The names of All Who Served from 1939-45 stare down at the congregation in Adelaide’s Pooraka Memorial Hall as the African faithful groove to the rhythm. The singing is soulful and joyous and anchored by a woman with the voice of Diana Ross. When Reverend Zipporah Mwikya takes the microphone, her first task is to ask everyone to turn to the person next to them and give them a hug. “Our-stralia belongs to Jesus,” she says in her thick Kenyan accent to a chorus of amens. “If you go to God desperate, God will never send you home empty-handed.”
The Pentecostal Restoration Church is a place of much joy and great hope; there are triple the number of plastic chairs laid out in the cavernous hall than needed to seat the 50-odd faithful. Unstack the chairs and they will come, seems to be the theory. As Rev Zipporah says, when you go to the Almighty with an open heart, “nothing is impossible for our God”. And for the woman swaying and clapping next to me, Senator Lucy Gichuhi, nothing has ever been impossible.
She’s been described as the Steven Bradbury of the Senate; Bradbury, you’ll recall, skated to Olympic gold in 2002 after all his competitors crashed on the final turn. Rikki Lambert says the comparison with Bradbury is not quite right: it’s more like they plucked Gichuhi from the stands, strapped on some skates and pushed her over the line.
Lambert had been Senator Bob Day’s chief of staff and Family First’s number one candidate. However, when the 2016 double-dissolution election was called and all Senate seats were thrown open, the incumbent Day took the top spot. Lambert couldn’t afford to give up his day job working for Day to campaign for what was an unwinnable spot. So he crashed out.
Enter Lucy Gichuhi, 55, a Kenyan immigrant and a mother of three daughters, who had switched careers from accountancy to law. She had just graduated from law school and was working in a women’s legal centre in Adelaide for the princely sum of $15 a day while working towards her practising certificate. A friend suggested she do an internship with Day to broaden her experience. So she went to Canberra for a week in May 2016, just two months before the election, having never met the senator. Day needed a running mate after Lambert’s exit and he chose Gichuhi, whom he barely knew. “I liked her approach with some of the things I’d been pushing with Family First — the right to work, property rights, a home of your own, freedom,” says Day. “She got it. She wasn’t government-dependent as so many people are.”
“I’d had three days of involvement with Bob and one week of interning in federal Parliament,” Gichuhi says with a big smile. She thought it would be an interesting experience and was told she’d have “0.01 per cent chance of ever being elected”. Day narrowly scraped into the last South Australian senate spot but four months later he too crashed out, resigning after his business went bust owing $40 million. In April this year, the High Court ruled his election had been invalid due to an “indirect pecuniary interest” in his electoral office.
Gichuhi held second spot on the Family First ticket and so the High Court eventually declared her the victor. She skated into the Senate — and into a $200,000-a-year job — as the first person of black African descent to be elected to the Australian Parliament. Family First had received just 24,817 votes above the line and only 152 people voted directly for Gichuhi. By the time she was sworn into Parliament, her party, Family First, no longer existed. She declined to join breakaway Liberal Cory Bernardi’s new Australian Conservatives party, which had merged with Family First, and now sits in the chamber as an independent.
If all the plastic chairs in the Pooraka Memorial Hall today were occupied it would just about add up to the number of votes she received. “With God,” shouts Rev Zipporah numerous times during her hour-long sermon, “nothing is impossible. Nothing. Amen!” It’s not hard to see how Lucy Gichuhi and her supporters see her election as some sort of divine intervention.
Gichuhi tells me she was driving through Adelaide when she heard the High Court decision had gone her way. She got a phone call from Family First’s Dennis Hood “wanting me to confirm if I was going to take the seat”. She said she would, then struggled to find a parking spot “so I could just pull over and soak it up and think, ‘What does this mean?’” But Hood had given her number to the media and her phone ran hot. She hadn’t even had a chance to call her husband, William. He knew she’d take it up. She’d lived her entire life seizing every opportunity that came her way. This wasn’t her first Bradbury moment but she’d never thought of a career in politics before.
After church, I join Lucy and William on the drive to the Adelaide Hills, where they go each Sunday for lunch. William, a quantity surveyor, is a thoughtful, gentle man with an air of gravitas — he offers words of wisdom when required but Lucy does most of the talking and we start with her early life. She was born in a village on the slopes of Mt Kenya, about two hours’ drive from the capital Nairobi, the first of 10 children, eight of them girls. The family lived in a two-room hut with a dirt floor and she shared a bed with her sisters. They had no electricity but she never thought of herself as poor. Her father, Justus, was a government school teacher and the family supplemented his meagre income by growing coffee and raising livestock on a small plot. Justus insisted his girls be educated. Lucy was a bright kid and he would tutor her and her siblings after school in areas in which he thought their teachers had been deficient. “I think my father was ahead of his time because he was always telling us, ‘You can do anything a boy can do’,” she says.
She remembers being six or seven when a young male teacher asked the boys in the class to pick the most beautiful girls. “So the boys start picking the girls and I am left out — I’ve been declared the most ugly girl in the class.” When she got home her father asked her why she was crying, and when she explained he said: “Beauty is in your character — beauty is in your brain. You are always topping that class and that makes you the most beautiful person.” Not long after this he moved his children to another school.
