Marriage equality – have you got the energy for this? South East locals hope you do.

'Love Makes a Family' as seen at the 2016 Sydney Mardi Gras
‘Love Makes a Family’ as seen at the 2017 Sydney Mardi Gras. Source: C and N

The disappointment around the postal plebiscite on marriage equality is real and bitter for many, but it seems it is the only course of action available to bury this boring issue once and for all.

Boring because for so long the vast majority of Australian’s have understood that ‘Love is Love’ yet the months/years of political scratching around has disillusioned and disengaged the community.

There are those challenging this process in the High Court of Australia, describing it as unlawful; the full bench of the court will decide  on September 5 and 6.

The wheels of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who will run this show, will continue to spin regradless – getting ready for the survey which is due to start just a week after the High Court decision.

While those in our community at the sharp end of this cheer on the High Court challenge, in the back of their mind they are also laying the ground work for the campaign ahead – mobilising as many people as possible to vote ‘yes’ in this non-compulsory process.

Bega Valley LGBTIQ advocate, Tas Fitzer says it took him a couple of days of reflection to work out the way ahead.

“I really understand the temptation for supporters of marriage equality to say ‘I am not voting, I am boycotting this process’, because it’s not a process we’d like to legitimise,” Tas says.

“We are giving a platform to debate that is going to be harmful to children of same sex couples, for young LGBTIQ people, and for people struggling with their identity.

“We don’t want to be here but we are here, this is something we have to deal with and the best way to deal with it is to take it head on,” he reasons.

Tas Fitzer. Source: Facebook
Tas Fitzer. Source: Facebook

Tas says he’ll be voting ‘yes’ and will be actively campaigning for others to do the same.

“Disagree with the process – absolutely, disagree with how it’s being done – absolutely, but let’s accept the fact we are here and make the most of it,” Tas says.

C and N are women who live on the Sapphire Coast and have been together for over two decades, they have a teenage son and are active members of a range of community and sporting organisations.

They have asked me not to use their names, mindful of the impact any publicity might have on their boy.

“For the first time in a very long time, I feel different and vulnerable, and that I have to somehow show evidence of how healthy, normal, and loving my relationship is with both my partner and son,” C says.

“How I live my life day to day and how I parent our child is under the microscope for those who don’t know us.

“And, I’m embarrassed for Australia – friends, colleagues, clients, people I know, across the age span, those with faith and those without, really don’t understand what the problem is, there is this sense of – really, we are still talking about marriage equality?,” C says.

Reflecting on the weeks ahead C and N believe there will be a relatively small but vocal group of people who will feel the postie poll gives them permission to voice their bigotry, to judge, attack, and say dreadful, hurtful, untrue and damaging things about the LGBTIQ community.

If it goes ahead, the result of the poll will be known on November 15 but it will be parliamentarians that ultimately decide if the Mariage Act can include same sex couples.

Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has said he’ll be encouraging a ‘yes’ vote and if ‘yes’ wins his Liberal MP’s will be free to vote according to their conscience.

ABC South East reported this week that Anne Sudmalis, the Liberal Member for Gilmore which covers the northern end of the Eurobodalla, won’t reveal her personal view on same sex marriage.

The ABC said that Ms Sudmalis would stand up for what her electorate decides.

A survey on the issue conducted by Ms Sudmalis in October 2015 pointed to 62 percent approval for marriage equality in Gilmore, 36 percent were opposed, while the rest undecided – the ABC reported.

Colourful tutus with a clear message
Colourful Bega Valley tutus with a clear message at the 2017 Sydney Mardi Gras. Source: C and N

Labor’s Mike Kelly, the Federal Member for the neighbouring seat of Eden – Monaro told About Regional, “The fastest and cheapest way to deliver marriage equality is through a free vote in the Parliament, not a $122 million survey.”

“If we are going to be forced to take part in this farce then I think the best thing we can do is send the Turnbull Government a message they can’t ignore – vote yes for marriage equality,” Dr Kelly says.

Dr Kelly is urging eligible voters to enroll or update their details with the Australian Electoral Commission before August 24 so that they can take part in the marriage law survey.

