Australia’s first openly gay MP Trent Zimmerman has warned of the marriage equality plebiscite “spiralling into a dark place,” taking a veiled swipe at some Coalition colleagues for their “extreme and hysterical views” on the issue.
Controversy and congratulations.
They are the two defining moments of Trent Zimmerman’s parliamentary career so far, but one suspects the Liberal backbencher and new boy will soon be recognised far beyond his North Sydney electorate.
The congratulations came as he proudly declared his sexuality -- “my election to this parliament represents the first time an openly gay man or woman has entered the House of Representatives” -- in his maiden speech on March 2, in the midst of his party’s infighting over the LGBTI support program Safe Schools. Four days later, he marched in the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and was famously captured hugging opposition leader Bill Shorten in an embrace that made headlines nationwide.
The controversy came over his election to that post, replacing the retiring Joe Hockey in a December 2015 byelection amid complaints of the pre-selection process being a “stitch-up” as some branch members were not permitted to vote.
Five months after his election to the safe, blue-ribbon Liberal seat, Zimmerman occupies a spacious tenth-floor office in the heart of the thriving North Sydney CBD, just north of the Harbour Bridge. The lofty space is the culmination of a career spent relatively behind-the-scenes. Zimmerman’s resume is impressive; national president of the Young Liberals, adviser to John Howard’s environment minister Robert Hill, adviser to Joe Hockey as shadow treasurer, North Sydney councillor, policy director for the Tourism and Transport Forum. He’s still the acting president of the NSW Liberal Party, a position he says he will “transition out of before the federal election”.
With one speech, and one hug, Zimmerman took a leap from the shadows into the spotlight, and right into a long-bubbling ideological debate within his party that has recently threatened -- more than once -- to spill over.
“The Liberal party is a broad church, with a liberal wing and a conservative wing, and I see myself in the liberal wing,” Zimmerman told The Huffington Post Australia.
“More specifically, some key issues I’m keen to pursue include protection of our local environment and the harbour, some transport and planning issues we face. But broadly, I’m passionate about ensuring we have policies which will maintain a sustainable environment. I’m excited about our engagement in cities policy.”
A politician’s maiden speech in the chamber is where they traditionally speak about the issues important to them, the reasons they got into politics and what they want to achieve in the parliament. On March 2, Zimmerman rose in the House of Representatives and spoke of “building a more prosperous, fairer and sustainable Australia,” the natural beauty of his electorate, his ideas about transport and infrastructure, and heritage preservation.
As the Liberal Party’s conservative and moderate wings waged ideological war both publicly and privately on the LGBTI education support system Safe Schools, Zimmerman proudly proclaimed he was the first openly gay MP in Australia’s history. Prominent senators including Penny Wong and Janet Rice are open with their sexuality, but never has an openly gay man or woman served in the House of Representatives.
“Some have said to me that this is not an issue I need reflect upon, particularly on an occasion such as this. Surely a person’s sexuality is irrelevant in this day and age, they have said,” Zimmerman said in his speech.
In what could have been seen as a not-so-subtle reminder of the value of programs such as Safe Schools, Zimmerman outlined the difficulties young LGBTI people still face in modern Australia.
“Young gay men and women are more likely to suffer depression and other mental health issues. They are more likely to be bullied at school. More are likely to attempt to take their own lives and, tragically, some will succeed. Coming out remains hard for many people, and believe me, I know what that is like,” he said.
He told HuffPost Australia that he did receive guidance from inside the party to not address his sexuality.
“To be honest, it was a hard thing to do. I consider myself a reasonably private person. I was basically laying bare my soul,” Zimmerman said.
“It’s obviously the case that my sexuality has been an important part of my life and my growth and my learning experience, so while I don’t want to be defined by my sexuality, it would be wrong to deny it.”
After his speech, he was embraced by MPs from both sides of the aisle. Four days later, Zimmerman made headlines again, snapped hugging opposition leader Bill Shorten at the Mardi Gras as debate raged over whether PM Malcolm Turnbull should have participated in the parade, as Shorten did.
“It’s Mardi Gras, it’s a happy time and a celebration. If you can’t be friendly to your political opponents on Mardi Gras, when can you be?” Zimmerman said.
“Some people think that’s a sad side about Australian politics, that it’s become so partisan that you get criticism for something as human as reaching out for a hug. I don’t regret it at all.”
Zimmerman says he has been a strong advocate of marriage equality. While PM Turnbull has continually reaffirmed his predecessor Tony Abbott’s commitment to a plebiscite on same sex marriage, Zimmerman said he would have preferred a parliamentary vote and called a plebiscite “an unusual precedent” for such an issue. We ask him, what should we do about marriage equality?
“Well, we should make sure it happens,” he answered bluntly.
“I’m hopeful I will play a key role in trying to convince Australians to support marriage equality, I see myself playing a very strong role in the plebiscite campaign. I would have preferred a parliamentary vote, but I’m not afraid of a plebiscite.”
Marriage equality advocates have warned that a “no” campaign on the plebiscite would be damaging to LGBTI people, potentially pushing anti-gay messages into the mainstream. Zimmerman agrees.
“The only downside for me is the risk of the debate spiralling into a dark place, and it will be very important all parties in this debate treat each other respectfully, on both sides of the fence, so we don’t see some of the extreme and hysterical views emerge that perhaps have reared their head in the past,” he said.
“Everyone in this debate has to recognise that when you have an issue of this type being considered in this way, it can have a psychological impact on people still struggling with their sexuality.”
When pushed on whether his comments about “extreme and hysterical” views were related to some of the views that emerged from within his own party around Safe Schools, he admitted that “there was more work to be done” in the Liberal Party to support LGBTI people.
“What gave me some optimism was the number of MPs that said, just by my mere presence, and people like [gay Liberal senator Dean Smith] I’d altered the tenor of the debate. I think that’s a trend that will continue, but I will always stand up against what I think to be irrational and extreme views, and it disappoints me when that happens,” Zimmerman said.
But as Zimmerman says, he doesn’t want his sexuality to define him. Transport, infrastructure, cities and the party line of “innovation” are the platforms on which he says he will build his parliamentary career.
“You can’t say you’re interested in productivity and economy unless you’re interested in how our cities are working. That brings in issues like transport and infrastructure, particularly public transport, and innovation.
“Now the mining boom is past its peak, we need to look at those sectors of the economy that will take Australia forward. Innovation will be a key part of that. It will be areas like tourism, international education, and a revival in our agricultural sector.
“We’ve got to look at where Australia’s competitive advantage will be. We’ve ridden on the back of the mining boom for the last 20 years, that won’t sustain us the way it has in the past. It will still be important but it won’t sustain us.”
With the election date still up in the air, whether a July 2 double dissolution or a regular election later in the year, it will regardless be Zimmerman’s first proper election as North Sydney MP. He will focus on the local environment, parks and public spaces, sporting facilities and supporting the local economy -- and is tipping an early election.
“July 2, that seems to be where we’re heading. I hope the Senate crossbench comes to the table and is willing to support the ABCC bills, but you’d have to say, if you’re reading the tea leaves, it’s not looking likely that enough will,” he said.
“I think it will be a July 2 double dissolution.”