KERRYN PHELPS: ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with the new mem­ber for Went­worth

She’s the mav­er­ick in­de­pen­dent who, against all odds, won Mal­colm Turn­bull’s seat of Went­worth and desta­bilised par­lia­ment. Kerryn Phelps tells Juliet Rieden why she had to stand, and her fam­ily re­veals the pas­sion, wis­dom and so­cial con­science that drive

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

There’s some­thing unique and rather spe­cial about Kerryn Phelps. It strikes you in­stantly and then grows as you get to know her. When I ask her friends, fam­ily and col­leagues to ex­plain, they talk about com­pas­sion, in­tegrity, a ra­zor-sharp in­tel­lect and an un­stop­pable need to x things. All fan­tas­tic qual­i­ties for Kerryn’s pri­mary ca­reer as a GP and The Weekly’s long­stand­ing med­i­cal spe­cial­ist. And also, as it hap­pens, spot-on for a politi­cian.

Only, as things cur­rently stand in Can­berra, car­ing ac­tivists seem to be thin on the ground while power-hun­gry ca­reer politi­cians grand­stand in the lime­light. Un­fair? Per­haps. But there’s no ques­tion Aus­tralian pol­i­tics needs a makeover and a bit of old-school “want­ing to make the world a bet­ter place” cer­tainly wouldn’t go amiss.

So, when Kerryn de­cided to do what she does – step up and get in­volved – it’s no won­der lo­cals em­braced that pos­i­tive en­ergy and voted for change.

Kerryn hadn’t in­tended to stand for Par­lia­ment, but when Mal­colm Turn­bull was in­ex­pli­ca­bly re­moved by his own party with even his own cab­i­net in­volved, she’d had enough. “I was very an­gry, as a lot of peo­ple were, about an­other prime min­is­ter be­ing jet­ti­soned, with no good rea­son, and I thought re­ally, in a democ­racy, it should be the peo­ple who de­cide who is their gov­ern­ment. It was mak­ing us a laugh­ing stock in­ter­na­tion­ally,” Kerryn ex­plains, as we sit on the bal­cony of her Syd­ney apart­ment the day af­ter she was sworn in as the new Mem­ber for Went­worth fol­low­ing a nail-bit­ing elec­tion which lost the gov­ern­ment its par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity.

As a GP, mother and grand­mother and also a long-term lob­by­ist for mar­riage equal­ity, Kerryn has al­ways been a pop­u­lar lo­cal gure in the com­mu­nity and it was ac­tu­ally the peo­ple on the streets who de­cided they needed Kerryn ght­ing for them, long be­fore the idea had oc­curred to the Stricker-Phelps fam­ily.

“When we took our dog for a walk or just wan­dered around the area, peo­ple would come up to us and say, ‘Kerryn, why don’t you run?’ Some­body even stopped

me at the sta­tion one day and said,

‘can’t you beg your wife to run for Went­worth?’” says Jackie, Kerryn’s soul­mate and part­ner in every­thing.

“It be­came so in­creas­ingly ob­vi­ous that peo­ple wanted her to run and I said to her, ‘you know Went­worth like the back of your hand, you’ve been work­ing here as a doc­tor for 20 years, you love pol­i­tics, it’s a long shot be­cause it’s got to be a 20 per cent swing to knock out the Lib­er­als, but I be­lieve that if any­one can do it you can …’ She said: ‘we’ll have to think about it and talk about it as a fam­ily’.”

This is pretty much how things roll in Kerryn and Jackie’s world. Jackie is the ea­ger ter­rier while Kerryn is mea­sured and prag­matic. Their friends call it their “yin and yang” and Kerryn ad­mits that “yes, ini­tially” it was Jackie who drove the idea. “Jackie op­er­ates a lot on in­stinct, and her in­stinct was very much ‘this is the di­rec­tion we’re go­ing in, this is what’s go­ing to hap­pen, you can do this’. I’m al­ways the one who sits back and goes, ‘yes but … ’.”

