The youngest person ever elected to the Senate, Jordon Steele-John, has delivered his first speech to the upper house.
Steele-John, 23, is an Australian Greens senator for Western Australia. He fills the vacancy created by the resignation of Scott Ludlam. Ludlam resigned after discovering he had New Zealand dual citizenship. The High Court ruled that he was ineligible and ordered a countback of the 2017 re-run Senate count. Steele-John was next in line on the Greens ticket.
Steele-John joined the Greens when he was 16. He has cerebral palsey and uses a wheelchair. His first speech came just hours after the historic Senate vote in support of same-sex marriage legislation.
Listen to Steele-John’s speech (24m)
Watch Steele-John (27m)
Hansard transcript of Senator Jordon Steele-John’s maiden speech.
The PRESIDENT (17:02): Pursuant to order I now call Senator Steele-John to make his first speech, and I ask of honourable senators that the usual courtesies be extended to him.
Senator STEELE-JOHN (Western Australia) (17:02): I’d like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, paying respects to their elders past, present and emerging, and recognising that sovereignty was never ceded. I’m happy to say that this is in fact my first speech. I’m also pleased to be able to deliver my first speech on such an historic day. I feel quite privileged to be able to do so on the day when the Senate has moved justice on its way to the other place.
As the youngest person ever to be elected to the Senate and one of the few people with a disability to ever enter the federal parliament, I think it’s safe to say that my presence here in this chamber is a rather radical departure from the norm. Before I entered the Senate a few short weeks ago I, like so many of those beyond this chamber, was frustrated that the work of parliament doesn’t always seem to reflect the views and aspirations of those who send us here, particularly my generation. In approaching my first speech tonight I want to talk about this disconnect. I want to talk about the things that reflect my views of how our democracy should function. Now here as their representative I have the opportunity to find out what the people who sent me here want me to do for them. For I believe that parliament must be the voice of the people. It must be relevant to them, and so I reached out via social media and asked a simple question:
If you could say anything* to the people in this place what would you say?
I’m rather thrilled to be able to say that the response was quite overwhelming. Over 130,000 people saw our post. Almost 3,000 people told me what is important to them and what they think we should be doing here in this parliament, and that’s not including the countless phone calls to my office, the emails and the many letters I’ve received as well as the conversations I’ve had with constituents. Now, it should not come as a surprise to anyone in this chamber that many of these messages were laced with sentiments of frustration, anger and sadness. In the words of many of them, there is a real need for us here, in this place, to recognise and respect the voices and views of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, particularly in relation to the Uluru statement. In the words of one of my WA constituents: ‘Please respect and value the Uluru statement and implement what it asks. We, the first nations people of this country, want to progress our relationship with governments and reconcile the past to help our future generations, my children and their children.’
There were also many people who spoke of the need to take urgent action to address the profound act of intergenerational theft which is inaction on climate change. In the words of one: ‘No more coalmines, and get on board with renewables. I am so sick of having to choose between food and bills, especially my electricity bill.’
There was a great sense of outrage at the extent to which this parliament is being held hostage by big money. People are sick of the fact that tax seems to be increasingly an optional extra for the very many multinational corporations which make profits in this country, and there is a knowledge that this parliament must be returned to the people to do their work rather than the vested interests which manage to so successfully get into the ear of so many. In the words of one, ‘Listen to us, the people, and not your donors.’ In the words of another: ‘Spread the wealth. Don’t let big business rule this country.’ Finally—and I echo this statement strongly—’Stop the revolving door between career politicians and lobbyists.’
Now, I was also greatly heartened to see that so many of the people who reached out to me hold within them a sense of moral clarity that seemed to be so lacking when this chamber and the other place considered issues in relation to refugees, particularly the ongoing humanitarian crisis that is Manus Island. We were buried, quite frankly, under a deluge of commentary around the need for Australia to take a more humanitarian approach to refugees and asylum seekers than we currently do, and I would urge everybody within this chamber tonight and listening at home to take heed of that demand. Think more of your fellow Australians than you seem to in your actions. We are a compassionate people. We are a caring people. We are a nation built by those who come across the sea seeking a better life. Let these sentiments guide you. Let this history guide you. Listen to these words.
Another issue which was expressed continually was the need for us to recognise that housing is not a market. Housing is not an investment. Housing is, in fact, a human right, and our failure to recognise this central truth results in tens of thousands of our fellow Australians living each night on the streets. Of course, people living with a disability felt that they could reach out to me and share their aspirations.
There were also comments of a more solemn tone. In the words of one, ‘The thing I find lacking is genuine empathy and compassion for others, and care for our planet.’ In the words of another was a request for us here, ‘To think of the next generation, not of ourselves’. And in an email I received just this morning, someone said to me, ‘Thank you for sharing our dreams and taking them seriously.’
I would ask everyone here today to reflect upon the way in which we here view the idealism of those who do not work in this place, and how easy it is to dismiss the aspiration and the belief that we can be better and that we can do things differently as simply naive. I know from personal experience that my generation is one alive with the desire to make change, cognisant of the fact that if we do not do so the world in which we will live as a generation will be so much bleaker for it.
Then there were, of course—we must remember that this is, after all, the internet—those comments of a slightly more humorous nature. My favourite so far has been the suggestion that the government might perhaps try turning itself off and back on again—that was the cleanest one we could find!
