Tuesday, April 9

What becomes of the politically departed? Sadly, I’m now finding out | Trent Zimmermann

Yon the end, political defeat came quickly. After a long, cold day on polling booths. After six weeks of adrenaline constantly at war with exhaustion during the intensity of the election campaign. After six years of working as the member for North Sydney, it was over in a matter of 90 minutes. By 7.30 pm on election night, as the figures rolled in with a consistency that pointed to one outcome, I messaged the New South Wales state director of the Liberal party asking when I should concede.

It would be 24 hours before I rang the new member for North Sydney, Kylea Tink, to congratulate her on her election and offer that concession.

Hope lives eternal but another day of counting showed that there would be no miracles at this election for me or so many of my friends who lost their seats in the teal wave of 2022.

There are certainly many lessons for those who remain that must be learned if the Liberal party is to represent the communities like mine. Some are obvious but others will require careful consideration over the weeks and months ahead. I want to reflect on what the process has been like so far at a personal level for defeated MPs – the emotions and the practicalities.

Losing an election is a huge wrench.

In part that’s because life as a politician becomes all-consuming. It is a seven-day-a-week job that you must love to do well. Work-life balance is something of a misnomer: talked about frequently by MPs but rarely achieved.

Except in the sanctuary of your home, it is a job you carry with you every waking moment.

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Perhaps the biggest adjustment in becoming an MP is the loss of anonymity and the concept of ever being a private individual. From the media scrutiny, which is well known, to the small things – people checking out what is in your shopping trolley at a supermarket or getting what some must think is “helpful” feedback about what you are wearing. You are constantly “on stage” and that itself can be taxed.

Yet despite these features of public life, and there are many who relish them as it’s a career in which you meet plenty of big egos who enjoy their minor celebratory status, having the opportunity to serve as a parliamentarian is something I will never regret for so many other reasons.

For me, the battle of ideas and the contribution to policy development was a key driver. The intellectual and strategic battle that occurs in parliament and within your own party’s forums. Working out what is important and when to take a stand, knowing that not every battle can be fought and won. It is why the day the parliament enacted marriage equality will always be the happiest of my career there. Added to this is the work we do on committees as backbenchers and, in my case, demonstrating through the health committee I chaired that it is possible to achieve bipartisan outcomes with goodwill and commitment.

It’s also the work MPs do every day with their constituents that provides incredible satisfaction. From fighting for the pharmaceutical benefits scheme listing of a life-changing drug that will help a teenager to live with cystic fibrosis, to helping Afghans flee Kabul during the darkest hours of the Taliban takeover, to supporting the most vulnerable during the pandemic.

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If we do our job well, we can change lives and even save lives.

It has been a strange period as the formalities of the end of parliamentary service kick in. As an MP, the government provides us with an electorate office as well as our office in Parliament House. Many of us have a second home of sorts in Canberra for the weeks of parliamentary sittings.

In my case, I shared a rented townhouse with four other MPs. At one stage I was sharing with the foreign minister, the defense minister and the trade minister. I remember telling one ambassador of this arrangement and he was shocked that ministers of the crown were part of such a group household in Canberra’s suburbia. While he was mildly scandalised, I thought to myself that this is one of the strengths of our democracy and society – that we neither expect nor need to put our senior ministers in palaces behind fortified walls.

There is a lot of work that goes into leaving properly. Staff farewells, responding to the flood of text messages and emails, thanking volunteers and, in my case, avoiding the many media calls for your post-election analysis (I did relent for the ABC’s wonderful Patricia Karvelas – I have long ago learned that resistance is futile in her case).

I’ve also had to pack up those two offices and the Canberra home so the time for gloomy reflection has been sparse. And there have been lots of conversations serving a cathartic role with my former colleagues – lots of analysis, critiques, “what went wrong” discussions. I am still thinking about what some of the lessons are but, as I said on election night, clearly residents in electorates like North Sydney want the Liberal party to better reflect their priorities on climate change and gender equality – an agenda that sits more comfortably with the aspirations and concerns of voters in the 2020s.

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Some have warned me that losing an election is like a grieving process. There is a bit of that. Certainly, some friends and residents talk to you as though you are among the dearly departed. Others on the streets cast their eyes away to avoid such a conversation.

The hardest part has been the farewells for my electorate staff who cease their employment shortly after the election. They have lived and breathed the campaign and my work as an MP and feel the election outcome as much as I have so it is a difficult time for them.

So the weeks since polling day have been ones with mixed emotions. A sense of loss but also a time to reflect. What an incredible six years the people of North Sydney gave me to serve our community. For that opportunity I will always be eternally grateful.

Trent Zimmerman is the former federal member for North Sydney


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