In­stant love

The power cou­ple will cel­e­brate their 21st wed­ding an­niver­sary in Jan­uary – this is their rst wed­ding which caused some­thing of a me­dia sen­sa­tion. Their re­la­tion­ship be­gan with an im­promptu din­ner in 1997 and im­me­di­ately be­came a grand pas­sion which was quickly outed by the tabloid me­dia.

“I hadn’t felt like this about any­body else, ever. I knew if Kerryn wasn’t there I couldn’t breathe,” said Jackie. Within three weeks the cou­ple were liv­ing to­gether and six months later a rabbi mar­ried them in New York.

Jackie and Kerryn al­ways knew they were meant to be to­gether; per­suad­ing Aus­tralia that their love was equal to ev­ery­one else’s dom­i­nated their ev­ery wak­ing hour for the next two decades.

In 2011 they mar­ried for a se­cond time in New York, this time legally, fol­low­ing the pass­ing of the Mar­riage Equal­ity Act there. Then, ear­lier this year when the law changed in Aus­tralia, they wed for a third time, with the Jewish wed­ding Jackie al­ways dreamed of un­der a chup­pah at the Emanuel Sy­n­a­gogue in Syd­ney where they both wor­ship.

“They love each other deeply.

They un­der­stand each other. They’re on the same wave­length,” says Gabi Stricker-Phelps of her moth­ers’ ex­traor­di­nary bond.

“I think it’s hav­ing shared val­ues, a shared vi­sion, sup­port­ing each other,” ex­plains Kerryn when I ask her about their se­cret. “I think a very pro­found love helps. A lot! Be­cause if you’re go­ing through dif cult times, then it’s that that sus­tains you. We’re com­pletely hon­est with each other and that goes to if we agree or dis­agree about some­thing we’ll tell each other.”

“We’re re­ally dif­fer­ent, but we also com­ple­ment each other,” Jackie chips in. “Kerryn’s very much big pic­ture and I’m very much de­tails. She makes me braver and I like to think I make her more in touch with the more touchy-feely emo­tional things.”

“I think a very pro­found love helps. A lot! That sus­tains you.”

Now the big pic­ture has be­come all about serv­ing the com­mu­nity and pur­su­ing Kerryn’s ideals, which in­clude get­ting trau­ma­tised refugee chil­dren off Nauru to med­i­cal help here in Aus­tralia and ad­dress­ing cli­mate change. But time wasn’t on their side.

Kerryn was al­ways go­ing to run as an in­de­pen­dent. She’d been ap­proached by par­ties on both sides of the di­vide to go into main­stream pol­i­tics be­fore, but al­ways felt ham­pered by the need to tow the party line, “rather than vote with my con­science”.

“If I was a min­is­ter, for ex­am­ple, or in a party, it’s very much frowned upon for you to ex­press a view other than the party view,” says Kerryn. “I think that re­ally goes to a lot of the frus­tra­tion peo­ple are feel­ing about party pol­i­tics now, which is why don’t you tell me what you’re think­ing and rep­re­sent what the peo­ple are want­ing, rather than what your party is telling you to say?”

But with­out party back­ing, Kerryn faced a tough and ex­pen­sive bat­tle. She had just a cou­ple of weeks to put to­gether a cam­paign and nd the $300,000 needed to fund it. “We were pre­pared to un­der­write a cer­tain amount,” she ex­plains, the rest came from crowd-fund­ing for do­na­tions.

Fam­ily mat­ters

There was also the fam­ily to con­sider and from their long cam­paign for mar­riage equal­ity Kerryn and Jackie knew only too well how their loved ones could be caught in the cross re. But their youngest daugh­ter, Gabi, who lives with the cou­ple and is com­ing to the end of her rst year of uni­ver­sity, was cer­tain Ma (as she calls Kerryn) had to run.

