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Why this doctor gave up general practice to run for election as an Independent candidate

Independent candidate Dr Sophie Scamps has worked in general practice and emergency departments and has public health qualifications. After years of working with community organisations on sustainability, she is now devoting her energies to running for the Liberal seat of Mackellar in northern Sydney.

An Australian athletics record holder, Dr Sophie Scamps (pronounced ‘Scomps’) told Croakey recently why she is running for election, describing this stage of her campaign as “the final straight”. Hear more from her this afternoon, during a Croakey election panel discussing the climate crisis, health and the election.


Q: Tell us about yourself

I’ve lived in Avalon in the electorate for nearly 23 years. I’ve been a local doctor for the last 20 years in emergency in Mona Vale Hospital and a GP in Narrabeen for eight years.

I grew up in Turramurra on the upper north shore but holidayed down here. My family spent a lot of time down here and I have always loved the area. My father, Roger Scamps (pronounced, ‘Scomps’), was the local GP.

We are of French heritage. My grandfather was French and came out here as a child. Most people don’t pronounce my name correctly. If someone pronounced my name correctly, I know they know our family. My father was one of five.

[Did your father influence your career choice?]. It must have . . . after medical school I thought I would specialise in something like immunology or infectious diseases. But I was living overseas in England with my husband [a former rugby player with the Wallaby’s squad] and had my own health problem, a breast lump, and didn’t know the medical system. I realised how important it was to have a really good GP. I realised you need that advocate you can trust, and how important that role was.

The longer I’ve done general practice, the more I’ve loved it, it’s the relationships you have with your patients that are really special. It’s an incredibly rewarding job because you are helping people through the best and worst times in their lives.

I have also done a Masters in public health at UNSW, part-time by distance, in the early 2000s. We were living overseas for some of that time. It was so eye opening to learn about the social determinants of health and Indigenous health and community development. I did a year working with South West Sydney community health. We did a community development project that year, promoting physical activity in preschool children.

My husband ended up being a professional Rugby Union player and got to travel with it. We ended up living in Dublin for a couple of years. While there I did a masters in tropical medicine at the College of Surgeons; that was about health in developing countries.

I was working in general practice in Narrabeen, it was a wonderful place to work. A lot of people don’t have private health insurance. In this electorate, we have a hospital that is a public private partnership. Access to public outpatient services is extremely limited unless you go out of the electorate. A lot of people opt to have out of pocket expenses; it’s a barrier to getting proper healthcare.

Q: Tell us your climate story

I’ve been concerned about climate change since the late 90s, early 2000s. I remember living in Ireland in 2001 and being concerned about it then but hopeful that our government, our leadership would rise to the challenge. When I had my first child, who is now 17, I was concerned we were creating a world for him that wasn’t the safe, prosperous, beautiful world that I had enjoyed in my lifetime. As parents we strive to give our children the best future they can have, I felt this issue of climate change wasn’t being addressed.

I was very busy with three kids, studying to be a GP, working. I had a conversation with my 12-year-old son a few years ago and his friends. They were asking me about climate change and I said, ‘yes, this is going to be an issue for you children’. One of his friends turned around and said, ‘yes, because you adults have failed us’. That’s when I realised I needed to do whatever I could myself – but I never imagined running for Federal Parliament.

I was doing what I could in our lives and our community; I knew a lot of people were feeling the same way. So we created a community group and that was really successful. We did a lot of work to reduce waste and reducing emissions in our own community. The group was called Our Blue Dot. It’s so incredible that our planet exists in this universe.

At the same time as I’m working as a GP, daily to improve peoples’ health and wellbeing, I had a lot of young people coming in with climate anxiety who said they used to feel very hopeful about the future but are now anxious. A lot were saying they wouldn’t have children, and how could you bring children into a world with climate change? To be honest, mental health issues for young people are very big in this electorate. It’s very difficult to get the specialist help they need.

As a GP I had this concern; I had studied a Masters of Public Health, and the social determinants of health, looking at the fundamentals of our health, food and water security. And so I felt that although I was working daily to improve the health of my community, we were ignoring this looming threat behind us, climate change, that would be the biggest impact on health and wellbeing.

Since then the World Health Organization has said climate change would be the biggest threat to health and wellbeing. During the fires we had a lot of smoke, and we were seeing a lot of respiratory and cardiovascular disease as a result.

