Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester hopes his open support of same sex marriage will send a message of “respect, tolerance and acceptance” to gay people in country areas who are feeling isolated.
In an historic move, Mr Chester this week became the first of his federal Nationals colleagues to publicly declare his support for same sex marriage.
He told The Express concern for the mental health of same-sex attracted people living in regional areas was one of the reasons behind his shift in opinion.
“From the conversations I’ve had over the past seven years I’ve been concerned that gay people in regional areas often report feeling isolated and unaccepted in the community and they are at high risk of self harm or suicide,” Mr Chester said.
“Legalising same sex marriage won’t solve all of those problems, but it does send a strong message of acceptance.”
His view appears to be shared by fellow Gippsland-based politician, Senator Ricky Muir, who was expected to reveal his support for same sex marriage at a ‘Reach Out’ mental health forum in Heyfield last night.
On Tuesday night Mr Chester announced on ABC’s 7.30 he would vote in favour of same sex marriage if allowed a conscience vote on the issue.
He told The Express it was a decision he had arrived at over several years after discussions with church leaders, same sex marriage advocates and family members of people in the gay and lesbian community.
“Among younger voters, there is an overwhelming sense that there’s no big deal and they can’t believe it hasn’t happened already and it seems to me, many older Gippslanders have also come to terms with the issue and are generally inclined to support change.
“I was asked by many Gippslanders over the past few years why Australia was persisting with its current position and I simply didn’t have a coherent and sustainable argument beyond religion and tradition.”
Gippsland Rainbow Collective spokesperson Jo Parker said the news of Mr Chester’s stance was “wonderful”.
“It’s a really brave move for him, too, he’s sort of standing up where a lot don’t, and we congratulate him on that,” Ms Parker said.
“It certainly does feel like we’re truly being represented.”
Initially of the view that marriage was between a man and a woman, Mr Chester relaxed his stance prior to the 2013 election, publicly stating he was unsure how he would vote on same sex marriage.
A 2013 survey conducted by Mr Chester and returned by 3000 of his constituents showed 66 per cent were opposed to same sex marriage.
Twenty-six per cent of respondents said they supported gay marriage.
Last month he sought feedback from the community on Facebook.
He said yesterday the initial public reaction to his Tuesday night declaration was overwhelmingly supportive, but there were some people who were “very disappointed” and he accepted their right to have a different view.
“I accept that I have changed my mind and I expect some criticism from people, but I hope they can continue to participate in the debate in a respectful and moderate manner,” Mr Chester said.
“I agree with the Prime Minister that decent people can disagree on this issue and Parliament is full of people with strong opinions and they have every right to argue their case strongly on the floor of the chamber.
“This was never about politics or votes, it was always in an effort to make a decision for today, tomorrow and the future and people have a right to judge my decision at the next election.”
He said he hoped for a cross-party bill on same sex marriage in the spring sitting of Parliament and for members of all political parties to be allowed a conscience vote.
Mr Chester’s electorate covers Traralgon, Morwell and Churchill, through to far-east Gippsland.
Liberal Member for McMillan Russell Broadbent, whose electorate takes in the Moe area, has previously stated marriage should remain between a man and a woman.
He also supports a conscience vote on the issue.