Gabi is adopted and has been with the cou­ple since she was nine years old. Her sib­lings, Kerryn’s chil­dren from her rst mar­riage to high-school sweet­heart Michael Fronzek, Jaime and Carl, were no longer liv­ing at home when Gabi joined Kerryn and Jackie, but all are in­cred­i­bly close and at a fam­ily get­to­gether Kerryn was ea­ger to in­volve ev­ery­one in her de­ci­sion.

“She said, ‘life could change quite dra­mat­i­cally if I was elected. The cam­paign is go­ing to take a lot of time. Are you happy for me to do this?’” re­calls Gabi. “I said to her: ‘Why are you do­ing it? What’s your aim?’ Ma’s re­sponse was some­thing along the lines of ‘I’m do­ing this be­cause I’m fed up with the cur­rent way that politi­cians are act­ing in the gov­ern­ment and I think I can change it.’ It’s a favourite say­ing of mine that his­tory is made by the peo­ple who show up. And Ma is the liv­ing epit­ome of that. She will just put her hand up where she can and she will try and make a dif­fer­ence.”

As it turned out, the fam­ily – in­clud­ing both daugh­ters, Jackie’s fa­ther, step-mother, brother, sis­ter-in­law, even her grand­son, Billy – were out on the cam­paign trail.

Kerryn’s el­dest daugh­ter, Jaime, who also lives in Went­worth with her hus­band, Rob, and 17-month-old Billy, could see her com­mu­nity was cry­ing

out for her mum to stand, and fully sup­ported the cam­paign. “I think the tide is chang­ing a lit­tle bit and peo­ple are sick of the crap that’s go­ing on in our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. They’re re­ally over the big boys’ club and they’re des­per­ate for a change and new blood. I think Mum was the per­fect can­di­date be­cause she’s quite well-known in Went­worth and she’s been known for 20 years as be­ing a voice of rea­son, some­one highly in­tel­li­gent, some­one who clearly cares and so

I think it was a no-brainer.”

But as the cam­paign ramped up and the pol­i­tics turned nasty, in­clud­ing a par­tic­u­larly vi­cious email smear cam­paign which (falsely) claimed Kerryn had HIV, Jaime threw up her hands. “When it started to get per­sonal that re­ally both­ered me.

I got to the point when I just couldn’t even look at the com­ments on the Face­book posts be­cause it would ei­ther make me very an­gry or re­ally upset and I’d want to write some­thing back to stick up for Mum and tell them to bug­ger off. But I knew that was not help­ful at all and that ul­ti­mately is what pol­i­tics is all about … I think it’s prob­a­bly just the start. The deeper she gets in it the more peo­ple are go­ing to stand up and tell her what they think.”

Jackie was dis­gusted by the un­der­hand tac­tics in the cam­paign but says she and Kerryn can take it. “I don’t think it will get any dirt­ier. I’ve never seen such a dirty cam­paign. Re­ally, for the amount of money spent in­g­ing mud at one per­son, it was just gob­s­mack­ing. But I’ve got to tell you that ght­ing for mar­riage equal­ity for 21 years, ght­ing gov­ern­ments and peo­ple and the amount of rub­bish we put up with then, I think we’re tough enough to cope.”

For The Weekly’s photoshoot we headed to a lo­cal beach for a fam­ily pho­to­graph with both daugh­ters and beloved grand­son Billy, and as we hung out on the sand Kerryn was spon­ta­neously mobbed by lo­cal school­girls. They all knew who

Kerryn was and couldn’t wait to talk to their new MP. Eleven-year-old Ap­p­ley from Vau­cluse Pub­lic School told me she’d watched the elec­tion on the news and re­ally liked what Kerryn was say­ing. “She cares about health and wants to build a new school.” If they were old enough to vote, Ap­p­ley and friends Olive, Lulu and Char­lotte would pick Kerryn, who they told me is very much a role model for them.

It was a won­der­ful un­guarded mo­ment and heart­en­ing to see the younger gen­er­a­tion so en­gaged in pol­i­tics. Many peo­ple have told Kerryn the Went­worth win has in­spired younger women to con­sider pol­i­tics, but they’re not the only fe­males she’s af­fect­ing. “Even more than that, the women who are con­tact­ing me are older women say­ing this is an in­spi­ra­tion to them. They love the idea that they’re not done and dusted at 55 or 60, that you can ac­tu­ally con­tem­plate a whole new ca­reer or a whole di­rec­tion or tran­si­tion in your life no mat­ter what your age.”

