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 fix 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 figure in the community and it was actually the people on the streets who decided they needed Kerryn fighting 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 … ‘.”
The power couple will celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary in January – this is their first wedding which caused something of a media sensation back in the day.
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.
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“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 difficult 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.”
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 find 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.
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 crossfire. But their youngest daughter, Gabi, who lives with the couple and is coming to the end of her first 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 first 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 get-together 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-in-law, 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 flinging mud at one person, it was just gobsmacking. But I’ve got to tell you that fighting for marriage equality for 21 years, fighting 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.”
For the past 17 months Kerryn has also added becoming a 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 boy. Dr Kerryn was there all the way for Jaime’s first 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 confirms 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 floor 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 reflections on the path ahead for our nation and the parliament’s role in forging that future.”
We can’t wait.