The historic contest for the federal seat of Brisbane shows just how far both major parties have come, according to Liberal candidate Trevor Evans.

Evans was tapped in April to run as the Liberal National Party candidate for the seat of Brisbane after the surprise retirement of sitting member Teresa Gambaro earlier this year. Evans comes from a long line of retailers and shopkeepers, none of whom were that engaged in politics. He tells Crikey he became interested in politics during university studying law and economics at the University of Queensland.

“I set about teaching myself some of these things, and at the end of that first year, I made a choice, and this is the party I felt most represented my views, my experiences, and values. And since then I have been involved in the fringes of politics.”

Evans spent a year working for then-shadow health minister Peter Dutton in 2010, but he has spent much of his career working for energy companies and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission “chasing conmen around the country”. Most recently he has been CEO of the National Retail Association, a post he’s held for almost four years. Although not at the forefront of the election campaign so far, one issue that has separated Labor and the Coalition historically is that of penalty rates and the minimum wage. Evans admits that small retailers are being pressured due to a number of factors, including penalty rates and minimum wage, but he says retail is unregulated enough to avoid it.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that some of those issues are part and parcel of the huge cost increases that retailers are facing, but it is worth remembering that the retail sector generally, unlike most other sectors you could name, is unregulated and unlicensed, so the hand of government is less intrusive in retail. It’s the place where everybody tries their hand in entrepreneurship and small business, and it is relatively untouched by some of the significant regulatory regimes that impact on other sectors.”

The LNP candidate said he believes the government’s PaTH program giving $4-per-hour internships to young unemployed people will deliver “not just training but on-the-ground work experience” to get the 800,000 unemployed people into work.

The LNP appointing a gay candidate to run for the seat of Brisbane seems like a major step for the party, which rolled back ceremonies for civil unions in the state just a few short years ago. But Evans says he had no trouble getting preselected, and it “was not the issue some people would try to imply it is”. Times have changed; LNP mayor for Brisbane Graham Quirk next week will move a motion in the council meeting calling on the federal government to legislate marriage equality into law. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remains committed to running a plebiscite. Evans’ Labor challenger for Brisbane, Pat O’Neill, told Crikey yesterday he didn’t think he should have to ask his fellow Australians for permission to be treated equally, but Evans says the plebiscite is a chance to settle the issue once and for all.

“Being a very pragmatic realist, the most likely way for marriage equality to be achieved at the moment in Australia is through a plebiscite and a Malcolm Turnbull prime ministership,” Evans said. “Sometimes for really important matters like this, the way you achieve reform matters … If you end up playing political games with topics like this, and people feel their voices have not been heard, what you tend to do is ensure the issue remains a live one, politically, for years or decades after.”

Although many see this as a two-way contest, the Greens are convinced that the recent election of Greens councillor Jonathan Sri to Brisbane City Council could mean the tide is turning towards the Greens in the seat. It will be a big hurdle for the Greens, which secured 12,000 votes at the 2013 federal election, compared to 26,000 votes for Labor and 41,000 votes for the Coalition. Greens candidate Kirsten Lovejoy told Crikey she’s not aware of whether the Greens have done any polling in the electorate, but she is confident it is a potential winner for the Greens.

“The dynamics have shifted in the last six months with the retirement of Teresa Gambaro, it’s opened the door for everybody to have a bit of an even playing field. We keep hearing [voters] are sick of the backwards and forwards that goes on between the old parties and they see the Greens as a real choice these days.”

Lovejoy insisted marriage equality would not be a big issue at the election.

“It’s almost expected that we should just be doing it, so it hasn’t come up a lot.”

Lovejoy was born in Brisbane, but she grew up in Broken Hill. Her background is in policy, and she has worked for several non-government organisations and on indigenous issues and the environment. She has lived in Brisbane for the last decade and says one of the key issues of the campaign is sustainable jobs.

“I’m a mining town girl, I grew up in Broken Hill, and I know first-hand what it is like to see people out of work in an industry that has been propping up the community for a long time … People don’t want something that is going to give them a quick and short-term job when that can be pulled out from under them. We truly need to be looking at the jobs for those people and not just saying coal mining is the answer, because it is not.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey