As Australia's parliament returns, meet the youngest MPs doing things differently

Born between 1981 and 1996, 10 senators and 13 members of parliament are the faces of generational change in Australian politics. Here, SBS News meets some of these millennial politicians and discovers their reasons for wanting to make a difference.

Some of Australia's youngest politicians

Some of Australia's youngest politicians. Source: SBS News

Anika Wells, 34, Australia's youngest female MP - Labor

For Australia’s youngest female MP, it’s all about the numbers.

“2019 is the first year in which we have more Australians born after 1980 than before, and more millennials in the workforce than baby boomers and Gen Xers combined, but we only form 10 per cent of parliament,” she tells SBS News.

“We are actually vastly underrepresented.”

“More millennials need a seat the table – this table.”

“We are the ones who will deal with the consequences of the choices this parliament makes, so we've got to be here to make sure that those consequences are the ones that we want.”

After being diagnosed with a moderately aggressive autoimmune disease, Ms Wells decided to run for preselection as she nursed her newborn daughter during US President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

“I had this lightning bolt moment, where I was I was holding Celeste, I had my IV hooked in in my hospital bed, and I was watching coverage of his swearing-in on the TV, and I thought, ‘I have taken a lot of things for granted and I'm just not going do that anymore’.”

Two years later, Anika – and her daughter - were sitting in the House of Representatives, having succeeded Wayne Swan as the Labor member for Lilley.

“I sat Celeste in the chair and said ‘this is where I sit when you see me on TV and these are the cameras, here and here’, and on the way out I explained ‘we bow to the Speaker to show our respect’ and she bowed to the Speaker, which was pretty good for a two-year-old.”

“You do miss [your children] when you’re here, [one day] I went and grabbed a coffee and just stood near the childcare playground in the sun for a couple of minutes and listened to the children playing.”

“That helped me feel not so far away from home.”

“Sometimes, when we talk about millennial issues, people try to make it a question of generational warfare – and it really isn't.”

“Australia has a covenant of trust that one generation will look after the next and our generation stands at risk of being the first not to experience that.”

“I don't think that we want that and I also don't think that the older generations want to be the ones who have who have caused that either, but it means that we have to properly address the structural inequality faced by a generation and my frustration in the parliament is that we don't, that we're not even close to doing that at the moment - but that's why I'm here.”

Phillip Thompson, 31, Australia’s youngest MP - LNP

As Australia’s youngest MP in the lower house, Phillip Thompson is known by the title ‘baby of the House’ in Canberra.

“Never in my wildest dreams or nightmares did I think that I'd be a member of parliament - ever”, the LNP Member for Herbert says. 

“I was a bit of a ratbag as a kid. I grew up in a broken home. Single mum raising three kids. I rebelled a lot. I pushed the limits a lot.”

After leaving school early to become a concreter, he put himself through night school to join the Defence Force.

“I think it kind of straightened me up a little bit. It was home, it was another family.”

An infantry soldier with the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment in Townsville, he served as a peacekeeper in East Timor before deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 where he helped train the Afghan National Army.

“We suffered a loss when 22-year-old [Private] Ben Ranaudo was killed on the 18th of July and poor (Private Paul) Warren lost his leg.”

“And then later on in October, I was blown up by an IED.”

“I still can't hear out of my ear, got a traumatic brain injury. I was diagnosed with mental illness.”

“I went into a dark, dark kind of place for a couple of years. And then I had to try and figure it out and claw my way out.

“My wife, or girlfriend at the time, gave me a big kick in the backside and took me to the mirror and kinda said 'who are you?'.”

With the help of the Invictus Games, he turned things around. He was named 2018 Young Queenslander of the Year and won the most marginal seat in Australia at the last election.

“I’m from a low socioeconomic background, I have a disability, I've got tattoos down my arms, I was an infantry private soldier - I'm nothing special, at all - and if I can sit in this place, and I can be a part of making change, anyone can.”

“I don't get nervous in Canberra because, in my mind, no one dies today.” 

