There is plenty to criticise in the current state of Australian politics. It is important that expert commentators continue to point out the shortcomings of the system and the poor quality of those attracted to politics. There are however, occasional reasons for optimism and the inaugural speech of the new Greens Senator for Western Australia is certainly one worth noting.
Former Senator Scott Ludlam might well be remembered most for his admission that he was probably ineligible to sit in the Australian parliament. His ‘resignation’ triggered events which resulted in a High Court ruling on the dual citizenship provision in the Constitution, by-elections in the government held seats of Bennelong and new England, a general media panic about a ‘crisis’ and the reduction of the Turnbull Government to minority status. Yet optimists who witnessed the inaugural speech of Jordon Steele-John, the young man who replaced Ludlam after a recount will continue to hope that his arrival marks the beginnings of a change for the better.
At the age of twenty-three, Steele-John is the youngest Senator in history. He is also a disability advocate through personal experience and his speech shows a very mature approach to politics.
The last time I wrote so optimistically about a development in the Senate was when Natasha Stott-Despoja and Aden Ridgway became leader and deputy leader of the Australian Democrats. An astute editor headed my article referring to a dream team for the future. At that stage it certainly seemed as though the Democrats under this youthful leadership, which included a woman and an Indigenous man, might help to reinvigorate debate and to attract young voters. The young were showing signs of becoming cynical about the sincerity of politicians, a situation which many older incumbents are inclined to promote, removing so many potential competitors from the field.
Unfortunately, matters internal to the Democrats, some involving older Senators, put an end to the dream team and quickly led to the demise of the Democrats as a party. The Democrats were essentially a parliamentary party. For reasons of party history, organisation and policies, the contribution of the Democrats was simply encapsulated in the founder’s slogan of ‘keeping the bastards honest’. The parliament was the poorer for the decline of a crossbench presence which saw its role as a genuine alternative to the major parties and which ensured that legislation was debated rigorously.
There is a belief and some controversial evidence that younger voters disproportionately support the Greens. Greens policies are attractive and the party has promoted youth. Senator Hanson-Young was the youngest Senator elected and remains the youngest female. The Queensland Nationals Bill O’Chee was younger but filled a casual vacancy. In its usual way of caring only for the immediate, the Australian media has not provided context by reminding us about Steele-John’s notable predecessors.
Senator Steele-John’s first speech – the ABC at its direct coverage at least avoided using the antiquated sexist term ‘maiden’ – was positive and refreshing. It covered familiar ground, acknowledging predecessors, mentors and role models and thanking political and personal friends. Senator Steele-John pledged himself to be a disability advocate and spoke form experience the way that few parliamentarians can.
The most impressive features of the Senator’s speech were references to the state of politics and to climate change. He is clear eyed about the view of politics and politicians held by people of his generation. He can see that parliaments have become captive to powerful interests but expressed hope that they can be returned to the people who elect them.
On climate change, Senator Steele-John was equally perceptive and realistic. He argued that his generation represented the last chance to address the issue and avert the ecological and environmental catastrophes threatening the earth. Rather than criticise the self-serving politicians who lack the will and the courage to address global warming, the Senator noted that people of his age had to show leadership and warned that if they did not, future generations would blame them for failing to meet the challenge.
We have certainly given age and experience a good chance to create a better Australia. I am probably about the same age as Senator Steele-John’s grandparents and like many baby-boomers might seem to have little in common with tech-savvy kids glued to social media. After hearing and seeing Senator Steele-John’s first speech however, I would be happy for the parliament to be swept clean of its age and experience and for people under thirty to take all seats and the reins of government.
As a result of Senator Steele-John’s arrival in parliament, I feel something akin to Christmas spirit. Perhaps we can all approach 2018 with greater optimism because of the hope he brings.
Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in elections, parliament and political ethics.