Kerryn says it’s ac­tu­ally her ma­tu­rity that’s made this the per­fect time for her to leap into a new ca­reer. “It’s a bit of a slid­ing door mo­ment. I ac­tu­ally think that there’s a lot to be said for wis­dom and life ex­pe­ri­ence, lived ex­pe­ri­ence, and I bring to this role a wealth of lived ex­pe­ri­ence. You can­not pre­tend that and you can’t man­u­fac­ture it. You have to have lived it, and to bring those ex­pe­ri­ences of hav­ing been a young mother at the very be­gin­ning of my ca­reer, learn­ing to bal­ance ca­reer and fam­ily at 22, 23, adop­tion, the fos­ter­ing sys­tem, mar­riage, di­vorce, re­mar­riage, busi­ness, be­ing an author. I’ve ob­vi­ously had a lot of in­ter­ests and it gives you an in­stinc­tive sense of an is­sue.”

Grandma’s in­spi­ra­tion

For the past 17 months Kerryn has also added grand­mother to that life ex­pe­ri­ence, which she says is “just fan­tas­tic” and one of her in­spi­ra­tions to make a bet­ter world. “There is noth­ing like see­ing a lit­tle child like Billy if you want to key into the fu­ture. I’m quite young and Jaime’s not that old ei­ther, but that baby, that in­no­cence, I think it re­ally mo­ti­vates her as well,” says Gabi.

Daugh­ter Jaime is cur­rently preg­nant with a se­cond grand­son on the way. Dr Kerryn was there all the way for Jaime’s rst preg­nancy, even hold­ing her hand in the birthing suite, but will she be able to com­bine this role with her new job in Can­berra? “I think she’ll do every­thing she can to be there,” says Jaime. “Of course I’ve got my hus­band there and an ob­ste­tri­cian and every­thing, but Mum be­ing there is an in­cred­i­ble bonus.”

Mean­while Gabi is fol­low­ing in Ma’s foot­steps, in­volved in stu­dent pol­i­tics with her “Shake up for women” cam­paign at Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity. She says Kerryn is a men­tor and when I ask if she could see her mum as Prime Min­is­ter one day, Gabi breaks into a smile. “I wish she could be Prime Min­is­ter but I think the two-party po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in this coun­try doesn’t en­able that to hap­pen.”

And in case you’re won­der­ing, Kerryn con rms she could never run for the top job. “I’d feel per­son­ally com­pro­mised if I was in a sit­u­a­tion where I had no choice but to cross the oor or vote against my con­science. It would be a deal breaker,” she says. “I think I can achieve a great deal as an in­de­pen­dent in rais­ing is­sues, in talk­ing to both gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion par­ties about how leg­is­la­tion can be im­proved. That’s the right po­si­tion­ing for me. Leave it to oth­ers to play party-po­lit­i­cal games.”

By the time The Weekly goes to press Kerryn will have made her maiden speech in Par­lia­ment with her fam­ily watch­ing from the gallery. She’s started writ­ing it and knows ex­actly what she wants to say. “It will be about the ex­traor­di­nary events, per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal, that have co­a­lesced to bring me to the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives at a unique time in Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal his­tory. I’ll speak about the jour­ney that brought me here, the peo­ple I want to ac­knowl­edge and thank, and of­fer some re ec­tions on the path ahead for our na­tion and the par­lia­ment’s role in forg­ing that fu­ture.” We can’t wait.

Kerryn is a role model for Gabi, who is in­volved in stu­dent pol­i­tics.

Kerryn’s role as a grand­par­ent in­spires and mo­ti­vates her to cre­ate a bet­ter world. She says her life ex­pe­ri­ence makes this a per­fect time for a move into pol­i­tics.

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