equality in particular, but this time it was kind of like the last straw, I suppose, in terms of when Malcolm Turnbull was removed as prime minister. We had yet another leadership spill and I saw the instability in the political system and saw that the party political system was breaking down. I thought that the best way forward would be to make a stand and to run as an independent, free of major party political influence, somebody who could speak their mind on behalf of the people that I represented or would like to represent, and there were a few issues that were quite burning issues. One of them was the climate change denial that was going on, leading to policy paralysis on climate action. The medical community calling out for the children on Nauru to be brought to Australia for urgent medical treatment was another activating factor, but also just looking at the way the whole party system was operating and thinking it can be done better.

Why do you think you won? What are the main reasons for that huge result?

I think it was a unique moment in political history. Time will tell, but I think it was a tipping point where people said enough is enough and they were sick of political parties demonstrating self-interest rather than reflecting what they were supposed to be there to do, which was to respect the opinion of the Australian people and the people that were supposed to be being represented.

How do you feel about the state of politics in Australia at the moment?

Well, I think we’re at a tipping point. I do think that we will see more independents elected to parliament – people with strong local community connections, people who have their communities at heart and people who are prepared to step up. It’s not an easy path by any means, to run as an independent, and you really do need to have a grassroots campaign backing you, people who share your vision, share your values, and who are prepared to roll their sleeves up with you and run a campaign. We literally had a pop-up campaign. We had no infrastructure three weeks out from the election campaign starting. So from when Malcolm Turnbull was removed, it was about a week later that the election was called, and then I took another two weeks to figure out if I could actually pull together the infrastructure that I needed to run a federal by- election campaign.

When you announced your campaign, you urged voters to put the Liberals last, but then on your how to vote cards you preferenced the Liberals above Labor; what was the reason behind that change?

I know it sounded like a change, but the first expression was, I guess, an emotional expression of exasperation with the Liberal Party, and then when we realised that there were going to be a lot of candidates – in the end it was 16 candidates – so we had to look at what might happen with preferences. So we ended up putting the Liberals at position 10 and Labor at 11. You learn lessons as you go along through life and I would have done things a little differently I think.

It was misleadingly reported as if you put the Liberals as your first preference…

That’s how it was reported. With the Liberal Party moving to the right, possibly to avoid losing votes to far right parties like One Nation, and the Labor Party still heavily influenced by trade unions, is our two-party system leaving the average person who sits somewhere in the middle behind? There’s no question that most people that I talk to want politics to return to what I call a sensible centre and I reflect, I think, the views of those people – certainly in the Wentworth area, and I think in a lot of parts of Australia – where they want representatives who are economically sensible and responsible and understand small business, who understand a little bit about how the economy needs to work, but who also have socially progressive policies where we don’t leave people behind – if you have a booming economy you don’t leave people behind. I think that the lurch to the right of the Liberal Party and the Nationals disturbs a lot of people. They see the government as heartless, and they see them as being focused only on the numbers in the economy and not on the actual people that the policies affect.

Which one of the following quotes would more accurately describe your ideology: a) A commitment to fairness of work, access to quality education no matter what a person’s circumstances, and a firm belief that we should all have the same opportunities in life underpin what we do, or; b) A belief in the alienable rights and freedoms of all peoples, working towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily life and maximises individual and private sector initiative?

Well, I’m going with option c). That’s my answer, because I think that what we need to do is under- stand the risks that people take in setting up businesses and employing others, but we also need to make sure that people do have job security and the ability to pay their bills and get education and healthcare. I believe in supporting the public and private education systems so there’s a balance there, and I think we need to have a balance of private and public healthcare. I went to public schools and I also went to university on a scholarship. I came from a background where my parents wouldn’t have been able to send me to private school. My own children have gone to a mix of private and public schools depending on what their needs were at any particular time. For me it’s about balance, so option c) is the one I’m going for.

One of the reasons you stated for running in the by-election was the need to get children off Nauru, which I think most people would agree with; can you give us a comprehensive rundown of how your immigration policy would work?

