We heard Kelly O’Shanassy would be a force to be reckoned with when she was appointed chief executive officer of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2015. On Tuesday she showed her mettle at a powerful speech at the Canberra Press Club.
In a presentation that drew strength from the recent Wentworth by-election that delivered a massive loss to the federal government, O’Shanassy laid out a gameplan that the sitting Liberal National Party Coalition should not ignore – but probably will.
Don’t underestimate the ACF, O’Shannassy said: it has half a million supporters across the country.
“Other environment groups boast similar numbers,” she said.
“And while I can see many in this room doing mental calculations in their heads about the combined populations of Newtown, Fremantle, West End and Brunswick, let me assure you that ACF’s supporters come from right across our country and all walks of life – rich and poor, young and old, city and rural.
“In fact, around half of our supporters live in rural and regional areas and the outer suburbs.”
This should not surprise, she said. People no longer congregate around broad political ideologies and major parties.
“Instead, they are drawn to issues that affect their lives, and the politicians that pledge to do something about it.”
The Wentworth by-election was evidence, she said. So was the exit polls by the Australia Institute, “which found 78 per cent of Wentworth voters said the issue had some influence on their vote.
“It strikes me that when progressive organisations like the Australia Institute and more conservative liberal MPs are on the same page, there must be something to it.”
Climate is no longer an inner city elite issue beloved of latte sippers, tree huggers, or Prius drivers.
It’s mainstream with concern from farmers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, IT workers, mums and dads, business executives, cooks, cleaners, school teachers and our grandparents.
The ACF, said O’Shannassy, “activating them all to be climate voters”.
She gave details: The ACF was working with One Million Women, the Stop Adani movement had already mobilised an army of volunteers who had already had 100,000 “climate conversations”.
Key targets are Chisholm and McNamara in Victoria and Bonner in Queensland, where internal polling showed that had climate change in their top issues of concern.
And in a reminder that should sting, O’Shannassy reminded the conservative anti-climate pollies that the ACF had conservative roots, founded on inspiration from Prince Philip and Chief Justice Sir Garfield Barwick in 1963.
The heat in the summer will help the cause. Penrith for instance that has already experienced temperatures of 47 degrees last summer “highs we expect in the deserts of Oman, not the suburbs of Sydney”.
The days of polite rhetoric would soon be a thing of the past O’Shannassy said, driven by the “irresponsible response of many of our elected representatives in Canberra who dismissed out-of-hand the scientific advice that we must rapidly phase-out coal”.
No time to be polite
“People in my position are often polite, not only because that is what our parents taught us but because we work with politicians, quietly yet persistently, to advance our cause.
“But as the IPCC findings show, this is no time to be polite. So, let me be clear.
“I am talking specifically about the response of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who repeatedly claims that Australia will meet our 2030 climate targets ‘in a canter’ despite the evidence showing otherwise.
“I am talking about the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, who declared the government would not change policy just because of ‘some sort of report’.
“I am talking about the Environment Minister, Melissa Price, who said getting rid of coal to save our Great Barrier Reef was a ‘long bow’.
“And I am disappointed to say that I am talking about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – who supports clean energy and his party has climate policies, but he says coal will be part of our future.”
We need a transition plan for people who work in coal
O’Shannassy said the ACF was putting forward a national Transition Authority “to oversee an orderly closure of Australia’s coal-fired power stations”.
“Good people work in these industries, they need a steady, well paid job to provide for their families,” she said. “The absence of a strong climate policy and transition plan abandons these people in the face of the inevitable change already underway.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Nature Conservation Council that said environment groups and unions were stepping in to provide the leadership on transition from coal.
“The NCC applauds the (mining union) CFMMEU’s effort to map a just transition for workers as we move away from coal and gas to clean energy sources,” said NCC Senior Climate and Energy Campaigner Dr Brad Smith.
“We have been calling on the Coalition government for several years to start planning for the transition to ensure workers and communities in the Hunter Valley, Central Coast and Lithgow are not left behind.
“It is a sad indictment of the Coalition government’s failure in NSW that unions, environment groups and other civil organisations are forced to take the lead on these issues.
“It is the government’s responsibility to coordinate society’s response to the challenges and opportunities the clean energy transition presents.
“Inexplicably, the O’Farrell, Baird and Berejiklian governments have all been missing in action. They have had almost eight years to develop a plan, but still they have nothing.
“It’s not just the impact of unplanned coal closure on these communities that concerns us.
“The Berejiklian government is ill prepared to deal with the industrial-scale toxic legacy these large polluting facilities will leave for future generations to manage,” NCC senior climate and energy campaigner Dr Brad Smith said.
“Local communities and taxpayers must not be left to clean up the mess that coal-fired power stations have created over decades.”
In Australia, 5.8 million tonnes of coal ash was disposed of in 2014-15, about 22 per cent of all waste disposed in Australia and the third largest waste stream behind construction and demolition waste, he said.
“Many coal ash dams are unlined, leach toxins, and will be an expensive toxic legacy that taxpayers will have to pay to manage for generations,” Dr Smith said.
“Working families and communities living near coal power stations will pay the cost if we don’t develop a plan to deal with these issues in a responsible and timely manner now.”
And from the kids we received the following:
My name is Harriet. I am in Year 8 and I live in Central Victoria.
This Thursday, I am going on strike from school in protest over our politicians’ inaction on climate change and the Adani coal mine.
And I’m not alone. My entire class is joining me, along with kids aged 6 – 17 from cities and towns across Australia.
On November 30, we’ll join with kids from across the country to strike together as part of Big School Walk-Outs in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Kids are invited to join us and adults invited to support us:*
- Melbourne: 12 noon, Friday November 30, outside VIC Parliament RSVP
- Sydney: 12 noon, Friday November 30, outside NSW Parliament RSVP
- Brisbane: 12 noon, Friday November 30, outside QLD Parliament RSVP
Most of us have never met one another, but we all share the same concern: our politicians are not doing enough to protect our futures from dangerous climate change. Instead, they are approving massive new coal mines that will wreck our future.
We don’t want to live in a world where 50 degree days are the norm, where the Great Barrier Reef is dead, where rain is a novelty, raging bushfires and severe storms the status quo.
Kids didn’t create this problem, but we are going to do all we can to help fix it. And our politicians should too.
In Australia, education is viewed as immensely important, and a key way to make a difference in the world. But just going to school isn’t doing anything about climate change. And it doesn’t seem that our politicians are doing anything, or at least not enough, about climate change either.
So, as our contribution to the changes we want to see, we are striking from school. We are temporarily sacrificing our education to tell our politicians to save our futures from climate wrecking projects like Adani’s coal mine.
Many of us will be striking throughout November as well. Whilst we’re on strike, we will visit our MPs to tell them what we’re doing and what we expect in return: urgent action to move Australia beyond fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy. We’ll also meet with other kids to spread the word.
All we are asking is for our politicians to start treating climate change for what it is — a crisis — and for them to act to stop more damage, so that we don’t inherit a miserable future.
I hope to see you on November 30.
*Adults are encouraged to come and support us but this is a kids’ event, so we won’t be having any adults speak.