Between the beige three storey block containing the Coles and the Mr Cappuccino, and the other beige three storey block containing Specsavers and Lotto, the kids start to assemble.
Coming into the “town square” of sorts, pouring in from their nearby colleges/academies/grammars (argh call ’em high schools), getting off the shiny red tram which ends here. School strike for climate, and here we are in Gungahlin, a new exurb of Canberra and the terminus of its light rail — a single line which seemed to preoccupy the politics of the capital for a decade.
The light rail streaks out of central Canberra and soon hits empty plains. Then Gungahlin rises from nowhere, a new town on the British model rather than the ghastly Canberra ‘burbs. There’s a crossroad and a square with a buckyfuller geodesic dome. It’s a sort of large open trellis gazebo thing, which manages to be both unattractive and also useless against the biting wind and rain. Still got it, ACT!
It hasn’t discouraged the kids though. About 150 or so gather, together with a few olds from the advance guard of the Stop Adani convoy hitting town the day after. They’re revved up already; primary schoolers with their parents, 16-year-old leaders with megaphones working the crowd: “what do we do when the planet is under attack? We fight back!”; “we’ll stop acting like adults, when you start”; and “hey hey, ho ho, Zed has got to go” — a reference to the ACT’s Liberal Christian-right senator Zed Seselja.
It’s a tough audience for anyone over 20 to talk to. I watch Tim Hollo, Greens candidate for the new seat of Canberra, focusing hard before speaking. He’s right to. Earlier, after a couple of strike speakers and someone from the convoy had the crowd roaring approval, Anthony Pesec — the blue-green independent senate candidate in a Turnbull-esque casual jacket and slacks — had gone down like a lead balloon.
“Politicians have got it wrong, renewables are easy, emissions are easy,” Pesec told a crowd defying authority to rebel against extinction. You could hear the vacuum that opened up at that. “You were really bad,” I told him afterwards, with admirable impartiality. “You’ve got to read the audience. The solutions might be straightforward but people struggling to get them through don’t think so.”
“Happy to have the feedback,” he said, clearly not.
Hollo does it differently and talks of the necessity of struggle. But he doesn’t shy away from the pitch: “You’ve got to get people out to vote Greens, to get Zed out so we can be there to work with you!”
It’s finely judged, touch and go, but he gets a cheer. Irony of ironies: the kids see a Greens politician, neat dark hair and designer frames, slim in a dark blue suit. Yet until recently, Tim was the last hippy, in long hair and rainbow knit, part of key Greens policy-making for more than a decade and as comfortable in the crowd as on the stage.
At the candidates climate forum, deep in the ANU quarter of the city the previous night. The ANU used to be squat red brick buildings and a room with a pie warmer and a kettle at one end. Now it’s shimmering towers of glass and 189 Asian restaurants. The future of the future is here.
“The question is: do you agree or disagree that there should be no new coal mines authorised?” said the chair.
“Can I say I neither agree nor disagree?”
It’s answers like that, from Labor candidate Alicia Payne, that makes the Greens think they’re in with a real chance in Canberra. The seat has changed, after a third ACT seat, Bean, was carved out of the ACT ‘burbs last redistribution. Canberra now covers the city’s core, stuffed full of academics, students, public servants.
The audience that night — postgrad students, like someone threw a Big Bang Theory party and eighty people turned up — were Canberra central. They groaned audibly at Payne’s answer: “Answer the question!” a couple of people called. Payne couldn’t, of course, and neither could Andrew Leigh, MP for the safe Labor seat of Fenner to Canberra’s west. Labor’s coal and climate policy is everything to everyone. You can, as some do, run against your own party, though Leigh and Payne are too good Labor soldiers to do that. But they also have a curious blitheness about the urgency of these questions, both in the debate room and the world.
“We’re all green nowadays. We all recycle and count our carbon miles,” Leigh said, before going on to talk about the “virtual legal impossibility” of stopping new mines, as if we should all choke to death on a tort. Leigh is a good man, a passionate advocate for progressive Labor values and a fairer society. But like many people who were inspired to politics early in life by the Labor vision, he simply cant feel in his bones the way that the environment has come to the centre of politics, remade what politics is.
Hollo went on the attack, targeting Labor and scooping up Pesec’s “she’ll be right” argument as well: “Look, if you want a barrier reef, if you want an atmosphere, it’s got to happen very fast. It’s not easy, it’s very complicated, it’s going to be hard. Labor will always backslide without the Greens there. It’s agriculture, it’s the oceans, it’s the future of our cities, it’s not an optional extra.”
There was a hard edge in his voice, a man who was once the most gentle of the “old Greens”. It got applause. Will it be enough to carry him over the line?
The school strike winds up with a march on Seselja’s office — two hundred kids and adults streaming through Gungahlin’s ticky-tack streets, shouting down the town, watched by supportive or bewildered adults and uniformed kids (climate scabs — I’m joking, I’m joking, OK). The leaders — a year 12 named Tahli working the megaphone — kept it up for half an hour.
“They need a finale,” I mutter to Hollo as we stand watching from outside a pizza joint opposite. They get one: knocking on the glass door to Seselja’s office, fifty sets of knuckles crowded in, the noise like rain, like a hail of stones.
All power to those at 18, 16, 15 who find within themselves with the power to lead. Put your thumb on the megaphone’s talk button and never let it up. Parliament, in that sense, is just another megaphone, a big one, but one among thousands.
People say this is a boring election. Get off the media sidewalk and into the street. On the ground, people are ripping it up, in every corner of the country.