When Dr Monique Ryan talks about her job as director of the neurology department at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, she gets a little bit choked up.
It’s a role she held for seven years, and as she told Women’s Agenda recently, it’s an important job, and one she loved every day she was there. But she’s now chosen to step away from it to stand as an independent candidate at the next election, challenging federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in the seat of Kooyong in Melbourne.
“I wouldn’t have left a job that I loved…that I was really good at, unless it was absolutely important. Even just talking about it now, I get upset because I loved that job and it meant a lot to me,” she says.
At the Royal Children’s Hospital, Dr Ryan headed up a team of 45 people, and was responsible for a budget of $3.5 million a year. She also had a research team of 12 people at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, where she was running a research program into nerve and muscle disorders in children.
“I probably would have kept swimming in my own lane, doing that job, which is a good, important, valuable job that I was very good at, had it not been for the issues I could see with the government, piling up over years,” Dr Ryan explains.
For Dr Ryan, the first and most pressing of those issues is climate change. She recalls watching a David Attenborough documentary with her thirteen-year-old son at the start of last year, which showed footage of the polar ice caps melting, leaving polar bears without a habitat.
“I could just see my thirteen-year-old becoming more and more anxious. He went quiet and then he stopped meeting my eye,” she says. “I felt such sadness, and a responsibility that I had not done enough to take action in that space.”
“I had a job where I was very influential in my own area, but I do see climate change as the existential threat to all of us and I wasn’t taking action on it.”
So, last year, she responded to a full-page ad in The Age newspaper that had been placed by a group called Kooyong Independents, who were looking for a candidate to run at the election.
“I feel that the next three years are critical, we are at a tipping point. If we don’t act now, we’re going to lose that opportunity,” she says. “The current government doesn’t have a three-, five- or ten-year plan. It’s only plan is around its own re-election. That for me, is a source of severe frustration. “
“I just thought someone needs to do something about this, and I’m not a politician, but I’m someone who’s good at dealing with conflict, I can take on large amounts of data and analyse it effectively, I can negotiate, I can work in a high-pressured environment.
“I thought, I could do this. I probably should.”
Dr Ryan is one the many female independents to have announced their candidacies in blue-ribbon seats in recent months. Alongside climate action, other issues like political integrity, transparent economic management, an improved healthcare system, and gender equity, are at the top of the priority list.
In Kooyong, Dr Ryan says her community campaign has an “incredible energy” to it, with more than 1300 local people already signed up as volunteers.
“It’s hope for something that’s clean and new and has integrity and honesty,” she says. “It’s hope for a member that could represent Kooyong without personal ambition getting in the way”.
Josh Frydenberg, the member for Kooyong since 2010, is the second most senior Liberal in the Morrison government. He’s made no secret of his party leadership aspirations. Dr Ryan said this has come at a cost to the people in Kooyong.
“It’s compromised him in the eyes of our electorate,” she says. “Our feeling is that the incumbent wants to be Prime Minister, which he’s said himself, and he’s made compromises along the way to facilitate that.”
Dr Ryan says she has no ambitions in politics except to be a conduit between the electorate and the parliament, and to work to hold either side of politics to account, especially when it comes to climate action and integrity.
“If I hold the balance of power, or if I’m working with either side of politics, I could secure effective action on climate change, I could secure an independent commission against corruption, I could make a real dent into improving gender equity, and I could make a real contribution to the planning of healthcare,” she says.
“Whether I’m there for three years or six years, I could make a real difference. What a fantastic legacy. That’s what is driving me.”
Speaking about gender equity, Dr Ryan said she is concerned about family violence, the inadequacy of paid parental leave, and high childcare costs.
“Every single piece of legislation that gets put up needs to be looked at through a gender lens, and I’ll be able to do that,” she says.
“How can the world not be a better place when you have politicians driven by those sorts of things, rather than their own career ambition?”
At the end of our conversation, Dr Ryan lets me know that since launching her campaign, her thirteen-year-old has never been happier.
“He’s happier than he’s been in ages, because he thinks his mum is going to get in there and sort it out for him and for other kids too. What an extraordinary opportunity.”