There’s a hush that comes over the chamber as the Senate admits its newest arrival.
With the President’s approval, the doors open and the soon-to-be senator nervously strides into their new workplace, bounding down three steps before coming to a halt at a table in the middle of the red room.
It’s a tradition that’s lost its elusive lustre thanks to the revolving door of new arrivals this place has welcomed in the wake of the citizenship saga.
On this day, South Australia’s newest representative, Tim Storer, enters the chamber flanked by the leaders of the major political parties eager to win his support from the seat he will assume on the crossbench.
He stands as he completes the formalities, having just seconds to compose himself before he’s swamped by the chamber’s inhabitants, who walk over to wish him well for what lies ahead.
The crowd slowly disperses and prompts a Greens senator to approach him. After a brief exchange, both men walk to the back, to the spot that’s become known as the loneliest seat in the Senate.
Here sits senator Jordon Steele-John, the West Australian Green who in November last year, just weeks after turning 23, became the Australian Parliament’s youngest-ever senator.
He’s sitting alone at the back of the room because he can’t get to the floor of the chamber to greet the new arrival.
It’s an all too common experience for someone who uses a wheelchair and is already facing an uphill battle settling into his new career.
“It was an overwhelming experience, as you can imagine, arriving in Parliament for your first day on the job,” Senator Steele-John said.
“[It] is a big enough thing itself. But it very rapidly became clear that this building was built in 1988 and has not kept up with the times when it comes to accessibility.
“The toilets in my office weren’t accessible, many of the courtyards are blocked by [steps], there wasn’t proper ramp-ways in the chamber.”
The bottom of the doors in Senator Steele-John’s office will need repairs when he moves into the permanent spot that’s being retrofit to accommodate wheelchairs.
His knuckles alone will be the major beneficiary from the move, having copped a beating as he squeezes his chair between the door’s narrow frame.
The office he currently occupies, though on the ground floor, is one of the furthest offices from the chamber. But he’s not complaining.
In fact, when asked about the renovations, he insists that he has no complaints about the consultation he’s received or the work that’s being completed. If anything, he just wished he could have settled into an office by now.
In late July — almost two weeks after the man he replaced, former senator Scott Ludlam, resigned — the Senate began investigating modifying an office, or suite as they’re called, along with providing wheelchair access to the Senate floor.
Within a week, an office was chosen given its close proximity to the chamber.
In November, the clerk of the Senate told Estimates he expected construction in the office would be completed by February.
But when that month arrived and senators again gathered for Estimates, the clerk told them the renovations had been delayed because the office was in a “high-traffic area near the chamber”. A new deadline of “the end of March” was set.
The office is now expected to be ready in the coming weeks, ahead of politicians returning to Canberra for the budget in May.
Aside from the office being closer to the chamber, the kitchenette being comfortably accessible, the doors being wider and with self-opening functions, just being able to access a disability-friendly toilet will be a welcome relief for Senator Steele-John, who currently has to leave his office to find a suitable toilet elsewhere in the building.
Rushing to the chamber as the bells toll
A senator’s life is dictated by the bells that chime throughout the Parliament.
When the ringing breaks out, their pagers buzz and clocks flash either red or green to alert politicians to the chamber that’s facing a vote.
In the current Parliament, with votes tight in both chambers, there’s no room for delays. Few politicians are willing to risk taking the lifts, even though they are marked as exclusively for them if the bells are ringing.
Instead, they rush down stairwells and at times even sprint across the grass-filled courtyards that feature throughout the Parliament.
It’s a luxury not afforded to Senator Steele-John, who last week missed a vote by mere seconds because his wheels, which sport bright green spokes, got stuck in the grass.
“That has never been used before,” Liberal senator Eric Abetz offered as Senator Steele-John apologised to the chamber.
During votes, senators mix throughout the chamber.
In one instance where the Government and Opposition were voting together, Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Labor’s Don Farrell and Kimberley Kitching squeezed into seats designed for two, talking and laughing throughout the vote.
Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham joined them soon after, with the conversation continuing as other senators returned to their seats.
During a similar vote, Greens senator Andrew Bartlett took his place on the front bench, where government minister’s usually sit, and read a newspaper during the vote.
In all these instances, Senator Steele-John was alone, at the back. At times he leans over the back of the seat in front of him to speak to his colleagues.
“If I was to become the whip of the party, the tradition is that the whip sits next to the leader and the leader sits at the front. And if I was to be elected the president of the chamber there would need to be some pretty significant changes to the president’s seat,” he said.
