Across the world on Friday 15th March, we saw a huge co-ordinated Global Climate Strike by school students to demand action on climate change.

In Australia, one hundred and fifty thousand school students and their supporters protested across the country in capital cities and regional centres. Their demands were:

  • Stop the Adani coal mine in central Queensland
  • No new coal or gas projects
  • 100 per cent renewables by 2030

Having attended the Sydney rally, it was a breath of fresh air from many other protests and rallies I had been to with plenty of energy, enthusiasm and people streaming out of Town Hall Square, unable to get in because it was full.

While a range of politicians did express support for the school strikes, it has not necessarily fully throated. Though NSW Labor leader Michael Daley expressed unequivocal support, Bill Shorten diverged, his comments primarily drawing critical comments from those online.

While Shorten’s comments that “kids are allowed to have an opinion” and “in an ideal world, they would protest after school hours and on weekends” were not as bad as initially characterised, it did highlight a lack of trust and the perception of his inauthenticity means it is very easy for some to think the worst of him and jump on him about it. Shorten has previously recognised that trust is an issue, stating that “Our deeper opponents are distrust, disengagement, scepticism and cynicism.” 

The small target calculation to hedge to stick to talking about his theme of the week, a “living wage”, may have allowed people to read their own meaning into his statement but it leaves few who saw it satisfied and misread a public mood that was supportive of their actions.

Climate is likely to be a defining political issue for the emerging generation. A recent piece in The Conversation pointed out that for young people, climate change is transforming their identity and challenges many of the long held tenets about representative democracy, hard work leading to a better future and acting ethically.

With climate change increasingly being tied to leadership and becoming a defining issue in elections, fudging it to avoid the issue may no longer pay off given the urgency and instead further undermine trust in democratic institutions at a time when it is needed most.

In an era of disillusionment with politics and low trust, rather than giving conditional acceptance, welcoming the kind of energy and passion that the school climate strikers exhibited might be what our democracy needs.

It may just help make the 2019 election a turning point to help rebuild trust and reinvigorate our democracy.