The beauty within, her intellect, would lift young Lucy out of poverty. She was one of a handful of kids chosen from her school to go to a nearby boarding school. And then she was one of a tiny number from that school to pass the rigorous entrance exam for Nairobi University, where she studied accountancy. In her final year recruiters from accounting giant Ernst & Young came to the university “and picked the top five students”, she says. There were 300 students in her course. “I happened to be in that top five.” It propelled the girl who had grown up on a dirt floor into the Kenyan middle class.
I chat on the phone to her father Justus, 83, at his home in Kenya. He tells me how proud he is of his daughter and how he wants to visit Australia and see her in the Senate. In an interview with a Kenyan newspaper he said Lucy had been a leader from an early age, both to her siblings and at school. “She was commanding, authoritative and her instructions would be taken seriously by everybody,” he said. Her sister, Josephine, said they all had high hopes for Lucy. “And now that she has become a senator, we think she can even be the president.”
Lucy and William met just before she started uni. What were their first impressions? “I just thought he was short and bald,” she says. He smiles and says, “I must have seen something that I liked.” They moved in together in 1987 and she fell pregnant with daughter Peris. “The baby was born in 1988 and we didn’t have a formal wedding until 1989,” William explains. He says this was controversial in conservative Kenya. “It is not the kind of thing that parents are thrilled about,” Lucy adds. It also increased the dowry price. How many goats was she worth, I ask. He explains, good-naturedly, that he’d been in a very poor negotiating position: she was university-educated and had already provided him with a child. “Heaven help you when you are in that position,” he says. The negotiations started at 10 cows, 50 goats and a cash payment in Kenyan shillings. “I said, ‘That’s too expensive, I’m out of here’,” says William. But they knew they had him. “I think I managed to get them down to about half of that … they knew I was serious.”
They couple worked as professionals in Kenya for about 10 years before a cousin moved to Germany and it sowed the seed that they could live and work abroad. “You get to a point, around the age of 30, when you are quite adventurous and you think you want to develop professionally,” Gichuhi says. “We’d been in a comfort zone for too long.”
They applied to come to Australia under the skilled visa program and were accepted. It was a great culture shock — they were among the first of the African migrants, arriving in the summer of 1999, and were not fully attuned to western ways and gadgets. In their Adelaide house “there was a piece of equipment, which had the shape of a tortoise, stuck to the wall,” Gichuhi recalled in her maiden speech. “For the first few days we stopped our children from touching or even going near it until we worked out what it was.” Their agent came to do an inspection and noted that the carpet was dirty. Lucy showed him how they swept it to try to keep it clean. The agent pointed to the tortoise on the wall and explained that it was a vacuum cleaner. The floors have been spotless ever since.
Gichuhi was raised a Catholic but she is not the hard-line, ultraconservative Christian I had expected. As we walk into a cosy little cafe in the Adelaide Hills village of Hahndorf, the conversation turns to the same-sex marriage survey. William and I order a German beer and Lucy explains her position. She voted “no” but she is not vehement on the subject. “It is not a big issue,” she says. “I respect people [in gay relationships] because for them to make that choice, it brings out who they are.”
She talks in a roundabout way for a long time, justifying her opposition, when William cuts in: “It is a bit like when your child comes to you and asks for advice and says, ‘I want to go this way or that way’. If you say I would advise you go this way and they choose the other path, you still support them.” And so, whichever way Australia decides, she will support the position. “I don’t operate on the extremes because the world we live in is about finding middle ground to coexist,” she says.
Her youngest daughter, Joy, 20, is studying to be a musician in Adelaide and tells me there have been some heated conversations around the kitchen table on this topic. Joy voted “yes”. “We both feel very strongly about it,” says Joy. “She is coming from a side of spiritual belief and I am coming from a side of human rights. You can only imagine how heated it can get. Dad is like Switzerland, somewhere in the middle.” William tells me his wife has had a dramatic shift in her attitude to homosexuality, “having grown up in a culture where simply talking about such matters could get you killed”.
However, in a statement she issued later on the subject she was much more emphatic than she’d been in our conversation. “If we experiment with marriage this time around, what is next?” she stated. “How far is too far? What will society look like in four or five generations to come? Society changes as it grows but it could lead to unintended consequences that could encroach into other aspects of society.”
Despite her political base, Gichuhi tells me she does not see herself as a warrior for the Christian right. “I am not here for the religious group … I am here for everyone.” She says she wishes the Christians in parliament would spend as much time and energy fighting for the poor and the elderly as they do fighting against same-sex marriage.