“Traditionally a senator would stand to take the call and sit to signify that they had released to call.
“I tried a couple of times to moderate the pace of my speech and the President at the time thought I’d concluded and moved on to a colleague, so I don’t know whether they’re trying to send me a subtle message there.”
Senior figures across the chamber acknowledge while changes have been made, more are needed. They insist the Senate adapts to reflect its inhabitants and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.
An unintended consequence of building Senator Steele-John a special desk was that it prevented anyone from sitting next to him, including during votes when senators must sit for their vote to be counted.
“I’m in conversations at the moment to make sure that a specially-made bench will be added at some point next to myself and that we can do something around divisions and things so I can stay within the chamber’s seating circle,” he said.
“I think we really need to make sure and value the symbolism of these things.
“If somebody is physically excluded from a space and that is visually seen to be the case, then that sends a strong message about the role of that person within that institution.
“So we do need to address those things urgently.”
Sending a message of inclusion to the community
The irony of Senator Steele-John’s appointment is the thick British accent he brings with him.
That combined with his age, a cheeky grin and the wheelchair he sits in make him an unlikely figure in the Parliament.
At 23, Senator Steele-John is younger than half the average age of senators and MPs.
As if designed to counter his age, he always wears a tie, complete with a tie pin, when he’s in the chamber. That sets him apart from his older male Greens colleagues who regularly frequent the chamber and halls tieless.
But get him talking about disability access or barriers to youth engagement in the political process and the result is like lighting a fire.
He’s outraged the Federal Government-funded free interpreter service doesn’t accommodate Auslan, the nation’s sign language.
He’s pleased the Parliament has live captioning for its broadcasting but is infuriated that when these videos are posted online the captions don’t work — something officials aren’t sure will be rectified any time soon.
The frustrations he feels for the building were reciprocated among disability campaigners who confronted the perils of navigating the Parliament last week.
Speaking to the ABC, they said struggles booking wheelchair-friendly taxis and a lack of obvious place to arrive and drop off people with mobility limitations made accessing the building a challenge.
They listed heavy doors that needed to be physically opened, thick carpets and a lack of mirrors in disability toilets as other barriers they confronted.
“It is not inclusive,” Lynne Foreman said.
“This house belongs to all Australians. It should be inclusive,” Peter Tully responded.
Beyond the parliamentary precinct, Senator Steele-John compares finding a place to live in Canberra like finding “a needle in a haystack”.
“I spent about six or seven hours on the phone trying to find an accessible piece of accommodation when I first arrived,” he said.
“I have not been able to find one. I was lucky enough to find a venue that would be willing to make some modifications [at] their own expense and dramatically lower the price so the cost of accommodation would be covered by my allowances.”
Hopes for more funding to improve parliamentary access
When the Parliament opened it met all the disability access requirements for public buildings.
And while officials concede the current building does not meet current access codes, it is not subject to these standards, as they only apply to new buildings.
Aside from Senator Steele-John’s office renovation, the Department of Parliamentary Services in recent years has upgraded disabled car park access, lifts and politicians’ offices as required.
A complexity of making changes to the building is they must be approved by Parliament House’s moral rights holders, the people tasked with ensuring changes adhere to the architect’s original design.
But Senator Steele-John is disappointed many changes are only made after issues arise.
He fears the current state of the building means people with a disability are held back from roles within the Parliament, particularly in chambers filled with steps.
“If I had a different kind of impairment, or higher or more complex support needs, I wouldn’t be able to have made do in the way that I’ve just been able to do for these last four months while they’ve been retro-fitting my office,” Senator Steele-John said.
“And therefore, I wouldn’t have been able to speak or work on behalf of my constituents in WA.
“A building which places that kind of constraint on people literally locks people out of the process for months and months at a time should they be elected is simply unacceptable in modern Australia.”
The Department of Parliamentary Services, in a statement, said further changes to the building would be considered among an “overall accessibility strategy”, which would be funded as “part of the broader building and services budget”.
While he waits for those works to happen, visitors to the Parliament can expect to see Senator Steele-John sticking close to the walls, preferring the polished floorboards as a reprieve from the high-pile red carpet that lines the middle of the corridors.
“We really need to be proactive in making these changes and view it in the same way that we would spending on modifications to the Parliament around security,” he said.
“We’ve had two Australians elected with physical disabilities, myself and Graham Edwards.
“We’ve had no terrorist incidents in Australia and yet we’re investing billions of dollars to modify Parliament to keep the wrong people out.
“We’re yet to see how much will be investing to enable the right people to get in.”