Dr Kerryn Phelps

The Groundbreaker

“I knew I was breaking new ground when I looked around and there were no models or templates to follow,” says Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Dayenu float 2019.
Dayenu float 2019.

Dr Kerryn Phelps recently released her memoir, Power of Balance, yet this book could have easily been titled ‘The Groundbreaker’. As her memoir reflects, her life has been a journey of many firsts – the first Jewish woman to be elected to federal Parliament, the first person to make the Liberal ‘safe’ seat of Wentworth independent in the 2018 by-election when Malcolm Turnbull resigned after losing the leadership to Scott Morrison, the first woman and openly gay person to be elected president of the Australian Medical Association, the first female doctor to become a ‘TV medical expert’, and together with her partner Jackie Stricker-Phelps, one of the first Australian gay couples to be married.

Along the way she has smashed glass ceilings, and paved the way for women, LGBTQI+ people, and ‘Teal’ independents to break new ground. Speaking to The AJN and discussing her feelings about being a ‘groundbreaker’, Phelps said, “I knew I was breaking new ground when I looked around and there were no models or templates to follow.”

Regarding the title of her memoir Power of Balance, Phelps said she chose it because “it was a theme that was very prominent during my time as a federal member for Wentworth after the election in 2018, and because the government has lost its majority, and then the crossbench came to have the ‘balance of power’. I was asked by a lot of journalists about this power that I would have on the crossbench … So, I just turned it around and talked about the ‘power of balance’ … to reflect that what I wanted to see in politics was more balance in the debates that we were having.”

Power of Balance by Dr Kerryn Phelps.

She also felt the book title described her approach more broadly. “Throughout my career in changemaking, I tried to address imbalances, and to look at things like marriage equality for example, where the law was very much discriminating against LGBTQI individuals, couples and families, and to be able to redress that imbalance and to create more balance … so everybody can be the best version of themselves. Also, in health work – it’s about finding the balance in life through physical, mental and spiritual health.”

Dr Kerryn Phelps.

Phelps was a leader in the debate about the Marriage Equality vote in 2017, whereby a majority of Australians (61.6 per cent) voted in favour of enabling gay people the right to legally marry in Australia. Phelps herself married Jackie in a Jewish ceremony in New York in 1998. On her return to Australia, they were publicly outed in the media. Discussing her role for this campaign, Phelps stated, “If we roll back a couple of decades when Jackie and I first started talking about the need to change the Marriage Act to reflect equality for same-sex couples to be legally recognised as married and have the same rights and responsibilities … that was a flagship issue at that time, but along the way we came to realise how many areas of discrimination there were under the law. Asked what she believed was important to achieving equality for the LGBTQI community today, she said, “I think one of the important things to watch is going to be the so-called ‘religious freedoms’ legislation which is being put before Parliament … there have been a lot of comments about the potential for more harm with legislation like this.”

Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker-Phelps with Rabbi Ari Fridkis at their first marriage ceremony 1998.

Phelps and Jackie were also vocal in speaking out against an open letter by Sydney Mardi Gras chief executive Gil Beckwith to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, which called for “an immediate and enduring ceasefire in Gaza”, with no mention of the Hamas attacks on October 7. Phelps said, “It really concerned us because it was very specifically directed against Israel, and ignored the human rights abuses for LBGTQI people in other countries, for example, where the death penalty or imprisonment is the punishment for being gay or identifying as gay … And so we were really concerned that it specifically picked Israel given that Israel is a beacon of inclusion and acceptance for the LGBTQI community, particularly in that part of the world.”

Phelps was warmly welcomed into Jackie’s Jewish family, and she herself decided to convert to Reform Judaism. Phelps notes that upon her conversion, the rabbi warned her about the persecution of Jews. Regarding her views on the current increase in antisemitism, Phelps commented, “There has been a disturbing rise in antisemitism being reported in Australia since October 7, and that is obviously a profound source of concern for me and the entire Jewish community and should be a concern for the broader community as well.”

Campaigning for the 2018 Wentworth by-election.

Phelps continues to work as a GP and advocates for improvements to health policy. Phelps and Jackie both suffered injuries from COVID vaccines, and they have been campaigning to draw more attention to this issue. Phelps has written submissions to parliamentary inquiries on this topic. She noted, “I’ve also recently written to the federal Health Minister to ask him to review the structure and scope of the COVID-19 Vaccine Claims Scheme.” Phelps continues to be full of drive and passion to redress the wrongs she sees in society. Her memoir is inspiring, not only because of all she has accomplished but also for her determination to break new ground, which will no doubt enable future generations to stand on her shoulders.

Power of Balance: A life of changemaking by Dr Kerryn Phelps, published by Hardie Grant is out now: lnk.to/PowerOfBalance

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