The former Army colonel is hopeful the campaign ahead will be respectful and tolerant.

“I plead with everyone in our community to exercise the utmost civility and join with me in urging that we all refrain from engaging in misinformation or hurtful comments,” Dr Kelly says.

Twenty-one-year old Tas Fitzer is of a similar mindset.

“The mental health of some of our young LGBTIQ people is of real concern to me,” he says.

“That’s why I have decided to get out there and campaign for a ‘yes’ vote so that they can see there are people out there to support them.”

Click play to hear more from Tas…


Speaking with C and N in fading light this afternoon, both fear some in the community who would vote ‘yes’ are now unmotivated to take part given the level of discussion the issue has had over an extended period of time.

“Many people honestly don’t understand what the fuss is about and are exhausted by this debate,” N says.

“Because same sex marriage seems a no brainer to them, I’d implore people to realise that unfortunately for some Australians the idea is frightening and abhorrent.

“Giving free reign to people to say whatever they like, to judge us simply for not living our lives like them is scary, scary for us now and for the next generations,” N explains.

Both are hopeful people will push past the grubby, lengthy politics of the issue and find the energy and motivation to say ‘yes’.

Writing for About Regional almost 12 months ago on this issue, Iain Dawson the convener of Bega Valley for Marriage Equality asked people to walk in his shoes…

“John Howard’s change [to the Marriage Act] in 2004 defined marriage as ‘a union between a man and woman only’.

“I am incredulous that Australia still judges my relationship with the man I love, ‘to the exclusion of all others’ as less than equal to my peers, friends, and family.

“For those not yet convinced; put yourself in that equitation and see how it feels, what it says to your soul.

“80% of Australians want our leaders to change the Marriage Act.

“The majority of my countrymen see my relationship as equal; that gives me and the LGBTIQ community strength and hope,” Iain wrote.

Whatever happens in the High Court on September 5 and 6 this issue will remain unresolved, work still needs to be done to finish this, energy needs to be mustered.

As a heterosexual father of three, with friends and family seeking equality that I take for granted, I will find that energy, despite the shit sandwich we are being served, I ask you to do the same.

Thanks to About Regional members – Tim HoltAmanda StroudDeborah Dixon, and Nastasia Campanella for supporting local story telling.

Declaration: Tas Fitzer is a part-time Electorate Officer for Mike Kelly and former Country Labor candidate.


Bronnie Taylor sticks with State politics, says ‘no’ to Eden-Monaro seat

NSW Deputy Premier and Member for Monaro, John Barilaro addresses the first meeting of the Cooma-Snowy Nationals Branch in Cooma on July 10. Source: Nationals for Eden-Monaro FB
NSW Deputy Premier and Member for Monaro, John Barilaro addresses the first meeting of the Cooma-Snowy Nationals Branch in Cooma on July 10. Source: Nationals for Eden-Monaro FB

One of The National Party’s strongest voices in South East NSW has moved to end speculation about her political ambitions.

Monaro local, Bronnie Taylor says she won’t stand for preselection if The National’s decide to contest Eden-Monaro at the next Federal Election.

Commentary has been building since The National’s launched a Cooma – Snowy Branch in early July.

Despite the sitting State Member for Monaro, being the National’s John Barilaro, the move to establish a local branch has been interpreted as a tilt at the bigger Federal seat. Talk suggesting the Nationals are either playing push back against their coalition partner the Liberal Party or will be an ally and direct preferences to sure up their conservative comrades.

Mrs Taylor has been a member of the NSW Upper House for the last two years, a gear change after being Deputy Mayor of Cooma-Monaro Shire Council while combining a nursing career.

Her high profile and popularity in the electorate and recent appearance alongside the Prime Minister in Cooma had political commentators tipping Mrs Taylor as a possible Nationals candidate in a three-way contest for Eden-Monaro.

Speaking to About Regional, the NSW Parliamentary Secretary for the Deputy Premier and Southern NSW moved to squash such talk once and for all.

“I ran for State politics because I really care about the things that State politics is in charge of, things like health and education and really important social issues, and I am really happy where I am,” Mrs Taylor says.

