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Federal Election 2019: Bennelong Labor candidate Brian Owler talks up ‘mood for change’


Labor candidate Brian Owler is at long odds to the flip the blue-ribbon seat of Bennelong on Saturday — but the high-profile neurosurgeon insists “there is a mood for change” in the electorate.


Bookies have Liberal John Alexander as a short-priced favourite to retain the seat he has held since defeating another star Labor candidate, former ABC presenter Maxine McKew, at the 2010 federal poll.

Mr Alexander sits on a 4.8 per cent margin after former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally halved it at the 2017 Bennelong by-election.

Bennelong Labor candidate Dr Brian Owler.
Sitting Bennelong MP John Alexander.


It’s given neurosurgeon Dr Owler a realistic chance of becoming just the second ever Labor MP for Bennelong in the seat’s 70-year history.

“I’m certainly not confident, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Labor did win this seat,” the former Australian Medical Association president said.

*“There is a mood for change in the community that wasn’t quite there for the State Election (in March). This is a change election.”

*Dr Owler believes there are a “raft of issues” which could tip the seat in his favour, but “the big thing people are most upset about in Bennelong is overdevelopment”.

“It’s been done in such a way that it really hasn’t respected the heritage value of the suburbs,” he said.

Dr Owler with Opposition Leader Bill Shorten during the campaign in Eastwood.


“A lot of the planning happens at a council level, but the State Government has taken a lot of the planning powers away from councils.

“All of this has happened at the time of a Coalition State Government, as well as a Federal Coalition Government.

“And I don’t think it’s unfair to say it’s happened under John Alexander’s watch.”

He said that if elected, he would “put more pressure on the State Government to recognise we need to show more respect to our suburbs” including Epping and Macquarie Park.

“At a federal level, the big thing is making sure the big infrastructure projects are keeping pace with any development,” he said.

“We’re in a catch-up situation in Bennelong.”


Dr Owler says he would aim to play a central role in Labor’s health reforms if he and the party prevailed on Saturday.

One key improvement, he says, is bringing “more certainty” to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), which was initiated by the Gillard Labor government.

“I know the importance of the NDIS, which is all about getting the most out of people and getting people to participate in society,” Dr Owler said.

Dr Brian Owler during his time as AMA president between 2014-16.


The divorced father-of-three revealed his personal connection to the NDIS.

“I have a (nine-year-old) daughter with a disability. She is autistic and on the NDIS,” Dr Owler, who has a PhD from the University of Sydney, said.

“We know how well children with autism can do if they are given those opportunities. And Labor recognises the needs more certainty in the system.”

Asked if he had ambitions to one day become a Health Minister, Dr Owler, who has performed 10,000-plus surgeries, said:

“It would be a wonderful opportunity, but I just want to be the Member for Bennelong.

“I’m not doing this to just make up the numbers. I want to be effective and influence good policy. And this is not just about health.”


It was a question just begging to be asked. Why would a neurosurgeon want to become a pollie?

“The thing about being a neurosurgeon is that you treat one person at a time,” Dr Owler said. “For that person it’s a huge issue — and it’s also rewarding for me.

“But, as I found as AMA president, the ability to influence the health outcomes of potentially millions of people is a wonderful opportunity.

“And that’s the thing I think I can most effective at. Not just in health but in other areas.”

Dr Brian Owler during one of the 10,000 surgeries he has performed.


He said the “trigger point” for wanting to run at the 2019 Federal Election was “when I watched this government disrespecting science and scientists, not just around climate change but energy policy in general”.

“We need to get back to science and evidence-based policy. And Labor has a plan to do that,” Dr Owler said.


The high-profile neurosurgeon said he would aim to “raise the bar” as a representative for Bennelong in Canberra if elected this weekend.

Asked to rate Mr Alexander’s performance as MP out of 10, he said: “It’s hard to put a number on it.

“But people should expect more from a local member.

Dr Brian Owler speaks with a voter at the Eastwood prepoll. AAP IMAGE / Troy Snook)


“I know it’s been joked about, but when (a table-tennis program) is your major achievement as a local member after nine years — including six in government — then that’s questionable.

“You should be able to rattle off five or six major achievements, and not just one-off grants. I’m talking about something that fundamentally changes the community and their experience of living in the community.

“Bennelong can do better, and should expect better from their MP.”


Candidates (in ballot paper order)

Brian Owler (Labor)

Andrew Marks (United Australia Party)

John Alexander (Liberals)

Qiu Yue Zhang (Greens)

Julie Worsley (Christian Democratic Party)

Betting: Coalition $1.12 ALP $5 Greens $67 (TAB); Coalition $1.01 ALP $11 Greens $21 (Sportsbet)

By the numbers

4.8: The percentage margin that Mr Alexander holds the seat

44: The section on citizenship in the Constitution which forced a 2017 by-election

60: The sq km of the electorate which includes the suburbs of Ermington, Melrose Park, Ryde, Macquarie Park, Marsfield and Epping


1949-1974: The years the seat was held by Liberal Sir John Cramer, a former Minister for the Army in the Menzies government

1974-2007: The period Liberal John Howard, Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister (1996-2007), was MP

2007-10: Labor’s Maxine McKew was a one-term MP

2010-current: Liberal John Alexander is the sitting MP

Fun fact: The seat was named after Woollarawarre Bennelong, an Aboriginal man who was befriended by Governor Arthur Phillip when Sydney was first settled