Well, those are two connected but different issues. The issue around children on Nauru are family groups who’ve been trapped by border protection policy…

Are they actually in detention centres or just on the island?

They’re just on the island, unable to leave. There’s a very, very high unemployment rate amongst the asylum seekers. A high rate of depression – one in four of the children still on Nauru has suicidal ideation, some of them have traumatic withdrawal syndrome. I’ve spoken to doctors who’ve worked with these children and the situation is dire, so I think that there’s a very pointy end to all of this, and that’s the children. They have one chance at life, and the current Australian government policy on detention in Manus and Nauru breaches international law and I don’t think that I’ve met anyone who thinks it’s still a good idea, except for a few trolls on Twitter. The medical profession, in great numbers, have spoken out about bringing the children to Australia with their families for urgent treatment and it’s essential that we do that for humanitarian reasons. What happens to those families once the children have been treated, I believe, is probably a complex foreign policy matter, and it’s, I think, beyond my security clearance to understand all of the factors that will go into the resettlement options. But, certainly, I think we need to deal with the pointy end problem, which is that children should not be detained under the circumstances that they’re detained in with the health services in Nauru unable to take care of them. A lot of the doctors have now been expelled from Nauru, including Médecins Sans Frontières, and the fact that there’s a lack of transparency – it would also be a different matter if there was complete transparency about what was happening in Nauru – but the fact that there’s the level of secrecy and obscurity in what’s going on there, I think, adds to the concern. So that’s the first port of call. In terms of broader immigration policy, that’s something that I would need to be fully briefed on in terms of it being a very complex question.

Do you want to stop offshore detention altogether?

Many people would argue that if you do that then the people smugglers will begin operating again and the boats will start coming to Australia again… I think that the prudent thing to do is to wait until I am fully briefed about the potential pitfalls. I don’t think anybody wants to start up the people smuggling trade again. Whatever solutions we bring forward in the future have to have, first of all, humanitarian considerations and, secondly, not restart the people smuggling trade because we’ve seen that happen before.

Are you ideologically opposed to offshore detention or do you think that if there was a system by which refugees had to be processed within a certain amount of time then it would be more acceptable?

Yeah, there’s a difference between offshore detention and offshore processing. Offshore processing is people trying to arrive by boat, they go to a place that’s not in Australia and their refugee status is assessed. Once the refugee status is assessed, then I think that there should be rapid resettlement. The bipartisan policy at the moment is if somebody tries to arrive by boat, then they’re not resettled in Australia. The problem is we don’t have a viable regional arrangement with a third country, so that’s the area that we need to work on. You’ve got countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, for example, where there are refugees who don’t have legal status, they don’t have access to employment and social welfare and those sorts of things – probably healthcare too. Australia needs to work on a regional plan for resettlement so that people are not trying to get from those countries to Australia because their life is so bad where they are. It’s complicated. Anyone who thinks there’s an easy solution to this just doesn’t understand, and for me to propose a simple solution would also be inappropriate. I’ve spoken to refugee advocates and the realistic view is that we need to have a regional plan of resettlement options.

Where are most of these refugees coming from?

You’d have to look at the data, but there’s people coming from Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Syria – war zones, essentially.

Would it be a good policy for Australia to avoid getting involved in these conflicts overseas, to stop blindly following America into all of these stupid wars and stop causing these humanitarian crises in the first place?

Well, I mean ideally, in terms of prevention, the international community needs to be doing what it can to not have the situations arise where people need to get away from where they are, and people don’t want to leave their homes – they would like to have good lives in their homes. So again, you’ve got some pretty broad global issues at play, which are forcing the millions of people to be displaced in the world at the moment. The Rohingya refugees (in Myanmar) are moving across into Bangladesh and setting up camps there, and that’s just one example.

You’ve stated your support for the Liberal government’s business tax cuts…

Yes.

Why do you think lowering company tax rates is a good policy?