Earlier media comments seemed to leave the door open, Mrs Taylor says she was taken by surprise but is now moving to clarify her position and will not be contesting Eden-Monaro.

“I think it’s really important that we have Members of Parliament that are in places where their strengths lie, and my strength lies in the work that I am able to do at the moment,” Mrs Taylor says.

With six years still to run on her NSW Parliamentary term, Mrs Taylor says she is confident a strong Nationals candidate will be preselected for Eden-Monaro if that’s what the party decides.

Going into the 2016 Federal Poll, the ‘bellwether’ seat was held by the Liberal’s, Peter Hendy.

Mrs Taylor believes Mr Hendy lost to Labor’s Mike Kelly because he wasn’t present or connected to the people.

Mike Kelly, Member for Eden Monaro. Source: Mike Kelly FB page
Mike Kelly, Member for Eden Monaro. Source: Mike Kelly FB page

Mike Kelly regained the seat he lost to Hendy three years earlier with a 5.84% swingHowever, the seat which takes in Tumut, Queanbeyan, Jindabyne, Narooma, Bega and Eden is still seen as marginal, and perhaps leaning towards the Coalition.

The sitting member says he isn’t surprised the Nationals are interested in Eden-Monaro and if they do contest the ballot it will be the first time they have done so since 1993.

In a blog posted last week, Mr Kelly wrote that the news was further evidence the Turnbull Coalition Government was “falling to pieces.”

“Instead of focusing on issues like jobs, penalty rates, schools and Medicare – the Turnbull Coalition are focusing on themselves,” Mr Kelly wrote.

“The last thing the people of Eden-Monaro need is two Turnbull Coalition candidates bringing their Canberra power games into our local politics again.”

Mrs Taylor rejects any sense of political games.

“The [Coalition] agreement is that if we have a sitting candidate then you don’t run against them,” Mrs Taylor says.

“We don’t at the moment we have a Labor member, and so if the National Party is keen to run I really hope they do.”

Mrs Taylor says voters deserve a range of candidates to choose from.

“The voters will decide and they will vote for people on merit and they have shown that,” she says.

“They showed it last time [2016 Election] when the infamous bellwether seat of Eden-Monaro didn’t go with the Government because people chose a candidate they wanted for that time.”

Mrs Talyor hopes next time voters don’t choose the Labor candidate.

“But if they do they first deserve to have a choice between the Liberals and the Nationals,” she says.

Bronnie Taylor and PM Malcolm Turnbull, speaking about Snowy Hydro 2.0 in Cooma on June 28.
Bronnie Taylor and PM Malcolm Turnbull, speaking about Snowy Hydro 2.0 in Cooma on June 28.

“I love being part of the National Party, I really think they are the best party for rural and regional New South Wales.”

The NSW Liberal Party meets in Sydney this coming weekend to decide on how it’s candidates will be preselected for the next Federal Poll which isn’t due until late 2018 or early 2019. Former PM, Tony Abbott is pushing for greater grassroots involvement.

Local Liberals keen to contest Eden-Monaro at this stage are said to be Jerry Nockles, former Hendy staffer and current Head of Government Relations with UNICEF Australia and retired Major General, Jim Molan.

Labor’s Mike Kelly has a tip for any candidate that stands, “At the last Federal Election…they [voters] sent a clear message; they want their Federal Member of Parliament to be a person who is passionate about the region, works hard and listens to them.”

Canberra listens to Bega Valley approach to teen health

Meghan Campbell and Duncan MacKinnon talk Teen Clinic in Canberra. Source: Mike Kelly's office
Meghan Campbell and Duncan MacKinnon talk Teen Clinic in Canberra. Source: Mike Kelly’s office

A Bega doctors clinic and its simple commitment to providing time and space to Bega Valley teenagers is getting attention at the highest levels.

For the last year, the Bega Valley Medical Practice in Bega has run a free weekly drop-in health clinic for teenagers.

Known as ‘Teen Clinic‘, the Practice sets aside time for teens with registered nurses (RN) two afternoons a week. High schoolers simply show up, no appointment needed, and no fee – Medicare picks up the cost.

Doctors and other health professionals are there seeing a range of patients but are ready to respond to a referral from one of the nurses for a Teen Clinic patient.

