Home World Australia The kids didn’t stay in school, and the politicians lost their cool

The kids didn’t stay in school, and the politicians lost their cool

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By the time you're reading this, civilisation may have collapsed. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of students across the country marched in the streets to protest government inaction on climate change.

This meant they missed approximately three hours of school on a Friday afternoon – between midday, when the strike began, and knock-off time at 3-ish.

As anyone with passing knowledge of the childish and adolescent attention spans will attest, these hours are probably not the most productive of the school week.

But they are school hours nonetheless, and they should be treated with reverence, for they are full of potential knowledge.

Thousands of people attended the global climate strike on Friday in Sydney.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

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This seems certainly to be the view of Liberal MP Craig Kelly, whose own reverence for knowledge, admittedly, stops at the metaphorical door of climate science, in which he does not believe.

Did science class at Kelly’s alma mater fall in the educational dead zone of midday to 3pm on a Friday afternoon? Is that why he seems to have absorbed so little of it? We shall never know, but we do know that on Thursday he stood in parliament and told the thousands of students planning to join Friday’s climate strike that “everything you are told is a lie”.

Kelly even invoked his own data point – the polar bear index.

“The facts are, there is no link between climate change and drought. Polar bears are increasing in number,” he said.

“Today’s generation is safer from extreme weather than at any time in human history.”

Kelly may be far out on the frilly edge of the climate denial wave, but he has been an influential figure in the government, a strong lobbyist for coal, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison personally intervened to save his pre-selection last year.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann also told students to stay in school (given the subject matter, none of them were bold enough to add the traditional “be cool!” to their imperative).

Earlier in the week Education Minister Dan Tehan took the finger-wagging to a tertiary level when he admonished medicine students at the University of Melbourne.

He was responding to a report that the head of the Melbourne Medical School had emailed students saying the faculty supported students “taking appropriate action to demonstrate their beliefs”.

The point of the email seems to have been to ask students not to miss clinical appointments (as opposed to classes, which was okay).

However, it was interpreted by some as a totalitarian diktat from the notorious socialists who comprise the medical establishment.

Conservative think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, was scandalised by the idea of university students taking Friday arvo off.

“Australians want doctors who are trained to diagnose and treat illness, not doctors who have been trained as eco-warriors,” said the IPA’s Bella d’Abrera.

The Australian Medical Association, recently recognised climate change as a “health emergency”, so it seems doctors do not see any conflict between redress of climate change and care for patients. Quite the opposite.

The AMA is an established, mainstream institution which is hardly known for its radicalism. Ditto the Melbourne medical school.

This cuts to the heart of the threat posed by the hordes of students who turned out on Friday. The goal of the successful activist movements of history, has been to broaden the appeal of the cause and take it mainstream, so that ordinary people, those not engaged with politics, and who don’t generally have much truck with politicians, nonetheless support the cause.

The goal of the lobby is to have its principles accepted (if not actively promoted) by the same sorts of people Scott Morrison calls the ''quiet Australians''.

They may not march in the streets, but they will nod in recognition to those who march past them.

But the creep into the mainstream, and into the establishment, of the dangerous idea that government should take stronger action on climate change, is threatening to a government with no appetite or will to do so.

Wherever government neglects a pressing issue for too long, the slack inevitably gets taken up by the other tentacles of civil society – business, not-for-profit groups, students and unions.

It gets harder, then, for opponents, including those in government, to argue the cause is fringe, something only pushed by ideologues.

Last week we saw Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Ben Morton attempt to stamp his foot on one of these tentacles – corporate Australia – in a speech he gave at an Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry event.

He said that “too often I see corporate Australia succumb or pander to … pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders”.

“Business should not be seduced by the noisy elites who try to bend business to their narrow viewpoints.”

Morton told the business leaders to “instruct your public affairs units – instead of pretending you love paying tax or that you’re building electric cars rather than mining coal, or are in the solar panel rather than the oil or gas business, tell your employees and the quiet Australians in their communities – what you can do for them.”

The raison d'etre of companies is, of course, to maximise shareholder value. My hazy memory of corporate law – at least of the classes that didn’t fall on Friday afternoons – is that it compels directors to do precisely that.

But this profit motive is not without constraints.

We already accept that, for example, companies also have obligations to their employees, and to the general public, in the form of respecting environmental regulations to dump waste, or pay tax. We know they form part of the social fabric.

Most importantly, they employ the same people they service as customers. And those employees and customers expect business to align broadly with their values – increasingly so.

It was easy for the politicians of the Vietnam-era to paint the war's opponents as law-breaking hippies. It is less easy to demonise school children, although we have seen such grubby attempts at it. Even still, the public was convinced on Vietnam. Some time later, after much suffering, the politicians followed where the people lead them.

Twitter: @JacquelineMaley

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Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards

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