I was concerned about those fundamentals of health and wellbeing. As a doctor who is supposed to be looking after a community, I felt I needed to step up on the biggest issue facing our health.

I was working in my community with my network and my friends. It’s very powerful. When you start acting, that sense of despair turns to hope, and also working together, we all got hope. And then we started achieving things, so it was a positive, reinforcing kind of experience; it was really wonderful.

Q: How/when politics?

Because we did create that community group, we also started advocating because we needed all of our politicians to be aware of climate change. The local council and state level of government were doing a good job; the absolute void on leadership was at the federal level. We thought if we were advocating, we would bring about change but it became pretty clear that wasn’t going to happen because within the party system, our representative was very hamstrung and had to tow the party line.

With Our Blue Dot I started to reach out to other community groups working nearby and met up with another group Zero Emissions Sydney North. One of their projects was informing the community about solar power and breaking down the information gap. They were holding Solar My Home evenings. The woman hosting it had worked on Zali Steggall’s campaign and said, you’ve got to meet. Through that, I learnt all about the Voices movement, what Cathy McGowan had done. And Helen Haines. That meeting was around March 2020

We had Our Blue Dot going and we had the black summer bushfires. In early 2020, at a time when there was smoke thickening the air from the fires, our local federal MP [Jason Falinski] had done a letterbox drop on what issues were most important to the electorate. It was a list of 15-20 things and climate change was not on that list. Then he  did a Meet the MP meet up; nearly everyone who turned up was very distressed that climate change wasn’t on the list.

At that time we’d been hearing non-stop from Craig Kelly, Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce that arsonists were starting fires rather than climate change. We said to the MP, we need to hear your voice, if you’re a moderate. He said the problem is, you can’t mention the words climate change in the party room because the Queensland MPs jump up and down. I thought, how are you representing us? That’s when we realised as a very safe seat for the last 70 years since this electorate was created, a very safe Liberal seat the entire time, we had been ignored and taken for granted. It was the swing seats, mining, that were dictating the agenda, and the National Party. Our values and our priorities were not being addressed.

There’s been a couple of light bulb moments: talking to my 12-year-old son and being told,  you’ve failed us; and that meeting with the MP. We realised there’s not going to be any change because he is working in the party system with no freedom to genuinely represent his community. I have come to understand they don’t have any freedom to represent their electorates, they have to toe the party line, stick to the party talking points.

I’d been working closely with a friend on Our Blue Dot, had been put in touch with other women and we got together to start a Voices Of Mackellar group in mid 2020 and started holding the kitchen table conversations. The intention was to talk to as many people as we could and develop a report to deliver to all candidates in the lead up to this election.

Because the ‘Voices’ are all grassroots, they are all done differently. We felt it was important to not run a candidate, to keep it neutral, so we could hear from people across the spectrum.

In the end the report included nearly 500 people. We would go around the table asking the same series of questions. People loved it. They found it quite exhilarating to be asked about what is important to them, what are the solutions, do you feel heard, what type of representation do you want?

Overwhelmingly people felt they were not heard and could not be heard. There was a huge disengagement because they felt there was no point. People didn’t even know who their local federal MP was. The solution that people were coming up with time and again was, we need an Independent. In the end my friend and I left the Voices group to start another group, MacKellar Rising, as a forum to bring people together, to support a community Independent.

Q: When and how did you decide to be that person?

I didn’t. What qualities or characteristics would you like in your representative, was what we asked. The very common answers were: not a career politician, someone with life experience, someone who knows how to listen, someone with a vision for the future that extends beyond three years, a vision for the future. A really big one was having someone who viewed the role as being of service to the community, not as their own career path and privilege. So we had this grassroots movement.

We’d met the people behind Zali’s campaign. It was about building grassroots community but you need to run a very professional campaign if you want to be successful. We were meeting to spread the word, bringing awareness to it, and we were also looking for a candidate; initially we were looking to find someone with a high profile, that was the recommendation. It’s hard to raise someone’s profile to a level where the electorate is very aware of them. But we kept hearing from the electorate, we don’t want someone with a high profile but someone who is genuinely committed. As a doctor, people would say, would you think about doing it? It kept coming up.

