Two former Federal AMA Presidents are standing as candidates in the 2019 Federal election.
The first, Professor Kerryn Phelps, AMA President from 2000-2003, has already experienced the rough and tumble of politics in Canberra, having won the 2018 by-election to succeed former PM Malcolm Turnbull as the Member for Wentworth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
In her six months as an MP, Kerryn, still a practising GP, has made quite an impact. She steered the highly debated Medevac Bill, also known as the Urgent Medical Treatment Bill, through the Parliament, and has been outspoken on issues such as renewable energy and climate change. Support for general practice is high on the Phelps policy agenda.
She has also been instrumental in uniting the Independent MPs and Senators in the Parliament to vote on key legislation, and more recently led calls for a royal commission into the water buyback scheme.
Describing herself as economically conservative and socially progressive, Prof Phelps – a Councillor on the City of Sydney Council since 2016, including a stint as Deputy Mayor – has moved seamlessly into the combative political environment in Canberra.
But commentators say she will have a battle to retain Wentworth – traditionally one of the safest Coalition seats in the country – at the May 18 election, when she will be up against the Liberals’ Dave Sharma, whom she narrowly defeated in the by-election.
There are no signs of doubt in her campaign team, though. When Australian Medicine visited her campaign HQ in Edgecliff recently, a planning meeting was in progress.
Her team, which includes experienced political operatives from across the political spectrum and fresh-faced young volunteers alive with the buzz of being players in the political process, was discussing everything from policy development and media strategy down to who was going to do the early morning shifts handing out flyers at Bondi and Edgecliff railway stations.
The other big issue at the meeting was the spate of overnight thefts of Phelps corflutes across the electorate, including from iconic Bondi Beach, which had witnessed a political poster crime wave.
Some psephologists may have their doubts about Phelps being returned as the Member for Wentworth, but Team Phelps has no such doubts. The upbeat and optimistic purple T-shirt-wearing brigade are confident that Kerryn can overcome the odds for another unlikely win.
Meanwhile, across town in Bennelong – the seat that was home for many years to former PM John Howard, until he was unseated by Labor’s Maxine McKew in 2007, who in turn was defeated by star Liberal candidate, tennis legend John Alexander, in 2010 – another former AMA President has chosen a difficult path to a political career.
Apart from McKew’s one term as the local MP, Bennelong has been in Liberal Party hands since the 1950s.
But when he was announced as a Labor candidate in 2018, Professor Brian Owler, AMA President from 2014-16, made the decision to take on the tough challenge of once again winning Bennelong for Labor.
When Australian Medicine dropped in to visit Prof Owler, he had spent the day doorknocking in Ermington, in the west of an inner metropolitan electorate that also includes Epping, Gladesville, Meadowbank, and Ryde.
Owler – a neurosurgeon, face of the NSW Government’s ‘Don’t Rush’ road safety campaign, and prominent autism awareness campaigner – does not underestimate the challenge he has taken on. But he is putting everything into his campaign. He is serious about winning it.
Being the underdog candidate in a high-profile electorate is not a glamorous life. On his Facebook page, Brian can be seen doing the obligatory flyer handout and meet and greet with commuters at railway stations and bus stops, and attending the many and varied community events in this diverse electorate. Visibility is everything, especially for new political hopefuls up against high profile incumbents.
Doorknocking is another core activity for would-be MPs. Owler says that, no matter which way they vote, people are for the most part polite and attentive whenever he taps on their front doors.
He recounts that only one resident had proved argumentative, but in a civil way. An elderly chap felt the need to follow him down the street peppering him with questions about tax policy. They agreed to disagree.
Owler said that Labor’s Medicare Cancer Plan is proving popular with voters.
“Everybody knows someone who has been affected by cancer in some way,” he said.
Professor Owler’s electorate office had not opened at the time of our visit, but was about a week away from establishing a presence at the Eastwood shops. He said that things would accelerate from there with more help from Labor HQ and a having a local base for his growing team of volunteer supporters.
It is a big jump from medical politics to Federal politics, but both Owler and Phelps cite their experience as AMA NSW President and Federal AMA President as the spark that lit the political fire in their bellies.
And they both see health policy and health reform as critical factors in their respective quests to be elected to the House of Representatives. They both want to be advocates for change, just as they were in the top job at the AMA.
It is only a matter of weeks before we see if they can emulate the success of another former AMA President, Dr Brendan Nelson, who held the Sydney seat of Bradfield for the Liberals from 1996 to 2009. He served as Education Minister and Defence Minister, and was Opposition Leader from 2007-08.
Another former Federal AMA President, Dr Bill Glasson, ran for the LNP against Kevin Rudd, then in his second term as PM, in the Brisbane seat of Griffith in 2013.
Rudd won, but Glasson achieved a 5.5 per cent swing against Labor. After Rudd left Parliament, Glasson contested the 2014 Griffith by-election, but lost to Labor’s Terri Butler.
Australian Medicine will report after the election if there are AMA doctors in the House.