Well, let’s talk about small business. Small business takes all the risks and makes a profit. The government doesn’t take any risk at all, it just takes a third of the profit. I think the more we can make it easy for people to do business, the better. It’s not just about the tax cuts; I think we have to be internationally competitive, and a company tax rate of 25 per cent is more internationally competitive. It also allows companies to reinvest in themselves, and it allows for more employment – so as companies grow, they’re able to employ more people. And I think that companies investing in themselves is a good principle, but we also need to make it easy to do business, so cutting red tape where we can, you know – reporting requirements are very complicated and what you don’t want is people spending more money on accountancy than they do in saving. You would know what it’s like, owning a small business.

Multiple studies have found a correlation between trickle-down economics and reduced growth; could cuts to individual tax rates rather than the company tax rate be a better policy to spur growth? Rich people are going to get the money anyway, why not at least let it flow through the little peoples’ hands so they can get a feel of it?

Individual tax cuts are important and I also support the fast-tracking of tax cuts to small and medium businesses, but it’s not either-or. Company tax cuts to make Australia globally competitive are worth pursuing, but we must also strengthen the rules around multinational tax avoidance and the use of tax havens. The public wants everyone – including big business – to pay their fair share.

One of your main criticisms of the government is its climate policy, or lack thereof; what does a Dr Kerryn Phelps climate policy look like?

There are a number of things that we can do short term. The first that I talked about was the independent climate authority, which has largely been defunded and shelved, and the government needs to have an independent authority that has a credible scientific basis so that information on a scientific level can be given to the government in order to make proper evidence-based decisions regarding policy. At the moment we don’t have a climate change policy and people are saying to me – and certainly this is a health issue as well – that the government must have a climate change policy and that it must be comprehensive, and it must have a view to the future and it must at least acknowledge the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
I met this week with the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, and he was talking about his concern for the actual survival of his nation and his fear that it will be underwater within his lifetime, so there are some very pressing reasons why we need to address climate change. Even a few centimetres of the ocean level rising can destroy a nation, so we have to act on that. And we do know that 1.5 degrees
of global warming over the coming years will have a devastating effect on things like coral reefs and sea life, our food supply, disease, so we need to look at the evidence and take that seriously. We can’t just say, “Oh, the IPCC report doesn’t apply to Australia. Let’s just flick that.”

Even if that temperature increase doesn’t eventuate, it’s still good policy to have regardless…

Well, yeah, air quality and water quality are fundamental to our existence and so there are things that haven’t yet been discussed that could be, and there are things like vehicle emission standards – we don’t have vehicle emission standards like the US and Europe, and that’s some- thing that we could look at in the short term. The Climate Commission – the climate change authority that was defunded and looks like it’s being shelved – could be brought back. We need to have an overarching economy-wide statement on emissions across all the sectors.
I mean, there’s been a lot of attention paid to energy but not to transport and agriculture, so there are other areas of policy work that can be done. The government can say, “Okay, we are going to make the investment environment much better for renewable technologies and we are going to stop subsidising the fossil fuel industry, and we won’t have any more new coal mines and we won’t have any more new coal-fired power stations…” and as renewables come online they will replace the energy provision that the coal-fired power stations were providing. But also looking at other sectors like transport and agriculture. Those are the sorts of things that you can do. I have had quite a few discussions about the viability of the Adani mine in Queensland and I just don’t see a case for it to continue.

Population size probably has more impact on the environment than anything, but your climate policy doesn’t mention it at all; do you have a population policy?

We had a three-week lead-up to a five-week campaign, so that’s something that perhaps could get some attention. One thing that I do know from my work in local government is that you can’t increase population density without pre-planning the infrastructure, and there’s beentoo much of just wanton increases in population density in a city like Sydney without considering its impact on things like transport and schools. There’s one state high school in the whole Eastern Suburbs, and increased population in the suburbs, so where are you going to send kids to high school? Parents are faced with either sending their children to private schools or sending them out of the district if the one high school is unable to accommodate the number of young people. That’s just one example where infrastructure is outstripped by population and then you are not servicing your existing population, let alone planning for an increase in population. I think decentralisation has to be a theme as well; you have to give people a reason to live outside of major centres and it shouldn’t just be about housing prices forcing people out. It should be a positive move to live in a regional centre, and there would be ways of doing that but I think that’s beyond the independent almost member for Wentworth.