We talked to lots of people and we did have a few other people come forward but for whatever reason, for family and professional reasons, it didn’t go forward My position was, if I’m the right person I will step up, but I’m very happy to support the right person for the community. It just happened in a natural way.

I did have to make that decision to step aside from general practice. It’s been so full on for a long while. My father was very unwell last year and passed away, so I’d cut down to two days a week anyway. But I was really working seven days a week developing this grassroots movement. If you are a GP, you need to be 100 percent on. So it was stepping aside from those really strong doctor patient relationships. It was v difficult, I was quite emotional about it. I stopped general practice at the beginning of November last year.

I needed to do it 100 percent full time. As an Independent you need to develop all your own policies, and raise the profile, do everything, fundraise, create the campaign, create your policies, and events.

Q: Were you political before?

I was engaged but I wasn’t active. I would say that I was very much focused on issues and not particularly ideology. Last election we had an Independent candidate here, Alice Thompson, who was very good and I voted Independent last time. She moved out of the area not long after.

A movement like this needs to come up through the community.

Our objective is for me to get in and I’ve got a really good chance. It might come down to the wire. But the sentiment within the community is there, we are not having to manufacture anything. It’s just helping people to become aware there is another choice this time around.

We’ve had recent polling showing it is do-able but it is a big job; Jason won easily last time.

They are definitely out smearing; the smear is on. They are trying to link me to all sorts of funny things, some that I’ve never heard of.

Alice Thompson got about 12 percent last time; The Greens got 11-12 percent; Jason got 53 percent. We had polling done recently, with his primary down to mid 30s and I was in the mid 20s.

Q: What about preferences?

It will come down to whether Labor and the Greens preference me or Jason. I’m asking people to vote one for me and to decide who they’d like to preference. Because we’re trying to appeal to all political sides.

As you can see from Jason’s polling, it’s a very conservative electorate, so The Greens chance of winning here is unrealistic probably. People here are very conservative, and so looking after small business and making sure families and small business are looked after, people want that reassurance as well. Aligning action on climate with what business and industry groups are calling for. We are talking about climate change from economic and health benefits as well as environmental.

We are trying to bring people in who feel the current Coalition no longer represents them. They may have voted the Coalition their entire lives … people do want to see action on climate change, equity, donation reform, lobbying reform, and strengthening of the democratic institutions. The other scary thing for me is all those friendly appointments to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, and how grants are decided. Is money being used in the public interest, not just to buy more votes at the next election?

Q: If elected?

I will be advocating strongly for the issues which are important to the people in this electorate and more widely, urgent action on climate change and to strengthen our democracy, the importance of a strong integrity commission, such as the Helen Haines model.

I will also be advocating for greater action on mental health. We need to double the amount of mental health professionals. Also, the states and the Australian Medical Association are also calling for greater investment from the Commonwealth into public hospitals, so there is greater capacity. At the moment the system is completely at breaking point – we see the nurses are striking because they are totally burnt out and undervalued and because they are telling us the level of care they are providing is not safe.

Q: What is your position on the Uluru Statement?

I fully support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and enshrining a First Nations Voice to Parliament in our Constitution. We have not been successful in Closing the Gap for decades – and I believe that accepting the Uluru Statement from the Heart will go a long way to not only empowering Indigenous people but also healing the centuries-long history of trauma.

Q: What was your pandemic experience?

During the campaign, I’ve been talking to nurses and pharmacists. The big issue for GPs was the poor communication, the lack of planning and preparation. An announcement would be made with ‘call your GP to find out more’, and we wouldn’t have been notified, we would first hear from the patients calling up. We’re not watching the news 24/7, we are seeing patients. This was the Federal Government big time. It happened with the pharmacists around vaccination, when they couldn’t access it, and around the RAT tests; people would turn up at pharmacists expecting to get the tests but there were none. There was a lack of planning and communication with pharmacists and GPs.

I remember during swine flu, working at Mona Vale Hospital in the emergency department. A couple of consultants went off to do the pandemic planning exercises. That stopped in 2008. So we had piecemeal responses, so much changing of messages and poor communication and lack of preparation and planning.

