Fiona Phillips – candidate for seat of South Coast

Many years ago when working on a civics and citizenship program for the federal government I became fascinated by how much people don’t know about the political system and their political representatives – real and hopeful. I wondered why someone would throw themselves into what, for many, is an extraordinarily difficult if not insurmountable challenge.

Talking to Fiona Phillips, candidate for the NSW seat of South Coast seat, provided a glimpse into the challenge.

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FIONA PHILLIPS: Marginal Campaigner

I first heard of Fiona Phillips back in 2009 when she came to public attention, starting a campaign to save the Nowra swimming pool. Observing that campaign over a few years levels of persistence and diligence were evident in her approach. She knew what she was talking about and took plenty of opportunities to do so.

In 2012, buoyed by the success of the pool campaign, and with an interest in local government piqued by numerous council meetings and discussions with councillors and community members, she stood for election to Shoalhaven City Council.

I came to know her during 2012, and like many others was surprised she stood on the ticket of former Mayor Greg Watson. Being in the same ward as Watson, she was number two on his ticket. With the juggernaut that was Team Gash electing three councillors (plus Jo Gash herself) and Watson, the 36 year veteran of Shoalhaven local politics, Phillips had little chance.

Disappointed but pragmatic – the Easter Bunny wouldn’t have done any better in that situation – she persisted in public life. Most notably this was through her following and then blogging about the actions of Shoalhaven Council. I followed a little of this and was impressed at how well researched she was. Digging through meeting papers and official records, analysing and writing about it takes time and an organised approach. To do it successfully (read, don’t get sued or drive yourself mad) takes lots of time and self-organisation.

In early 2014 she was pre-selected as the Labor Party candidate for the state seat of South Coast. I was invited to her campaign launch in May, went along out of interest, and came away impressed at the varied background and approach she seemed to offer. More impressed with Phillips I must say, than the other Labor Party speakers.

Read the above as disclaimer for what follows.


Last week I had a chat with Phillips over a late afternoon coffee, or milkshake, in Nowra’s CBD. She arrived in her almost customary red Tshirt, balancing campaigning with family and work commitments. She teaches at University of Wollongong in finance management and innovation and the teaching year is just starting, in the final weeks of the campaign.

Asked for the three top policies she nominated opposition to the sell-off [leasing] of the state’s electricity poles and wires; cuts to TAFE funding; and the Labor Party’s “Local jobs first policy”.

The poles and wires have been extensively publicised elsewhere and I won’t go into that here. Labor Party pledges on TAFE funding cuts are also well known, but has significant implications for courses and job losses in Shoalhaven. Of some concern is the future of the Outreach program which provides pre-vocational or entry-level training in community settings, away from TAFE colleges. Contract positions in this program have been extended to just after the election, with the future uncertain.

The Labor Party’s “Local jobs first policy” is not well known, Phillips admitted, but is hopeful it will get more media traction and become better known before the election. A cornerstone of this policy will give local businesses a 20% procurement incentive when bidding for NSW government contracts. On top of this, and importantly for the Shoalhaven Phillips says, is an additional 5% for regional areas with high unemployment, with a mandated 15% apprenticeship ratio.

I asked why people should vote for her. “I always wanted to be a candidate in the community, someone who listens and is easily accessible,” she said. “Since May last year I’ve done over 270 visits to towns and villages to find out what issues people are concerned with. These meetings, she added, have ranged between one and a half and three hours.” And the response, she claimed, has become increasingly positive. “A lot of people have been just glad to see someone from Labor. ‘Hasn’t happened for years’ some of them have said.’”


Wicked is a term applied to very complex policy problems. Not wicked “in the sense of evil, but rather as an issue highly resistant to resolution,” according to an Australian Public Service paper.[ii] Because of their complexity solving one part of the problem can create other unexpected problems. All things are connected, it’s been said. The APS paper adds:

“Successfully solving or at least managing these wicked policy problems requires a reassessment of some of the traditional ways of working and solving problems … They challenge our governance structures, our skills base and our organisational capacity … A broad recognition and understanding that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions is required … Tackling wicked problems is an evolving art … broader, more collaborative and innovative approaches are often needed … occasional failure or the need for policy change or adjustment may result.”

I asked Phillips what she saw as wicked problems in the Shoalhaven. “The increasing marginalisation of individuals and villages,” she responded. “There’s an increase in mental health problems, domestic violence, homelessness and poverty, with high unemployment, at the same time as a withdrawal of government services. Things like health, housing, court support for domestic violence victims and youth counselling are all becoming less accessible.”

Wicked problems to be sure. And what does Phillips offer in dealing with them? She cited her work in social innovations, one of the areas where she teaches. “This brings benefits to both business and community. We need a different way of approaching these problems.”

She says she also supports home based business and thinks there’s opportunity for a youth innovation centre, further tapping into and supporting local business.


And so to the really big question, about which I had forewarned Phillips. “What drives someone to challenge a well-known, long standing, high profile sitting member who has increased their margin at each election since first elected?”

After 16 years as a councillor at Shoalhaven City, sitting member Shelley Hancock was elected to the seat of South Coast in 2003 with a margin of nearly three per cent, extending that in 2007 to nearly eight per cent before the phenomenal result of 2011 that saw her margin extended to almost 19 per cent. And in the lead up to this month’s election ABC election analyst Antony Green has calculated the margin at 20.1 per cent.[iii]

“Well the only way to go is up,” she said, without a trace of grimness. “I’m genuine about campaigning, about being me, and I have an overwhelming desire to see the area is looked after. I’ve lived here all my life and my family has been here since 1856.

Persistence I noted earlier, on which Phillips says she has been described as being “like a dog with a bone.”  Up for and enjoying the intellectual challenge I would add.

“My main goal is to see the seat become marginal, so that whoever is in power, whether Liberal or Labor, don’t take it for granted. Which is what always happens with safe seats,” she says, adding, “maybe I won’t make a good politician.”

[ii] Tackling wicked problems : A public policy perspective,

[iii] NSW state election 2015: Antony Green explains the swing needed to unseat Mike Baird,


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