It’s an idea that in the last week has been presented to parliamentarians and health bureaucrats in Canberra.

Dr Duncan MacKinnon says Teen Clinic starts at the front desk of his GP practice with reception staff.

“When they (teens) come all they have to say is ‘We’re just here for the Teen Clinic’ and that’s as much information as they have to give, no questions asked,” Duncan says.

Dr Duncan MacKinnon
Dr Duncan MacKinnon

Conscious of the barriers that sometimes exist when ‘grown ups’, systems, and adolescents try and engage, it’s that easy, non-judgmental, welcoming way that has been key to the success of the clinic, along with the leadership of nurses.

“It’s important that Teen Clinic is not seen to be a mental health service or a sexual health service,” Duncan says.

“This covers all bases, it is open access covering all medical concerns for teens.”

RN Sue MacKinnon is one of the faces of Teen Clinic each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon between 2 and 5 pm.

“There has been a lot of work that has shown teenagers can be reluctant to talk to doctors,” Sue says.

“But they are fairly happy to talk to nurses, we are a good entry point.”

Aside from offering their own high level of primary health care, Sue and the clinic’s other RN’s work to introduce and connect teens to the people and additional care they might need.

“We do a lot of baton passing, it’s a really smooth transition for the kids and takes away some of the scariness of the whole process for them,” Sue says.

The response from local teens has been positive over the last two years.

“We have a small population, so sometimes we might get one person come, sometimes we get seven,” Duncan says.

“We get groups of people coming which is really lovely because they’re bringing their friends.

Teen Clinic, Tuesday and Thursday 2-5pm
Teen Clinic, Tuesday and Thursday 2-5pm

“And it’s important that teenagers know this is a confidential service,” he says.

“And we always talk to them about parental involvement, but a lot of teenagers are capable of making informed choices.”

Widespread concern around youth mental health in recent years has seen government respond by funding ‘Headspace‘ youth mental health centers in big population centres.

Headspace reaches out to smaller communities through online and telephone support, but its the flexibility and local capacity to juggle priorities that has politicians interested in the face to face model that Teen Clinic offers.

Duncan and RN Meghan Campbell were invited to present the Teen Clinic idea to the Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention, a bi-partisan friendship group of federal MP’s.

The group is co-chaired by Dr Mike Kelly, the Member for Eden-Monaro, one of its objectives is to address suicide rates in regional and rural areas.

Dr Kelly says he was very proud to see an idea from his electorate be so well received by his colleagues.

Teen Clinic is a financially efficient way to roll out accessible teen programs across the country, that’s why I invited Duncan and Meghan to Canberra, so fellow politicians could hear about the program,” he says.

Dr Kelly believes the flexibility of the model suits teenagers and their varying needs as well as the economic realities of small communities which calls on a broader health care approach from one facility.

“The infrastructure is already there and it would take relatively small adjustments at the GP practice level for this to be easily adopted across the country,” he says.

Mike Kelly suggests partnerships between GP clinics and Headspace might allow the organisation to be more face to face with young people in regional and rural communities.

Federal MP's and health officials are all ears as Meghan Campbell takes them through the Teen Clinic concept. Source: Mike Kelly's office
Federal MP’s and health officials are all ears as Meghan Campbell takes them through the Teen Clinic concept. Source: Mike Kelly’s office

Headspace could be complimentary to the Teen Clinic program, we certainly need a much broader approach to youth suicide prevention in regional Australia,” Dr Kelly says.

Coming out of Monday’s presentation at Parliment House, more than ever Duncan is keen to see Teen Clinic rolled out in other GP practices.

“The CEO of Coordinare, the Primary Health Care Network and the CEO of the Australian Primary Health Care Nurses Association were also there, so we’ve got a few bodies talking together and we have their support,” Duncan says.

To take Teen Clinic beyond its Bega roots Federal Government funding is needed.

“We’ve been asked to put up a funding model to enable this to be replicated,” Duncan says.

Mike Kelly is positive and believes Teen Clinic has the potential to shape policy development in a bipartisan way.

Watch this space!

