The new Liberal member for the Melbourne seat of Prahran, Clem Newton-Brown, is riding high after he swept into the seat with a swing above the 6 percent state average the Coalition received to win government.
Yet the former Deputy Lord Mayor already stands apart from many of his Liberal (and Labor) counterparts with his vocal support for gay marriage.
He now holds the seat with a 4.3 percent margin, but over coffee near his Chapel St electorate office, Newton-Brown is still circumspect about the swing.
“It’s a really interesting demographic. We’ve got the richest in the seat and the poorest in the seat living within kilometres of each other, so you’ve got the mansions of Toorak, GLBTI population, ethnic population — it’s the smallest seat in the state but it’s probably the most diverse,” he told the Star Observer.
“In that sense it’s not a seat where you’ve got a rock solid vote and you just sit there and it changes around the edges at elections.
“Just because I won this time doesn’t mean I have a base there. Next time I have to rebuild to make sure I’ve got that support.”
Newton-Brown launched an aggressive campaign in Prahran, bowling over voters at train stations and tram stops with assurances and grinning from ear to ear in signs on lampposts and fences all over the electorate.
“I couldn’t compete with the resources Labor had put into the seat with their direct mail,” he said.
“People got very few direct mail pieces from me. They are very expensive, whereas signage doesn’t cost you very much at all.
“I spent a lot of time speaking to people, and people offered their fences in support.”
The new MP said he believes Labor’s move to extend clearways in business zones — already scrapped by the Baillieu Government — and public transport concerns, rather than his stance on gay issues, got him across the line.
“I think [extended clearways] was a really good local issue where Labor miscalculated the impact it was going to have. They just thought it was the shopkeepers having a whinge, but a lot of our campaign was designed around explaining to the community, ‘We want these shopkeepers to be in business’.
“The overwhelming thing I found with people in the GLBTI community is they don’t vote as a bloc against the Liberals or for Labor. It’s not just about gay issues.”
Newton-Brown originally hails from Hawthorn and now lives in Prahran with his wife and three children, cat and Customs trainee puppy.
Before entering parliament Newton-Brown worked as a barrister and ran the first water taxi service on the Yarra. He owns the Southbank footbridge cafe, now known as Ponyfish Island.
On the political front, Newton-Brown wears his ‘small-l’ badge with pride.
This month he devoted a stretch of his maiden parliamentary speech to call for marriage equality in Australia.
The electorate has not been without its GLBT advocates in Victorian Parliament. The seat’s former Labor MP Tony Lupton was a known ally of the community.
The position is perhaps advisable, given the high number of GLBT people living in the area, but not all inner city candidates have warmed to GLBTI issues.
Newton-Brown, even in Opposition, marched in the annual Pride March in St Kilda, although he readily admits it was tough when John Howard was Prime Minister.
“People had a perception at that time that they were being treated unfairly and it was difficult when you get a negative reaction, but my position is you must be available to people,” he said.
The boos, he said, are slowly turning into cheers. This year saw one of the largest Liberal contingents yet, positioned at the front of the march.
“Part of my role I see is to be an internal lobbyist, and there’s no point me saying to a newspaper, ‘I support gay marriage’, and leaving it at that.
“I actually see my role as trying to do the work within my party behind closed doors to try to get the numbers up to such a point where we are able to make a difference on that.”
Despite Newton-Brown’s support on these issues, the community has already raised concerns the Baillieu Government may not be quite so friendly.
This fear is not helped by Attorney-General Robert Clark’s announcement this month that the Baillieu Government would overturn an equal opportunity exemptions law — due to come into effect in August — which limited the right of religious organisations to discriminate against gay and lesbian people.
On the issue of same-sex adoption, Newton-Brown said things are more complicated.
“Personally I think there’s no reason why a same-sex couple couldn’t provide a loving stable home life for a child, so I’m supportive of it, but I can see it’s a much bigger hurdle for the wider community than gay marriage is,” he said.
“Where we allow same-sex couples to be foster parents but not to adopt … doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
It’s likely to be an issue that will cause Newton-Brown some discomfort given his constant presence at gay community events.
“I wouldn’t necessarily conclude that we’re in a worse position under a Coalition government on [same-sex adoption],” he said.
“Remember, Labor was in power for 11 years and they made lots of positive noises for a long time, but there was no action on that.
“We’d be kidding ourselves to suggest, whatever government was in power, that it’s not going to be a difficult issue to get over the line.”
Asked about his own political heroes, he named Premier Ted Baillieu. Pushed again, he named former South African president Nelson Mandela.
“I spent a year in South Africa as an exchange student in the late ’80s and apartheid was still in force and Nelson Mandela was still in jail.
“To have this guy who was in jail become president was inspirational.
“As far as politics goes, that was a good example of how politics can be used for evil rather than good.”