How will your experiences as a doctor and successful business owner contribute to your ability to represent your electorate and be an effective local member?

Well, first of all, I think in order to contribute to policy on small business, I believe you have to have been in small business. I think you have to really understand the pressures of being an employer and managing the finances of a business. You talked about the campaign budget earlier, and I talked about how we were prepared to manage the campaign based on what budget we had to work with, and that’s the reality of small business. You have to work to a budget and I think that, regardless of the scale, those principles are really important, but also the personal experience and understanding of the pressures on employers and the needs of employees is really important. One of the things about small business is that you’re close to your employees as well. And you have to understand how employment law, for example, impacts on both employers and employees.
I was talking to a GP who was a volunteer on our campaign the other night and she said general practice actually is a perfect preparation for being an MP because you’re solutions focused, you’re used to diagnosing problems, seeing where there are problems, working out a plan of management, and then delivering the plan of management. And you know when to bring in a specialist. And so, you know, that’s the kind of philosophy I would bring to the role – diagnosis, management plan, delivery, bring in an expert when you need to.

You were the first female president of the Australian Medical Association; what did you achieve during your three-year tenure?

The main thing that I was faced with was an incredibly complex policy and medico-legal issue, which is medical indemnity, and it sounds a little bit dry, but I was pretty much faced with what I was told was an unsolvable problem, and that was the rising cost of medical indemnity because of medical litigation. So I went in looking for a solution to that and we found a solution to it. It was very complicated. We
had to get tort law reform in every state and territory, virtually simultaneously. There was a lot of trouble around talking to people in every state. It crossed a number of jurisdictions, and it also crossed a number of policy areas in government – finance, health, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. It ended up that John Howard had the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet take over the issue and coordinate a multi-department and all state solution.

I remember that being all over the news…

I know, I said it would sound pretty dry, but what we were facing was the loss of certain medical specialties from Australia, and in particular obstetrics and neurosurgery, and some others where doctors were facing medical indemnity premiums of $200,000 a year nearly 20 years ago. So that was something we had to deal with, but beyond that, what I also wanted to do was to introduce a number of health/social issues – social justice issues – so I started an Indigenous health report card so that state by state we could look at health outcomes for Indigenous Australians, and that was a way of holding governments to account for their performance on health. We had a hospitals report card looking at outcomes in hospitals, we had initiatives around the first climate change in human health policy back in 2002. We looked at medical responses to bio-terrorism and we looked at complementary medicine, its role in the health system. So there were a lot of issues we dealt with at the time that were quite novel in terms of the organised medical profession.

One of your major areas of interest includes integrative medicine and as AMA president you convened an expert advisory committee and pioneered the AMA’s first mission statement on complementary medicine; what was the crux of that statement?

I don’t know about a crux; it was a comprehensive kind of position statement. I think it’s best to actually look at the position statement as a whole, but basically, acknowledging that patients’ choices about complementary medicines need to have some evidence support, and then looking at how you go about integrating complementary, or so-called complementary medicines, with so-called mainstream medical treatments, and it was the first time that the position statement actually codified that relationship. That was a very important move by the medical profession and something that I think still is a good fundamental policy for the healthcare system. Complementary medicines are under threat because there is some sort of a group of medical sceptics who are making it very difficult.

Does complementary medicine include a good diet, for example?

