For many 20-something-year-olds, getting a first substantial paycheque is accompanied by splurging on something to celebrate.
At 23, when West Australian Green senator Jordon Steele-John entered the upper house as the youngest-ever senator, he went from living on a study allowance to earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But instead of treating himself to some creature comforts, Senator Steele-John spent it on something more meaningful.
“I used my salary to start paying down the really significant financial hole that my family had ended up in through the preceding couple of years of struggle,” he told ABC TV’s Kitchen Cabinet.
Senator Steele-John and his extended family — including his nan, pop, great-grandma, aunt and uncle — emigrated to Australia from England when he was a baby.
But not long afterwards, his family faced a series of hardships.
“My grandma passed away, my mum was diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm, and my dad actually had an aneurysm burst a year to the day [after] … my mum’s was discovered,” Senator Steele-John says.
“[Mum] couldn’t work, and then Dad also couldn’t work. [It was] very, very scary.
“I now realise [it was] deeply informative to my areas of work and my areas of passion.”
With his parents unable to work, Senator Steele-John said his family’s finances were in a “complete quagmire” that persisted for many years.
“For as long as I can remember, the fear that comes from the absence of money — that was perpetual and constant,” he says.
As it happened, Senator Steele-John’s family circumstances saw him look to politics for distraction.
“To be in a situation where [I] could start getting a bit back above water again, that was a privilege — to be able to take that on and to solve that problem and to release that knot of fear in the stomach,” Senator Steele-John says.
He told Kitchen Cabinet that he could tell which of his parliamentary peers had lived similar experiences to him and faced tough household financial decisions.
“I think that it’s really important that we have more people in parliament that … know that feeling [of] actually what is it like to sit down and go, ‘Is it food, is it power, is it rent [that gets paid] this month?” Senator Steele-John says.
“To get the urgency of policy responses needed, that lived experience helps just cut through and go, ‘No, no. We need to do this now, to help.'”
A mindset to make a difference
Senator Steele-John was born with cerebral palsy. He is the first wheelchair user in the Senate.
Growing up, Senator Steele-John thought of his body as just being different to other people’s.
It wasn’t until he began to experience discrimination because of that difference that he realised others didn’t see it the same way.
“There was a broader thing at play here,” he says.
“I’m a big proponent of disability pride.
“That doesn’t mean that every day I will wake up and go … ‘God, I love having cerebral palsy today.'”
Senator Steele-John says there are still times when he can’t fully access or be involved with community experiences.
“Like, when you go to the beach, and they haven’t put a wheelchair ramp in down to the sea. You just have to sit there while your friends do that,” he says.
“In those moments, you think, ‘This is bad because this change hasn’t been made’. Not, ‘This is bad because I am broken’.
“It’s that shift in mindset that allows you to turn those moments of pain and sadness into determination to get the wheelchair ramp in or to make the system different.”
Much has been made about Senator Steele-John’s lived experience of disability and the unique perspective has brought to parliament compared to his able-bodied colleagues.
And, sitting alongside people often decades older than him, his youth has also set him apart, which he has been self-conscious about at times.
“For about three years or so, I was religiously in a suit and tie … it was armour,” Senator Steele-John says.
“There’s no more effective critic of yourself — as a young person in a decision-making space dominated by older people — than yourself.
“[You’re] basically constantly questioning whether you should really be there.”
Now, six years on, Senator Steele-John says he no longer feels the need to “armour up”.
“I think I probably got a little bit more comfortable in … the space,” he says.
Watch Kitchen Cabinet Tuesdays on ABC TV at 8pm or on ABC iview.
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