KERRYN Phelps has made history, becoming the first Jewish female in Australia’s federal parliament after beating the Liberal Party’s Dave Sharma in a close Wentworth by-election.
The count was not without its twists and turns. ABC analyst Antony Green declared her the victor just over an hour after polling booths closed and Sharma conceded at around 9pm on Saturday night, before postal vote counting on Sunday narrowed the margin significantly and gave the Liberal Party a whiff of hope.
But after a recount, the GP and City of Sydney Councillor’s position was confirmed and, at the time of going to press, she had a 1500-vote lead in the two-party preferred count.
“I feel very honoured by the people of Wentworth that they have put their trust in me,” Phelps told The AJN.
She said it was “extraordinary” to be the first Jewish woman elected to Federal Parliament.
“I think that that’s wonderful. It’s very important to have diversity in the Australian parliament that reflects the Australian population,” she said, adding, “The Jewish community has been very supportive of [wife] Jackie [Stricker-Phelps] and me, particularly during the struggle for marriage equality.”
She added that her Jewish values will serve as a guide in her new position, saying, “It’s very important to have a spiritual framework.”
Reflecting on a campaign that was “one of the most intensive, if not the most intense, period of my life”, Phelps said that at the outset, a Wentworth victory was a long shot, “But I believed that if we ran the right campaign and focused on the issues and on policy then it would be possible.”
She added, “Really it came down to two things. A strong policy agenda and an amazing grassroots campaign of volunteers.”
Phelps identified three “potent issues” that resonated during the campaign; the need for action on climate change, asylum seeker children on Nauru and the removal of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“[People] were sick of the infighting and sick of the poor governance and I provided an alternative,” she said.
She said the support of wife Jackie during the campaign was indispensable.
“I wouldn’t have done this unless we’d made a family decision. We all talked together about what it would mean not just to run the campaign, but life beyond that because it’s a very major restructuring of our lifestyle,” she said.
“But it was something that we were prepared to do because we all felt so strongly about the issues.”
Once she takes her seat in the House of Representatives, in the short term she plans to continue advocating for asylum seekers – including to get support for the families of the 11 children flown to Australia for medical treatment this week – in addition to pressing for the establishment of a national integrity commission and the re-establishment of the climate authority.
“I need to make sure that the agenda I pursue is an achievable one in the short term and of course then soon enough we’ll be working towards an election in the middle of next year,” she said, reiterating her intent to allow the government, now in minority, to serve its full term.
Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Anton Block congratulated Phelps on her win.
“As the first female Jewish federal MP, we wish Kerryn a hearty mazeltov on her remarkable achievement and best wishes in her new role,” he said.
“We offer our best wishes to the runner-up, Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, the former Australian ambassador to Israel, who also has many friends in the Jewish community.”