Good health and good medical practice includes nutrition, and so you look at a whole range of lifestyle issues, and there’s a very blurred line between what’s mainstream medicine and what’s complementary medicine, you know? As the evidence base for certain complementary medicines grows, there’s a very blurred line. I mean, you look at the way medical practice is conducted now and I think you would find that most well-informed doctors would be using some supplements that are non-pharmaceutical in their armamentarium, and patients also want that choice of being able to pursue treatments that are not pharmaceutical, surgical and so forth. So you particularly see this in, for example, cancer recovery, and one of the reasons that I wrote a book called The Cancer Recovery Guide was to actually look at the evidence base for a whole range of treatments that patients need in order to recover their health during and after cancer diagnosis and treatment. I thinka focus on lifestyle is absolutely essential. We need to be looking at exercise, nutrition, mental health, social connectedness… a whole range of issues. I wrote a textbook of integrated general practice, then a book called Ultimate Wellness, which really pulled together a philosophy of healthcare using lifestyle as a fundamental basis for good health, moving on to The Cancer Recovery Guide, and then the most recent one I wrote was The Mystery Gut, looking at the link between gut health and general well being.

A recent Four Corners exposé revealed that Australians are currently spending more out of their own pockets on complementary medicines than prescription drugs; given that there is very little evidence that many of these products actually work, are you concerned that people aren’t getting the best treatment available?

There is a substantial evidence base for many so-called complementary therapies and the current rules discriminate against non-pharmaceuticals. This limits patient choice where there are other therapies that are supported by evidence, but equally, a body of evidence is required to ensure patients are getting the best treatment available.

How do you feel about the anti-vaxx movement and the declining rates of immunisation in many parts of Australia?

It was announced this week that Australia has eliminated Rubella and this shows that vaccinations work. Throughout my professional career, I’ve seen time and again the enormous benefits that vaccinations provide. The anti-vaxx movement relies on rhetoric and hysteria, not sound scientific evidence.
Is Medicare sustainable in its current form? How can we make it sustainable? Australians should be proud of Medicare and the great services it provides. However, the system is under constant pressure. The fact that GP rebates have been frozen under both major parties in recent years means the model is now not sustainable for many medical practices. What I’m hearing from medical practice owners is that businesses are now marginal, particularly if they bulk bill. The cost of healthcare rises faster than inflation, so governments always need to be mindful of adequately funding our public hospitals. What we don’t want is for private health insurers to dictate care. Ideally, we want to see a mix of public and private, but people need more transparency and better value for money from private health insurance.
How would you go about maintaining an independent ABC, free from political interference? The ABC is one of our most trusted institutions and generations of Australians have relied upon our national broadcaster for news, sport, kids programs and a range of other material. It is incredibly important that we maintain the role of a public broadcaster in Australia. That’s why an ABC that is properly funded, transparent and free from political interference was one of the main things I talked about during the by-election campaign.

It’s been reported that your campaign for Wentworth cost around $300,000; is it cheeky to ask who forked out the cash for that?

Well Jackie (Stricker-Phelps) and I had to be prepared to underwrite the campaign, because you can’t assume that people will donate to a campaign, and we also were prepared to manage a budget based on what we were prepared to underwrite it for, and we had crowd funding, so that was the reason that we were able to fund it.

I’m angling into questions about political donations. How do you feel about political donations as part of the Australian political setup?

Well, I think there’s a very strong case for a review of the political donation system because there seems to be a lot of influence by vested interests in political decision-making. There needs to be great transparency in that, and I’ve already said during the campaign that I think that there should not be donations to governments from the fossil fuel industry because I believe that underpins
the fact that we don’t have a climate change policy. I think it’s incredibly important that there’s transparency and that there are certain industries, in particular the fossil fuel industry, that do not donate to political par- ties. But one thing about running as an independent is that you realise how the whole system is geared around benefiting the major parties and their infrastructure.

A political donation is basically a bribe, right? Why can’t political donations just be totally banned?

Well, I disagree with you that a political donation is a bribe. I think if a candidate is influenced, or if aparty is influenced by the donation, then I think that’s a problem. There needs to be transparency – it’s really important that there’s transparency – and also there needs to be
no strings attached to donations.
I think the donation needs to be because the person making the donation, or the contribution, believes that – this might also just be idealistic – the recipient is the best person to represent the people of the area, which is why I think in a grassroots community campaign the independents are on the ascendancy, or appear to be, and that’s because people see the independents as independent of vested interest as well.

