Independent candidate Kerryn Phelps has complained to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) about a fake email that claimed she had withdrawn from this Saturday’s Wentworth by-election because she has HIV.
Dr Phelps’ campaign manager Darrin Barnett told ABC News he was seeking legal advice on any potential breaches of the law and was considering reporting the email to police.
The anonymous email, circulated on Wednesday, read, “Please DO NOT vote for her, just choose [Liberal candidate Dave Sharma] as your top choice only.
“Kerryn was diagnosed with HIV yesterday so no chance she will be running for election.”
The email also encouraged recipients to pull down Dr Phelps’ campaign posters.
Phelps said the content of the email was “shocking and disturbing”.
“When I went into this campaign people warned me that there would be dirty tricks, but this is next level,” Dr Phelps told the ABC.
“Just when you think we’ve come so far in destigmatising HIV for somebody to use this as a slur in an email in a political campaign shows we’ve still got a long way to go.
“There’s no question there’s a homophobic element to it, but I think we need to rise above all of that and focus on the issues that are really important to this by-election and the future of Australia.”
Vile and despicable
Liberal candidate Dave Sharma said the “vile and despicable” email did not come from his team and had “no place in the campaign”.
“I was shocked and appalled… Not just for the dishonesty and the smears involved but for the stigma put around people with HIV,” he said.
I have discussed the email with @DaveSharma and @Timpmurray today and we have all unanimously condemned it for its intent and content. I have briefed a lawyer who has lodged a complaint with the AEC and who is also intending to report it to appropriate authorities#WentworthVotes
— Prof Kerryn Phelps AM (@drkerrynphelps) October 18, 2018
Labor’s candidate Tim Murray said he condemned the “dirty tricks” email and there was no place for such actions in Australia’s democracy.
Shadow Health Minister Catherine King said the smear campaign was offensive for many reasons including the stigmatisation of people living with HIV.
“This is a disgrace on a number of fronts not least of which is the stigmatising of people with HIV. I thought we were past this sort of rubbish,” she wrote on social media.
Change.org executive director and LGBTIQ advocate Sally Rugg said the fake email was “homophobic and absolutely atrocious” and reinforced HIV stigma.
“There are so many things wrong with this,” Rugg said.
“To be clear: having HIV doesn’t have anything to do with anyone’s ability to be a member of parliament, or anything else they seek to do in life.
“Let’s be careful to not reinforce stigma.”