WHEN Greens Senator Scott Ludlam announced his resignation last month upon discovering he held dual citizenship with New Zealand, 22-year old Greens true believer Jordon Steele-John went through a range of emotions.
For the university politics student, Ludlam was more than just another politician — he was a home-grown hero, a friend and mentor.
Steele-John had worked alongside the senator for six years, filling every administrative role the Greens would let him get his hands on. He admired the guy, looked up to him, he even knew his parents. Ludlam’s resignation left him shocked and saddened.
And then he did the maths.
“I’m a massive political nerd, my mind worked it out pretty quickly,” he said.
Ludlam’s resignation means his position will go (pending a High Court process) to the third-placed candidate on the Greens Senate ticket at the 2016 double-dissolution election.
A position, if we’re being frank, that tends to go to someone the party never expected to actually have to hold office. It’s the place on the ballot paper reserved for a hardworking party member. Like the super-keen 22-year-old. A candidate like Steele-John.
Barring the unexpected, Steele-John is likely to be sworn in as a senator by the end of the year. He will not only be the youngest senator, but the first in a wheelchair. Steele-John has cerebral palsy and has been in a chair since he was 12.
Still living with his parents, halfway through a degree and with limited experience of the world of work, he admits the twist of political fate has come as a shock, but after a brief period of reflection and consultation with his family, he is looking forward to his first foray into Federal politics.
“My overwhelming feeling is excitement to get the work done,” he said.
Steele-John was born in Britain (and yes, he renounced his British citizenship in 2013) but his entire family — four generations — migrated en masse to Perth in 1996. Steele-John was a babe in arms, his great-grandmother in her late 80s. The family settled in the Rockingham area and all lived under the one roof. His brother Harry was born a year later.
“I look back and it is an incredibly rare experience these days to grow up in a household of four generations of knowledge, wisdom and general life experience,” he said.
The extended family was also beneficial in helping to care for Steele-John and his brother when their parents faced unexpected medical dramas. On Anzac Day 2000, when Steele-John was five, his mother Tracey was diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm. A year later, to the day, his father collapsed with a ruptured brain aneurysm.
“Those were some interesting years,” Steel-John said with a hint of understatement.
“What an experience like that gives us, I think, is a sense of perspective, it helps you see clearly. The last few weeks have been filled with a rollercoaster of emotions but at the end of the day it’s not life and death, it’s not the equivalent of finding out one of your parents has a medical grenade in their head that might go off at any time.”
Steele-John and Harry were home schooled by their mother, an experience Steele-John describes as “tremendous fun”.
For mum Tracey, home schooling was a chance to allow her children to forge their own path. “I really wanted both of my sons to have a real sense of themselves before the world made sense of them,” she said.
As for living with cerebral palsy, Steele-John credits his mother for empowering him to take charge of his own treatment and not allowing the disability to define him.
“My family always approached disability in a way that was defined in a way of, ‘there is absolutely nothing wrong with you’,” Steele-John said. “There is no reason why the disability that you journey with should mean anything detrimental for your life.”
The family were staunch Labour supporters in Britain, and Steele-John credits growing up in a multi-generational household for giving him an appreciation of how politics shaped his family’s fortunes throughout the generations.
He said though his family were not the sort to attend protests, politics was never a taboo subject at the dinner table. And when the Tampa crisis hit the headlines in 2001, it sparked a new political awareness in Steele-John.
“That had a big impact on me and really formed a big part of why I ended up in the Greens,” he said.
His passion for politics was inspired further by Kevin Rudd and Barak Obama’s election victories in 2007 and 2008 (although his admiration of Rudd has since waned). He was on the verge of joining the Labor Party when the Malaysia Solution was put forward by then prime minister Julia Gillard. He describes the policy as “a disgusting trade of human life”.
“I knew I had to give my time and energy to a party that understood that and had the moral hierarchy around that issue,” he said.
“In the Greens it’s very much part of the culture — if you want to get involved, you put your hand up.” So he did. In the past six years he has held pretty much every administrative position going in the party.
He is also a serial candidate. In 2013, he stood in three elections, for the State seat of Warnbro, the Federal seat of Fremantle and for Rockingham City Council. He was again a candidate for local government in Rockingham in 2015. Earlier this year he stood for the South Metropolitan seat in the WA State election. The election which has landed him in his current position was the 2016 double dissolution election.
He said despite the long odds he took every campaign seriously. “You owe it to the party and you owe it to the process,” he said.
After the initial shock of hearing of Ludlam’s resignation, the implications soon became clear.
In a post to Facebook in the hours after the resignation, Steele-John wrote that he would be “happier putting the choice of candidate back into the hands of our party membership”.
“What I wanted to make clear first and foremost was that I understood how people might be feeling,” he said.
“Looking towards the next election there would obviously be the same pre-election processes around our candidate.”
His pet subjects are youth and disability issues. He says the NDIS is crucial and housing affordability is a major issue. Living in Baldivis he also has first-hand experience of the high youth unemployment in that area. His younger brother, a retail manager at Pet Stock, was one of 400 applicants for his position. Those family bonds still influence his mindset.
“I would suggest to any politician, if they were in need of someone to keep their ego in check, should be regularly in communication with their younger brother,” he said with a laugh.
“There is nobody that more effectively punctures your ego.”