Kerryn Phelps’ decision to run as an independent candidate in the upcoming Wentworth by-election has been described by Labor as a “gift”.
“We were hoping to put a dent in Wentworth but we have no chance of winning it,” one senior Labor source said yesterday.
“But this will tie the Libs up in knots for weeks, spending money and resources over a seat they shouldn’t even have to worry about. There’s no question that she (Phelps) is a gift for us.”
Professor Phelps, the former president of the Australian Medical Association, has been a trailblazing advocate on everything from medical reform to same-sex marriage over the past three decades.
But at the age of 60, and with an Order of Australia under her belt, Professor Phelps says it’s the profound failure of the nation’s two major parties on critical issues such as climate change and healthcare that finally compelled her to throw her hat in the ring.
“I think that Australians are looking for a vision that reflects who we are as a people,” Professor Phelps said. “Things like our treatment of asylum-seekers, which I think is a blight on the Australian character. I think that our inaction on climate change is an embarrassment. I think that our health policy is under threat.”
Professor Phelps said she would be relying entirely on crowdfunding and volunteers to bankroll her campaign, in contrast to Dave Sharma who, just days after being preselected as the Liberal Party candidate, already has some of Sydney’s wealthiest business leaders and the Jewish community lining up to throw money at his campaign.
Professor Phelps said while she had yet to decide on preference deals, she would urge voters to put her first and the Liberal Party last.
“It’s really important you send that message that they know that Canberra needs to be a voice for the people,” she said.
Labor preferences will be critical to Professor Phelps, who will need to get at least 25 per cent of the primary vote to get over the line.
She has also managed to convince the ALP political veteran Darrin Barnett to head her campaign team. Mr Barnett’s last highprofile job was working as an adviser to Julia Gillard in the prime minister’s office and his appointment yesterday fuelled
speculation that Labor was actively backing Professor Phelps’s campaign.
The allegation was strongly denied by Professor Phelps and the Labor candidate for Wentworth, Tim Murray. One senior Labor source said he was confident Mr Barnett would have sought “special dispensation” from ALP HQ before accepting the job, but as a freelancer Mr Barnett was free to work with any client he chose.
Professor Phelps has run a medical practice in the heart of Sydney’s Double Bay, one of Wentworth’s most affluent suburbs, for two decades. She also lives in the area with her wife, Jackie Strickner-Phelps.
Professor Phelps said yesterday that Wentworth might be more affluent than most parts of Australia, but the cost of living was also higher and most residents were up against the same financial pressures and concerns about the direction of the country as the rest of Australia.
In a direct dig at Mr Sharma, who currently lives in the upper north shore suburb of Turramurra, Professor Phelps said most “outsiders” made the mistake that Wentworth “is all about billionaires and big bucks and flash cars”.
“There are wealthy people who live in the area but 65 per cent of people who live in the area live in apartments,” she said.
‘‘People here are struggling with mortgages just like people everywhere else in Australia.”
But Mr Sharma yesterday countered Professor Phelps’ swipe at his “outsider” status. After two decades of overseas diplomatic service, he plans to move into the Wentworth electorate with his wife and three children as soon as possible.
He said after so long away from the country, he had wanted his family to spend a few months with his 90-year-old father Bo Sharma, who still lives on Sydney’s north shore.
“My whole professional life has been becoming a local wherever I go,” Mr Sharma said.
Endorsed Liberal candidate for Wentworth Dave Sharma in Double Bay yesterday
Former AMA president and now independent candidate for Wentworth Kerryn Phelps yesterday