Jordon Steele-John, 25, Australia's youngest parliamentarian - Greens

“I was a very nerdy kid,” laughs Australia’s youngest parliamentarian, 25 year-old Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John.

“A massive Harry Potter fan, a bit of a space enthusiast and to perfect the trifecta of coolness, I was also a model train and steam nerd.”

His first memory of the word ‘government’ was when he was six.

“I can remember being a kid sitting on the living room floor drawing and they were showing some images of kids in distress and crying on the news, and I remember turning to my mum and asking, ‘What is that? What's going on here?’ And she said, ‘Well, there's a bunch of people who are in need of our help, they’re on a boat in the middle of the ocean and the government’s saying no’.”

“And that stuck with me.”

“Because as a kid, we were always told if people are in need and ask for help, your job's to help them.”

“And only years later did I learn that it was the Tampa that I was watching on the TV.”

Despite his family being lifelong Labor voters, his anger at the party’s refugee policies ultimately led the Western Australian to overcome his “completely terrifying fear” of being a candidate and to stand for the Greens.

“I just couldn't see anybody like me in those spaces and those conversations around youth issues, disabled issues, were just not going on, and that was what made me push through that fear.”

He was unexpectedly catapulted to Canberra after two Greens Senators were forced from parliament for being dual citizens.

“It was surreal, absolutely surreal.”

“It was a moment for young people and for disabled people and actually a lot of societal stigmas and preconceived ideas about what are the roles of disabled people in our society were about to be confronted very quickly.”

The outspoken Senator sparked controversy when he likened colleagues to “arsonists” for debating coal during the bushfire crisis.

“There's that snapback, which goes ‘You're too young, you're too idealistic, you need to sit down, shut up, go away, learn some more information before you can then come back and be an adult in this space’, and for want of a better word, that's bollocks.”

“It really needs to be challenged in the same way that the role of women in decision making spaces, the role of people of colour in decision making spaces needs to be challenged as well.”

“Because the reality is that our parliament will only be able to function effectively when it represents the broad diversity of the community that it is elected to make decisions on behalf of.”

“And it currently doesn't.”

Claire Chandler, 29, Australia's youngest female senator - Liberal

Claire Chandler’s journey to the Senate began in primary school.

“When I was on my Year 6 Canberra trip I came up here and I met with the prime minister at the time, who was John Howard, and a number of female Members of Parliament as well,” the 29-year-old says. 

“And that was one moment for me where I thought ‘Hey, maybe this is something that I can do one day?’.”

“I turned 18 the first year that Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister and it was at a time where I was becoming aware of what my vote meant of what my vote might mean.”

“I didn't really like some of Kevin's policies, I was very much a John Howard fan, I think, potentially, because of that Year 6 Canberra trip.”

A photograph of that school excursion now sits on the Tasmanian senator’s bookshelf in her Parliament House office.

“I can remember flying into Canberra for my first party room meeting and coming in and it was just magical looking at the flagpole coming up out of the sky as I came into the airport and I did shed a little bit of a tear then at that moment thinking ‘Oh wow, I get to work there now!’”

After joining the Young Liberals at university, Ms Chandler went on to be elected state and federal President, and as Australia’s youngest female Senator hopes to be a role model for other young women – of all political persuasions.

“You can't be what you can't see,” she says. 

“And I like to think that being a young woman, taking on this role as a Senator, I can set the example to other young women that yes, you can be elected to this to this place, you can do it all, so to speak.”

“We don't want 150-odd people sitting in the House of Representatives all with exactly the same life experiences, exactly the same background.”

“We need that breadth of backgrounds. And that's not just about age. It's not just about gender. It's about where you're from, what you've done with your life previously, what your beliefs are, and what you're willing to stand up for here.”

“I think if we have more diversity within this parliament, then we can have a true battle and exchange of ideas and come up with some great policies that will serve the Australian people well.”

“Put your hand up, have faith in yourself, and back yourself.”

10 min read
Published 27 January 2020 at 5:47am
By Brett Mason