- 2 years ago
11 August 2021
As chair of the most significant inquiry into the pharmaceutical sector to happen this century, Trent Zimmerman has led a team of 10 parliamentary backbenchers essentially given a crash course in both the multitude of common and rare diseases afflicting Australians and the complex processes involved in approving and funding novel technologies and new medicines.
Throughout the 50-plus hours of evidence heard over 10 months, the light-hearted banter between the sharp-witted chair and his affable deputy, Labor’s Dr Mike Freelander, kept witnesses and listeners alike chuckling as the wry humour and obvious rapport between the pair provided much-needed light relief from the otherwise weighty and often sombre evidence.
Sitting down (virtually) with MedNews, Zimmerman told of the influences that caused him to pursue a career in politics, how leading a major parliamentary committee has been both eye-opening and informative, and of his political aspirations post the upcoming election.
“I’ve always been interested in politics from when I was a teenager, although it is hard to work out why because neither of my parents was politically engaged,” he said.
“It was my grandmother who was actively involved in the Liberal Party in Queensland and she had some influence on me, but it was always something my parents hoped and assumed I’d grow out of. My mother was only finally convinced that I’d be in politics for the rest of my life when I got elected.”
A political career
That was in 2016 when Zimmerman won representation for the seat of North Sydney, replacing former Treasurer Joe Hockey, but his interest in politics was piqued some 30 years earlier and kicked off with school work experience. A student at Newington College, the young Trent took the unusual step of doing his Year 10 placement in the office of the then NSW Opposition Leader, Nick Greiner.
“I was 15 at the time and I remember being mortified when the Liberal Party told me I was too young to join but that didn’t matter because I was already hooked, partly because Nick in so many ways represents the same liberal values that I do,” he said.
“Nick once summarised his political philosophy as being warm, dry and green, and that’s pretty much where I am, but seeing someone who had such a reformist agenda and who was quite courageous in that regard was inspiring.”
While he did start a law degree, the draw of politics continued and Zimmerman left to work first for a string of NSW politicians before moving to Canberra to work for Robert Hill then Peter King then Joe Hockey.
While he stepped out of politics to take on the role of Deputy CEO and Director of Transport Policy at the Tourism and Transport Forum, he continued to serve on North Sydney Council which, along with his service to the Liberal Party, saw him secure pre-selection to replace Hockey when he retired in 2015, winning a by-election and two subsequent elections to retain the seat.
While most likely facing yet another battle against a strong Independent push at the next election, Zimmerman describes himself as “a patient person” prepared to walk the hustings as he bides his time on the political backbench in the hope of securing the prize of a ministry in a future Coalition Government.
“It’s unusual to be in politics and not want to be a Minister so I hope to have that opportunity one day,” he says. “I have a number of policy areas that I’m really interested in, health obviously being one, but I’m also quite passionate about innovation and science and Australia’s potential in both of those areas. I’m also interested in climate and energy policy and environmental issues.
“I would love to be in the ministry but these things are always up to the prime minister of the day – you very rarely can pick the opportunities that arise in relation to executive government.”
Chairing the Health Committee
Tapped on the shoulder in 2016 by then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull with whom Zimmerman shares moderate values, he has chaired the bipartisan Health, Aged Care and Sport Parliamentary Committee for the five years since.
“Malcolm rang to talk about the committee opportunity,” Zimmerman recalls. “Health was an area where my only exposure before Parliament was tangentially being involved on the board of an epilepsy organisation but it struck me at the time that it was an area of such importance to Federal Government, to the lives of Australians, but there were very few backbenchers that took a really strong interest in it.
“I thought I could add value and also stretch myself in terms of a policy area about which I knew very little. I saw that as an opportunity.”
As with most politicians, Zimmerman is comfortable around people from all walks of life and says the best part of his job is the ongoing interaction with people.
“One minute you can be down in the pub having your ear already chewed off by a plumber and the next minute you can be talking to one of Australia’s leading neurosurgeons,” he said. “That’s the extraordinary depth and breadth politics gives you. I love the learning and knowledge process of politics that you get from every interaction you have.”
‘One of the best health ministers’
The role also enables him to interact regularly with Health Minister Greg Hunt, who has now held onto the health ministry for approaching five years.
“I think Greg has been one of Australia’s best health ministers,” says Zimmerman. “He has a depth of knowledge that he’s developed but also an incredible mind for retaining detail. He really cuts through in terms of getting things done and I think will go down as one of our best health ministers.”
As for the banter between the committee members, Zimmerman hopes the virtual audience that tuned in to the many hearings understood it for what it was.
“I’m always having a dig at Mike [Freelander] because we have become really good friends,” he says, “I sometimes forget that the listening audience might think, oh that’s Trent being a bit mean to Mike but it’s just us. He’s a joy to work with.”