This mixture of hope and frustration, of sadness and aspiration, does not come as a surprise to me personally. These sentiments very much reflect those which drove me to be involved in politics and which are with me as I sit here tonight. They are also the sentiments which drove into existence the party which I am so proud to belong to: the desire for a world based on social justice—one that protects the environment in which we all live; the desire for politics which truly involves people in decision-making processes; and the need for a government which seeks peace at every opportunity. These are the core tenets of the Greens party and our movement. I’m incredibly proud to sit here among colleagues who have borne the voice of that movement into this place.
I believe it is very clear to anybody who takes the time to look that the Australian people are no longer satisfied with what they are getting from their politics. They will not cop politics as usual any longer. They know we can do better. They ask us to do better. They demand a new deal from their politics. And while I am here, that is exactly what I intend to work with my colleagues to achieve.
With the time I am given here, I will be a tireless champion for a fundamental change in the way that society thinks about people with a disability. We must now recognise that disability is not created as the result of various medical impairments, but is, in fact, created by society’s collective failure to adapt to, embrace and celebrate the varying levels of ability which we all have.
I will also be a fearless voice for a jobs-rich transition to the new economy, one which I know, and one which any expert would be very happy to tell anybody in this chamber, is the only solution to actually creating the jobs that will employ people in communities like the one from which I come.
I will be a voice in this chamber for that urgent action on climate change which must happen if my generation is not to be condemned to a future in which we work tirelessly to try to clean up a mess created by those who came before us.
I will not cease in my belief that every Australian has a right to go to sleep in a bed of their own, that homelessness is not natural, that it is not right and that it is not the way things always must be. It is, in fact, a result of our failure to act.
While I am at it, I will build on the incredible work of former Senator Ludlam in the digital rights and communications areas, particularly in relation to the NBN. The National Broadband Network is the Snowy Mountains Scheme of the 21st century, and it has been comprehensively wrecked by the technological ineptitude which is displayed by those who have so far had carriage of it.
It is the 21st century, and in the 21st century it is necessary not only to properly codify those human rights which we all presume to have—but which we so often find do not actually exist—within a bill of rights but also to extend that work to the digital realm and to ensure that when we participate in that space as citizens, we are protected and that our rights are safeguarded.
These are the things I relish the opportunity to now work on with my Greens colleagues. These are the things on which I will wholeheartedly and genuinely work with any member of this chamber, regardless of their political stripes, if they are willing to meet me there. Because if we fail to do these things, if we fail to listen and if we fail to take heed, then people will continue to turn away from us, they will continue to turn their back on us and they will continue to regard the workings of this place as alien to them. If anybody in this chamber is a student of history, as I am in my spare time, they know such sentiments do not lead to good places.
Finally, I think I would be not quite hung, drawn and quartered, but some version of the same, if I neglected to thank those people who have helped me so profoundly in being here tonight. Firstly, to former Senator Josephine Vallentine, the mother of our Greens WA movement and the tireless champion of the causes of peace and of disarmament, thank you. If it were not for your work and your courage, WA would not have the Greens voices that it does. Thank you to former MLC Giz Watson of the WA parliament for your years of guidance and mentorship. I would not be the person I am today and I could not be the representative that I hope to be without your influence in my life. To my colleague Senator Rachel Siewert, for your fearless advocacy on behalf of those who would otherwise have no voice in this place—particularly in relation to the disability community—from the bottom of my heart, thank you. You set an example, a dedication and an energy that I don’t think anybody in this place will ever match. I value your advice and your guidance more than I could say. To former Senator Ludlam, whose breadth of vision allowed us as a collective movement to see, in full technicolour, what it will be like when we win, this place will never be the same without you here. Your contribution will never be forgotten. Our movement is so much stronger for being served by you.
When I think of these people and the impact that they’ve had in my life, I’m reminded of a quote which is etched in the market streets of Salamanca in Tasmania. It was quoted by my colleague Senator McKim recently in relation to the marriage equality debate and at our national conference last weekend: ‘In the wake of their courage, I swim.’
To the Greens WA, that great, varied and vibrant extended family to which I owe so much, thank you for all you have given me. I joined at the age of 16, as a rather enthusiastic political nerd, I’m not afraid to say. You took me in and showed me that being involved could make a difference. You had faith in me. You supported me. And I cannot thank you enough for that faith and belief and support. To Mollie MacLeod—and, Mollie, I think you’re watching at home this evening—thank you for giving me the courage to make my voice heard in this chamber. To my friends and my wonderful office team, you have been here with me on this crazy adventure since the very beginning, whether I met you six years ago, whether I met you a month ago or whether I met you last week! I couldn’t do this job, I wouldn’t have entered this job and I wouldn’t know how to continue doing it without your endless enthusiasm. I’d particularly like to acknowledge Krissii and Jody, who are here in the gallery. We have been fellow Greens fanatics for a good couple of years now and have shared many an election campaign together. I would not have managed to make it here this evening if it weren’t for you guys. I appreciate the multitude of one-o’clock-in-the-morning text messages that you’ve taken on my behalf.
Lastly, to my family—to my mum, Tracey, to my brother, Harry, to my grandma, Jean, and to my grandfather, Len—from the moment I was born, to the very many days on the campaign trail, to these minutes we’ve shared together, your love has been the undeniable constant of my life. It has formed the foundation stone on which I have built everything and will build everything else. And I love you for it.
To everyone here in the chamber, to those in the gallery and to those watching at home, I thank you for your support and pledge myself to your service. The challenges before us now are profound. But I sit here tonight brimming with the belief that we can and will meet those challenges together. Thank you.