It was really positive at the start when it was a bipartisan approach, working constructively together. Then it fell apart; things did work well when the government was listening to the health experts and advice; it would fall down when it became a political decision. When we opened up very rapidly even despite the Omicron outbreak, that was a political decision. Morrison and Perrottet said it was time to get out of people’s faces. It was a political decision against health advice. Here in this area, summer time is when businesses make their money; that was the second time that businesses had to close over summer. It was devastating , so many shut down; they couldn’t find the staff they needed.

Q: Impact of pandemic on your campaign?

Everything had to go online; in the middle of 2021 when we shut down again, we had just had a Mackellar Rising launch. It all went to Zoom, it was incredible being able to keep communicating, so we were able to keep going, it just got done in a different way. Zoom has its benefits but people are really enjoying face to face now.

Q: What is the local media landscape?

We lost the paper version of the Manly Daily; it’s digital and went behind the paywall. That happened a few years ago. But because there has been that void, a number of other media outlets have started. The Manly Observer was started by a journalist who realised there was a need and is reporting on events that are hyperlocal. It’s fantastic. There is also the Northern Beaches Review and the Northern Beaches Advocate plus a number of local magazines.

I started surfing with my friends last year; meet up with people in the electorate doing Surfing with Sophie. Tom Carroll, a legend around here, is supporting the campaign and wants action on climate change.

We have this awful seawall in Collaroy because of coastal erosion. And all this sewage in our beaches because of the flooding rains. We’ve had flooding here; we had a tornado rip through Cromer, Dee Why and Narrabeen, and a tree fell on someone.

The AFR has done a piece on why more doctors are stepping up into politics and what characteristics we can bring; one of the most important things is people want to be listened to. If you don’t listen, you don’t get the diagnosis right. Also decision-making based on evidence and science…It angers me that there is this misinformation and the public is manipulated this way. Also having worked in emergency for a long time, I am used to making those decisions under pressure.

Q: Any anxieties if elected?

We did have to think through everything before I said yes. We knew the campaign was not going to be easy, I knew a lot of mud would be slung, particularly if I did emerge as a threat.

It is a community movement, so it’s not just me; there is a lot of volunteer support and a lot of goodwill, so I feel like I’m riding this wave of goodwill.

If I end up in Parliament, I have a husband who is very supportive and very good with the children but not housework so we will have to get in help. I have three teenage children, the eldest with autism.

A lot of the bloodshed, the war games occur within the parties, the factions, that is where a lot of the bloodiness comes into it. I heard Julia Banks talk recently at a local event and she was talking to me afterwards about what had happened to her and how ruthless the whole situation was. I have spoken to other Independents, they are treated completely differently.

Some of the Independents do collaborate and work constructively together; they collaborate on research. You do have to look at every single piece of legislation, it doesn’t mean they vote the same way; you don’t have to have that infighting because you are just representing your electorate.

You need to be pretty sure of who you are and why you are doing it, if you can feel your motivations are the right motivations, then I think you can stand strong in that.

Q: Any last messages to our readers?

This is probably the most critical election that’s coming up and it’s our last chance to get Australia on track for climate change. It’s our last opportunity to divest and diversify our economy so we are making the most of the opportunities presented by climate change.

It’s almost D-day; we really need to change what’s happening in Parliament. The more women in Parliament, the better our behaviour will be; we were all just aghast about what was revealed last year.

Sometimes it won’t be fun but somebody has got to step up and do it; I look at people like Helen Haines and I find her extraordinary. She holds herself with a lot of dignity; very positive; working constructively and trying to bring people together instead of this really divisive adversarial type of politics – the two party system and even within the parties, its adversarial.

Just to finish off, as a community Independent I’m focused on the issues and finding solutions to issues. I’m not beholden to a particular ideology; I want to find solutions and start moving the country forward again. Independents have a very important role in informing the national conversation because they can introduce private members bills.

A lot of these things – for example, the national integrity commission, would not be up for public debate if not for the Independents. Even a couple of years ago I don’t know that I was aware there is not a federal integrity commission. It is the number two issue here. Helen Haines has led the debate on integrity; Zali Steggall has led on climate; [Andrew] Wilkie is leading on donations and lobbying reform. So the Independents have a really important and powerful role. That is why there are so many Independents popping up, because there are so many issues that have not progressed.


Register here to attend the webinar today from 5pm-6pm AEST – with Dr Sophie Scamps and others

 

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