He rejects suggestions the Liberals are playing identity politics.
This week the Liberal Party announced it would stand young, openly gay indigenous man Geoffrey Winters in the seat of Sydney, currently held by Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek.
The 27-year-old lawyer from Indigenous legal firm Chalk & Fitzgerald lives in Forrest Lodge, Sydney, with his partner Tyler. In his first full length interview since he announced his candidacy, he spoke with SBS about his Indigenous heritage, coming out to his parents, and his politics.
Born in Orange to a white mother and Aboriginal father, Winters told SBS his Indigenous background played a defining role in his decision to enter politics, joining the Liberal Party when he was just sixteen.
“I was called an ‘Abo’ at school,” he said. “It happens to so many young Aboriginal kids and Indigenous kids in this country still today.”
“People react to that sort of pressure when they’re young in different ways, my reaction was to go and figure out who am I and where do I come from what’s my background,” he said. “I discovered all this extraordinary history and leadership and passion in my father’s family that probably ultimately pushed me towards the notion of politics.”
Winter’s grandmother was 31 when she was given the right to vote, a fact keenly remembered in his family. Political issues were inescapable through childhood and were never a taboo subject around the kitchen table, where discussions were hotly contested.
“I would have had opposing views to my sister and mother and father growing up, and they would have had opposing views to each other,” Winters said. “Difference of opinion was good, and the best ideas should always win, and often the best idea came out of a good contest.”
A ‘good contest’ is what he’s hoping for in his battle for the seat of Sydney. And he’s not shied away from calling out his rival, Deputy Labor Leader Tanya Plibersek, on what he said is her failure to adequately represent Aboriginal people in her electorate.
Not lacking in confidence, Winters said he’s always had a very strong sense of who he was, coming out to his parents as gay just a few days before his 21st birthday.
“For me it wasn’t one of those big bombshell announcement sort of things,” he said, “when I realised I wanted a boyfriend I sort of told my parents – and that was that really.”
While he said his background made coming out complex – he was raised Anglican and still attends church – he said it wasn’t an issue for his parents.
“My father was phenomenally comfortable with it straight away, and I’ve later come to realise that this just has to do with the sense of – I guess – discrimination and being on the outside,” Winters said, “he never wanted us to feel on the outer, and there should be no issue that should cause us – whether that be health, disability, gender, sexuality, political persuasion – nothing.”
Winters was raised primarily by his mother, his parents separated when he was young. He grew up in Orange and the family then moved to Richmond for school. He said his single-mother worked hard so she could afford a private education for him.
“I have no doubt that every success, both educationally and now career-wise, is totally on the back of her sacrifices,” he said.
Winters went on to study law at the University of Sydney, where he became president of the Law Society. Friends say he was brilliant, charming but ‘thoroughly a politician’.
He’s certainly smooth in conversation – his sound-bite answers dodging questions on whether he agrees with recent changes to the Safe Schools program couldn’t have been more on message (he supports ‘any program’ which helps reduce bullying at school).
Winters also rejects any insinuation that his identity is a form of tokenism on the part of the Liberal Party. Sydney is considered – by nearly everyone – as unwinnable for him.
“People are so quick to throw stones at the Liberal Party on their view on same sex marriage – or their perceived view on same sex marriage – but then the Liberal Party holds out these extremely amazing examples of interesting, passionate and in some instances young homosexuals as their candidates as that example to the party, and this is the criticism. I think it’s pretty poor,” he said.
The party has a history of fielding openly gay candidates in the city, standing Sean O’Connor in the 2013 federal election, Shayne Mallard in the 2012 state by-election, and Adrian Bartells in the 2011 state election.
Winters defends these candidates as extraordinarily talented, saying their campaigns send a message around the country, “you do it, you go for it, and being homosexual will never be a barrier in our party.”
He’s also aware that some may view his Indigenous background with cynicism, but said he’s always been vocal about Indigenous affairs.
“I can easily listen to those views and understand why an outsider might come to that conclusion, but it’s pretty baseless,” he said, “if we’re going to spend some time in this election talking about a huge part of the Sydney seat that historically hasn’t been engaged in, then I’m fine for them to hold that view.”
“The country, the seat, is so much better for the fact we’re having that conversation.”
Appointed to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies under the Abbott Government, Winters is unambiguous about which side of the aisle has performed better.
“It’s been the last few governments, and even historically Liberal governments, that have done the most,” he said, “I think the biggest failure of the Labor Party is just to assume that it has a monopoly on doing the right thing in Indigenous policy.”
Winters cites Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull’s commitments to flexibility in community programs, economic growth, and the preservation of Indigenous culture as key strengths of the Liberal Party’s approach.
One of the key Indigenous issues for him is health, he said. “You look at life expectancy and that’s horrifying for me, looking at my father and looking at me and looking at these great other men and women around me.”
Being both gay and Indigenous, there are two other national campaigns he’ll be watching closely. Winters is supportive of both marriage equality and Indigenous constitutional recognition.
For him, same-sex marriage is deeply personal. He hopes to have kids with Tyler, who he said would make an amazing father.
“Tyler and I not only hope to marry, but also raise children in a community where that form of discrimination just doesn’t exist,” he said.
The two first met in Canberra where Tyler was studying education. They later reconnected in Sydney with a first date at an Archibald prize opening – he said the connection was pretty instant after that.
Winters expects the marriage plebiscite will pass, “I have huge faith in the Australian people and I have no doubt that they’ll make the right decision, and that we’ll see marriage equality in the near future,” he said.
On constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australian’s, he’s less certain, preferring to wait to see proposed amendments before making a prediction. He hopes that in the future, Indigenous culture will be celebrated as part of greater Australian identity.
Tyler and Geoffrey don’t have current plans to marry, but Winter has been successful in winning Tyler over politically (though he insists the warmth of Sydney’s Liberal Party had more to do with it).
“I wouldn’t say that he’s a die-hard liberal yet, but he’s certainly got his membership papers in and he’s on his way.”