Are the strings not implicit though?

If you give someone money it’s assumed that in order to get that donation again, that party will need to look after your best interests… I think we need to see political donation reform, but it’s probably beyond the scope of this conversation.

Wentworth has the highest income per capita in Australia – I don’t know if it actually does; I just made that up – but do you think the people of Wentworth understand and sympathise with people in poorer areas, or are they more concerned about the brand of soufflé ramekins in their Aspen timeshare and where to park their yacht?

One of the important points that I made clear throughout the campaign was that while there is undoubtedly one of the highest income levels in Wentworth – Wentworth is one of the highest income levels in Australia – it’s also one of the highest cost of living areas in Australia. Just housing and education alone are very large costs for people who want to live in the area, so while they might have high incomes they also have got high expenses, which means that their disposable income may not be very much higher than a lot of people in other parts of Australia. If there is a move in interest rates, for example, that could create mortgage stress for a lot of people. There is already rent stress for people because rents are high. The prospect for people with families who are having more children, they either squash larger families into smaller apartments or they have to move out of the area. Of course there isn’t a huge choice of state schools in Wentworth. The school that is there is doing a great job, but we need another school. Then there’s the choice about having to pay for private schooling for people with growing families. It’s not like everyone’s cashed up. 65 per cent of people are living in apartments in Wentworth, not just in big houses in Bellevue Hill, so I think it’s a misunderstanding by people from outside the area of the actual economics of the area. I think that’s one of the advantages of being a local doctor and understanding the area very well. I’ve been a GP in Double Bay for nearly twenty years, so you get a pretty deep understanding of an area and you don’t just accept what people from outside the area say is their impression of how Wentworth is without challenging it.

It’s been fairly well documented that Scott Morrison is a God-botherer; do you think that someone who believes in God in the year 2018 possesses the good judgment required to make important decisions on behalf of millions of people?

One of my policy positions is around secular government, and I think that people’s religious or faith views are personally important to them, but I don’t think that government should be dictated to by religious principles. I think that having a spiritual framework is important as an individual and it may help to inform the ethics of the decisions that you make, but I think secular government is important.

You believe it is our moral and ethical responsibility to bring an end to live sheep exports, is that right?

Yes.

Where will that leave Australian sheep farmers if our export markets demand live animals and other countries are prepared to meet the supply?

Well, I don’t think it’ll make a great deal of difference. Almost all of the live sheep exports come out of Western Australia and 95 per cent of the meat that’s being exported to the Middle East is chilled – packed and chilled.

It can just be cryo-vacced and sent?

Yeah, 95 per cent of it already is.

So when people say that they need to kill using halal methods in the destination country, is that complete nonsense? You hear the argument, “Oh, we have to have live exports because they need to do the halal killing there,” but they can do the halal killing here and then export it and it’s just the same, right?

Yes, but there are areas that those animals go to where they don’t even have refrigeration, so it gets off the ship and then gets put on a truck, in the heat in the middle of the countryside, but that’s only a tiny part.

I get the feeling that a lot of your views align almost identically with those of Malcolm Turnbull; would Malcolm have been better off running as an independent instead of joining the Liberal Party?

He wouldn’t have been prime minister.

So what happens now? Where to from here? What does the next couple of weeks and months involve for the new Member for Wentworth?

Well, we’re expecting on Friday the Australian Electoral Commission will actually say they’ve got a result of the by-election. So once that happens we have to set up an office, we have to get staff together. That’s why I went to Canberra last week, to meet with the cross bench and to work out what I actually need in terms of staff and logistics and how things work. There are two sitting weeks of parliament left this year so I have to prepare a maiden speech – that’s a very quaint expression, isn’t it? – and I have to have a look at the legislative agenda for that two weeks, and in turn rearrange my life…

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