By JOHN MOYLE
Kerryn Phelps is used to running for elections, whether it be the first woman to head the Australian Medical Association, as councillor for the City of Sydney, or as the history making game-changer in the Wentworth by-election.
Throughout her long public life, she has maintained ‘the sensible centre’ along with an approach to policy exemplified by intelligence, strength, and a sartorial flair to rival Meryl Streep’s in The Devil Wears Prada.
Just one month out from a bruising loss in Wentworth to the Liberal’s paratrooper candidate, Dave Sharma, Councillor Professor Phelps is reflective when she says “We were a lean and efficient team as every donated dollar mattered and we were up against a political machine that was spending millions.
“We ran an honest campaign based on policy and I think that to do as well as we did was remarkable given the David and Goliath battle we faced.”
In spite of the unequal playing field in terms of dollars spent, Cr Prof Phelps polled remarkably well, losing only a few thousand primary votes, and she eventually conceded on October 20 when the Sharma vote reached 51.67 per cent to her count of 48.33 per cent.
“It was a lot closer than a lot of people thought it would be,” Phelps said.
Dirty campaigning by persons unknown
It was also one of the dirtiest campaigns ever seen in Australian federal politics, starting with Phelps’ campaign posters being torn down three times and escalating to a vicious online misinformation campaign and personal messages being dropped into mail boxes.
Eventually the Federal Police and cyber terrorist squads were called in. They are yet to draw any conclusions on who was responsible for these attacks, reminiscent of those perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica during Trump’s presidential election campaign.
‘It was pretty aggressive,” Phelps said.
Despite her loss, Phelps’ can look back on her seven months in federal politics with a sense of achievement remarkable for a parliamentary novice.
Phelps had gone to Wentworth promising action on refugees, climate change and local issues, such as a new high school for the area, and won on many issues.
“Holding the government to account for that length of time and to shine a light on some of the things that were going down the wrong path was one of the hallmarks of my time in parliament,” Phelps said.
“The legislation that was passed on Medivac was historic as it had been 90 years since the government had lost the vote on the floor.
“I am very proud of that legislation; it was an extraordinary exercise in cross-party and independent cooperation, and for the people stuck on Manus Island and Nauru in permanent detention, this was an enormous step forward.”
Hard to know where Sharma stands
It did not take long for the Liberal’s Dave Sharma to take notice, taking many of Phelps’ policies to the electorate a second time around, after the bruising 20 per cent swing against him to Phelps in the October 2018 Wentworth by-election.
“It’s hard to know where he stands, as in the election he said that the government was doing plenty on climate change and that he was going to be a spokesperson on climate change. We have heard nothing further about that,” Phelps said.
“He also said that he was going to see that the eastern suburbs got a new high school, but I don’t think that we are going to see that.
“It’s easy to make promises, but it is not easy to follow through.”
During her time in federal politics Cr Prof Phelps also kept up her commitments as a City of Sydney councillor, an arena where she was first elected as a member of Clover Moore’s team in 2016.
Appointed Deputy Lord Mayor, she would only serve a few months under Moore before resigning from Clover Moore’s Independents’ team and sitting on Council as an independent.
Lord Mayor Moore said that Phelps left when she found out that the deputy position was a rotating 12-month term, while Cr Prof Phelps states other reasons.
“The ability to think independently was, and remains, extremely important and that is why I stood as an independent in Wentworth and why I left Clover Moore’s party.
While she was circumspect about the City of Sydney’s management, Cr Prof Phelps did say, “We need to see transparency in areas such as the continual resistance to live streaming, parking is an ongoing problem, as is the management of property assets, and I’m hearing that business doesn’t feel that the Council is being very business friendly.”
With her federal election experience and the formation of a strong team around her Cr Prof Phelps would seem a natural to take on the Lord Mayor at the 2020 Council elections, but in reality it is probably a harder race than that for Wentworth. With nine councillors and the Lord Mayor’s position elected by popular vote, any challenge to Clover would require a team to cover all positions and win a majority, including that of Lord Mayor.
Which leads to an obvious question: Will Phelps contest the mayoral position?
“Forming a party to contest the next elections is something I would look at but I haven’t made any decisions yet,” Phelps hinted. “Good governance does require renewal from time to time.”
Not an easy task, but watch this space.