What are the odds of three Senate candidates without a snowflake’s chance in hell of winning the seats they were pursuing at the 2016 election suddenly finding themselves gifted places courtesy of the Constitution?
Earlier this year, One Nation’s Peter Georgiou replaced his brother-in-law Rod Culleton, and Lucy Gichuhi took Family First Bob Day’s seat (though she chose to sit as an independent rather than as a Family First senator). In each case the senators they replaced were disqualified because they were not eligible to stand in the first place, under various parts of Section 44 of the Constitution.
Day fell foul of the provision ruling out anyone with a direct or indirect pecuniary interest with the Commonwealth. Culleton’s larceny conviction meant his election had been invalid.
Now the Greens’ third candidate at the 2016 election, Jordon Steele-John, is set to inherit the seat of Western Australian senator Scott Ludlam, who last week belatedly was revealed to have joint New Zealand citizenship, making his election at each poll since 2007 invalid under Section 44. Ludlam resigned immediately.
Georgiou and Gichuhi have settled into their windfall parliamentary careers. But the 22-year-old Steele-John, a youth and disability advocate who has mild cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, has indicated he may not want the seat that is expected to be his after the High Court considers the matter and there is a countback.
He said in a Facebook post on Friday: “If it comes down to it, I’d be happier putting the choice of candidate back into the hands of our party membership.”
On Saturday, he wrote: “I feel that I must clarify. Whatever decisions I make in the coming weeks will be made solely with reference to the interests and principles of The Greens a movement of which I am so proud to be a part. This will be in no way influenced by my age or disability.”
Steele-John on Monday denied suggestions he was being pressured to cede the spot to another Green. “I have experienced nothing but genuine support and encouragement to take the time and space to consider my final decision carefully and thoroughly,” he said.
The first point to be made is that if the process goes as expected, the Senate seat would become his – it would not be a case of his being asked if he wanted it. So for someone else to have it he would have to resign, creating a casual vacancy, which the Greens could then fill with whomever they wished.
Why would, or should, Steele-John stand down if he is elected?
Of course he might have read Katharine Murphy’s strongly worded essay in the current issue of Meanjin. There she argued that “the environment parliamentarians work in is a pressure cooker, the tone of national affairs is reflexively hostile, trolling and takedowns set the tone of the day, and protagonists are being rewarded for their efficiency at treachery rather than the substance of their contributions”.
But assuming he is not put off by the rigours of the parliamentary life or the current toxic political atmosphere, would the Greens’ interests be served by Steele-John turning his back on this political prize?
Not necessarily. Yes, there would Greens in his home state who would be older and thus more experienced in politics and the world.
But Steele-John has stood in two federal elections and two state elections. He’s young but not a novice. If he were not suitable to be an MP the Greens should not have put him on their tickets – and if he relinquishes a seat it would be insulting voters to put him on the ticket at the next election.
As a parliamentarian he would have the backing and infrastructure of the party. Nor would he be the first federal MP in a wheelchair who commuted from WA – former Labor MP Graham Edwards, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War, did so.
If he were in the Senate, Steele-John would be very well placed to pursue disability issues, to which he is committed, as well as developing his broader political profile. With the start up of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, this will be an important policy area.
His presence would send a strong and positive message to others with a disability. If he did well as a senator, he would be an inspiration to them.
It would be a hard slog and one can understand that he and the party would prefer he had a few more years under his belt before starting down the road. But in politics you can’t necessarily choose your timing.
The Greens should be pressing Steele-John to stay in the seat that everyone assumes will come his way.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra