Next In Line: A Q&A with Jordon Steele-John


Words || Tess Connery

When Deputy Greens leader, Scott Ludlam, resigned earlier this year over his dual Australian and New Zealand citizenship, he left rather large shoes to fill. Ludlam had served The Greens since his initial election in 2007, and was one of the most recognisable faces in the party. He’d worked tirelessly on numerous issues such as campaigning against uranium mining and nuclear weapons, support for Aboriginal land rights, recognition of climate change, and had a staunch opposition to internet censorship.

So who the hell is going to replace him?

Jordon Steele-John currently lives in Western Australia, and is studying politics via distance at Macquarie University. He first ran for the federal seat of Fremantle at eighteen years old, and now finds himself the most likely candidate to replace Ludlam.

Steele-John is 22, which means he’ll be the youngest senator Australia has ever had. He’s also a disability advocate, and uses a wheelchair due to mild cerebral palsy.

How did you get into politics to begin with?

My first political memory was when I was six years old, of the Tampa Crisis [where the Howard Government refused the entry of a Norwegian freighter carrying 433 refugees into Australian waters] in 2001 – so we’re going back a fair way there I guess. Although I was only six, so you don’t understand the kind of complex internal and external politics that surrounds it, I did kind of get that at the heart of the issue there were people asking for our help, and we were saying ‘no’. That made a big impact on me, even as a little kid, cause you’re always brought up to help people in need, you know what I mean? I’m not saying I was a kind of person who at six years old wanted to watch Question Time, but it stuck in the back of my mind as something that had an impact – and that combined with the fact that my family was definitely one that didn’t shy away from politics at the dinner table.

So once I’d done the regular ‘I wanna be an astronaut’, ‘I wanna be a paleontologist’ thought processes as a kid – I came out of that by my early teens – I understood that I wanted to make a positive difference in the world in some way. Being really inspired by current events of that time politically – Obama’s election in ‘08, Rudd’s election in ‘07 – seemed to be the kind of area where people were making significant changes to long-standing political orders through being involved. And that bundled up all together at the age of sixteen, when the Labor party proposed its Malaysia Solution, and refugees was something that I got a lot more passionate about.

I just thought ‘no, I can’t be part of a party that would put its name to something like that, but I do think I want to get involved in the political process’, and I cast my mind out for a party that was talking about this issue I cared so much about with the kind of moral clarity that I thought it deserved and warranted. I found The Greens and never really looked back.

You’re set to take over Scott Ludlam’s position now that he’s resigned. Up until now, what’s it been like working with Scott?

Oh, incredible. Scott is one of the most articulate and thoughtful contributors to the Australian political landscape, probably bar none in the last couple of decades. I’ve been a member for six years, and in that time he’s been a really great mentor, and example, and friend to me. So it’s been wonderful to work with him, and it’s a very sad time, a sad thing to have lost his contribution to politics. But whatever he does in the future, I know it’ll always be Greens tinted, and the work that he’s done lives beyond his political career. And he more than anybody would be at pains to ensure that we didn’t speak of him as though he died, because he’s still very much with us (laughs). But yeah. So he’s been an incredible person to get to know and to work with over the years.

You’re a huge advocate for disability rights, and for those who might not know, you’re a wheelchair user yourself. What sort of difference are you hoping to make in the Senate regarding disability rights?

I think that to be a young person and to be a person with a disability in contemporary Australia is really to occupy the intersection of some of our society’s most entrenched myths and most damaging preconceived ideas. It’s my experience, and I think it’s the experience of a lot of young people and folks with a disability, that these are so often the prisms through which our lives are viewed, and our rights are framed – particularly in political discourse. And so one of the things I’m hoping – and excited – to do is to bring those lived experiences and those different perspectives into the institutions that are crafting such massive pieces of legislation and making such significant contributions to the discourse around those pieces of legislation. Because I think when we have diversity in that decision making process, we get good legislation.

Are there any other issues that you’re particularly passionate about, that you want to tackle once you get into the Senate?

Yeah, I come from the Lower-South Metropolitan Region of WA, and one of our long-term issues is youth unemployment. And I think that’s a challenge for young people across the board, living wherever you are in the country. You know, we’ve got a youth unemployment rate that is never less than double the national average, and that goes into the high twenties in many areas like where I come from.

At the same time, other policy issues such as climate change is the one that is most on my radar, as well as housing affordability, really kind of rob us of our future. And so what I’m hoping to talk about in the weeks and months ahead is the way that we can tackle those kind of issues in concept. Because I think that we can do a lot, for instance, to address youth unemployment through a job-rich transition to the renewable economy. But I think it needs to be framed in a way that recognises and makes clear that these are policy shifts that need to be made so that our generation can enjoy the kind of lives and privileges that past generations have done.

So you’re going to be the youngest senator ever if you do go on to take Ludlam’s seat, is that daunting at all?

Yes! Yes it is. I think if I’m honest with you, Tess, if I answered that it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be the right person for the job. You’d want to be testing my head and finding somebody else to do it! A decision to take up a job like this is one that needs to be made after a period of careful internal reflection, because it is a massive responsibility – not just not just in the case of the day-to-day legislative aspects, and the necessarily hard nature of that kind of work. But also as somebody who will be, if you like, representative of such important communities. You have to kind of recognise that and consider whether you think you can do a job like that before you take it on. But I think that having worked in this space for six years, I’ve done a lot inside of politics, outside of politics, working in both of those fields, and I’m really looking forward to – as I said – to bringing that voice into the parliament.

You’re studying politics at Macquarie via distance, how do you plan on balancing uni with parliament?

It’s an interesting question, I think never has a gap year been more warranted (laughs). I will definitely return to it, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time as a student at Macquarie. Particularly, if you know anybody who’s designed the online iLearn system for you guys, it is far superior to any of the online learning systems offered by various other universities that I’ve looked into – so good job there, guys. But yeah, I think I will balance that by maybe explaining to my tutors that I’m going to get a bit of on-the-ground experience now.