Disclaimer: Author has a direct and personal relationship with Bega Valley Medical Practice

Community rallies to fix hospital heartbreak 12 months after opening

Around 500 people turned out in a show of support for Dr Chris Phoon and to express concern with health management
Around 500 people turned out in a show of support for Dr Chris Phoon and to express concern with health management

Nothing brings a country town out like concern for its health service.

Five hundred people packed into the Bega Valley Commemorative Civic Centre tonight (March 9) following the snap sacking of orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Chris Phoon.

Dr Phoon’s 3-year contract at the South East Regional Hospital (SERH) in Bega has not been renewed, despite, as the community was told tonight, an excellent appraisal from his managers just three months prior.

Reading from the appraisal report, long-standing orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Matthew Nott pointed to the four and five-star rating Dr Phoon received across a range of indicators from the then Health Service General Manager and the then Director of Medical Services.

“He is ranked as either good or excellent in effective management and treatment of patients,  maintenance of clinical skills and expertise, participation in clinical governance,  in clinical outcomes, maintenance of patient records, in effective communication with patients,  collegiate and cooperative relations with other medical and non-medical staff…the list goes on,” Dr Nott says.

At a loss to explain Dr Phoon’s treatment under different managers given the glowing appraisal, Dr Nott could only suggest that the 38-year-old was being silenced for his advocacy around better hospital systems and patient outcomes.

Dr Matthew Nott, the convener of Thursday nights public meeting.
Dr Matthew Nott, the convener of Thursday night’s public meeting.

Dr Phoon told the meeting the explanation he was given was that core values didn’t align.

People leaving the meeting tonight, all found the situation difficult to comprehend and lacking in logic.

“What’s happening? Why is this happening? That’s what we haven’t learned anything about,” one lady told me.

“How did we get to this point? This should have been resolved much earlier,” a local dairy farmer said.

“I was due to have surgery yesterday, I have no confidence in the local health service,” said another lady gripping a walking frame.

The jam-packed room heard from a range of speakers, Dr Emma Cunngingham – Bombala GP and President of the Rural Doctors Association, David Perry – Divisional Manager of Public Health at the Health Services Union, Dianne Laing – local rep for the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and Mike Kelly – Federal Member for Eden-Monaro.

While the Health Service accepts there have been teething problems at the new facility, all six speakers tonight portrayed dysfunctional systems and management, issues bigger than one doctor or simple teething troubles.

Dr Nott described Dr Phoon’s case as “a flint to a tinderbox.”

Speakers pointed to increasing waiting lists, a turnover of senior staff, doctors pay being cut, the increasing use of fly-in fly-out locums, admin staff in tears about their workload, good staff fleeing, stretched nursing care, and billions of dollars in Federal Government money stripped away.

A vote to extend the contract of Dr Phoon
A vote to extend the contract of Dr Phoon

Confidence in the management of the hospital and local health service took a hiding, the likes of which is uncomfortable to watch and unfathomable.

It is soul destroying for the community that rallied to get the $170 million hospital built in the first place.

I remember being on radio with ABC South East taking live to air calls from people who were breaking down as they described the joy and sense of security the new hospital embodied.

Those same people came out tonight, and again I heard the tremble in their voice, this time mixed with disappointed and fear.

The Member for Bega, Andrew Constance couldn’t be at tonight’s meeting, a statement was read explaining that parliament was sitting.

The community is now holding out hope that a review commissioned by Mr Constance last week might hold the key to what someone tonight described as a “most bizarre set of circumstances.”

Dr Chris Phoon thanks those gathered for their support and encourages people to 'keep fighting'
Dr Chris Phoon thanks those gathered for their support and encourages people to ‘keep fighting’

The Constance review asks the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation to look into orthopaedic services at SERH and find clarity around Dr Phoon’s contractual issues.

Tonight’s meeting called for the terms of reference to be expanded to include a review of the entire Bega Valley Health Service, providing an opportunity for comment that staff media bans and other contractual negotiations don’t allow for.

This heartbroken community has a sense they don’t have all the information. They committed themselves tonight (March 9) to finding out and “keeping up the fight” despite the fact they thought it was over this time last year when the new hospital opened.