She’s determined not to get sidetracked by every issue that comes into parliament. She points to Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt, saying she was disgusted by it and saw it as a mocking gesture. Hanson’s crusade against the burqa and halal certification did nothing to address the issue of Islamic terrorism, she says. Gichuhi condemned the stunt when she appeared for a pre-scheduled interview on morning television the next day, but then didn’t waste any more time or energy on it. “I have limited time and I don’t have time to pick a fight with Pauline,” she says. “I need to focus on what is important.” She has chosen two issues to focus on during her time in parliament: the state of aged care in Australia and financial literacy. “They are issues that affect all of us, irrespective of our sexual orientation,” she says. “When people are sad and lonely in nursing homes and being badly cared for, I’m not so sure they are asking each other, ‘Are you in a same-sex marriage?’”
Former TV and radioman Ian Henschke is ushered into Lucy Gichuhi’s Adelaide office. He’s one of South Australia’s most familiar faces, having fronted ABC’s Stateline for a decade. He’s now the chief advocate for National Seniors Australia. They get through the small talk and down to business. There’s a looming crisis in aged care in Australia and it’s an issue that rarely rates a mention in the national media. “There are 5.5 million Baby Boomers,” says Henschke. “By 2050 we are going to need a million people to care for them. We need nurses. We need care workers. We need people who can go to their homes and help with cleaning and cooking and give people respite. We need to triple the number of aged care workers.”
Gichuhi listens intently and takes notes, occasionally asking a pertinent question. A few weeks after the meeting she visits a nursing home with Henschke, and he tells me he is impressed with her grasp of the issues. “I think she is someone who is committed to making a difference,” he says. “And this sector really needs a voice.”
Gichuhi intends to be that voice — and also a voice advocating for greater financial literacy. “How many people are terrified because they don’t have enough superannuation?” she asks rhetorically. “How many people are having to work until they drop dead because nobody told them they need to plan for retirement?” On most issues, however, she will support the Government. “I see my role in the Senate as supporting the government of the day to govern,” she says. “But I also listen to the Opposition to keep the Government honest, accountable, transparent.” She has mostly voted for the Government, but supported the Greens on bills for medical marijuana and removing the GST on tampons. She also opposes the plan to introduce a tough English language test to gain Australian citizenship.
Fellow South Australian Nick Xenophon says he has been impressed. “I think she is a great asset to the parliament,” he says. “She’s the first African in the parliament and I think she brings an interesting perspective. People shouldn’t underestimate her; she is very thoughtful and very considered.”
When I call another South Australian colleague, Cory Bernardi — the man she scorned — he’s not so effusive. “Discretion is the better part of valour,” says Bernardi. Is there anything you’d like to say about her on the record? “Nothin’,” he says.
Gichuhi says that for the time being she gets on well with everyone in parliament. “I am friends with everyone because I haven’t worked out who my enemies are yet.” On television she comes across as likeable, but she hasn’t yet managed the art of the pithy quote for the nightly news.
Gichuhi chose financial literacy as her second issue because of personal experience. When she and William arrived in Australia in 1999 with their three young daughters, Peris, Agnes and Joy, they got into financial trouble with credit card debts. “We were not able to resist the offers of multiple loans — a home loan, personal loans, car loans and credit cards,” she said in her maiden speech to the Senate. “Soon, we were stuck in the trap of paying huge amounts just to cope with these loans and the ever-increasing household bills.” They sought financial advice and the trauma was short-lived; by 2002, just three years after arriving in Australia, they’d purchased their first home. Then they just kept buying; at one stage they owned 10 houses. They now own six, with a combined value of more than $2 million.
Gichuhi’s politics are informed by her success. “I remember the first time we found welfare money in our bank account, shortly after our arrival in Australia,” she told the Senate. “We were terrified because we were not used to receiving money from strangers for nothing. All I knew is that the only time you get money is when you work for it. I said to my husband, ‘We will have to return it.’” Welfare, she believes, turns people into victims.
She and William are pin-ups for Australia’s targeted migration scheme. He found work as a quantity surveyor soon after arriving. Lucy turned up to her first job interviews at accountancy firms with baby Joy strapped to her back. “These people were looking at me strangely because I had turned up to an interview with a baby,” she says with a smile. After four months, having realised that a baby in a sling was not a great look in an Australian interview, she landed a job with the South Australian Auditor-General’s Department. She’s worked or studied ever since and became an Australian citizen in 2001 (thereby automatically nullifying her Kenyan citizenship and ensuring she avoided the dual citizenship scandal that has engulfed federal politics).
Her ethos is very much a free-market approach. She tells me she agreed with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he said that a job was the best form of welfare. But, I ask, isn’t the negative gearing that allowed you to buy all those houses just another form of welfare, locking young homebuyers out of the market? She argues that it allows people like her to get ahead and forces them to save. She will not be voting for any moves to remove negative gearing.
In many ways, hers is a very Australian story. There are millions of people like Gichuhi who packed up and moved their families across oceans to start a new life. Almost a third of us were born overseas. “She is an inspiration,” said Geoffrey Baraka from the SA Kenyan Association at the time of her swearing in. “Talk about Barack Obama becoming president of the United States. This is our Barack Obama. It is proof that Australia is for all, that Australia will give you a chance if you look for it and Australia is fair for all.”
Gichuhi knows the difficulties and joys of such a journey. She doesn’t intend to waste a moment before the next election. If she’s to be elected again, she’ll need more than a church-full.