Tell the Truth: An Interview With the People’s Climate Assembly’s John Wurcker

by Paul Gregoire

The People’s Climate Assembly (PCA­) is an alliance of action groups that have joined forces to stand against the continued climate denialism that the Liberal Nationals government has been propagating over the last decade.

And to coincide with the first sitting week of parliament for 2020, the PCA has come together at Parliament House in Canberra to conduct a five day-long action, with the aim of getting the politicians sitting inside to tell the truth and declare a climate emergency.

Of course, whilst federal politicians have been on summer break, great swathes of the country have burnt to the ground. And the response from the government – especially the Hawaiian holidaying PM – sparked widespread public outrage.

Indeed, the force of this summer’s unprecedented bushfire crisis didn’t just destroy millions of hectares of forest, but it also resulted in the destruction of the decades-long myth that those who raise concerns around climate are simply “greenie extremists”.

Rallying for change

The nonviolent event kicked off on Sunday, 2 February, with members of various climate groups gathering on the lawns of parliament to join with those at the close to half a century old Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which is prominently involved in the action.

Tuesday was the first sitting day of both houses of parliament for 2020. This was also the day of the main PCA rally, which involved thousands of concerned citizens descending upon Parliament House to let prime minister Morrison know that they’ve had it with his pandering to the fossil fuel industry.

And there were some big names speaking at the rally. Former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown spoke. There was First Nations water activist Bruce Shillingsworth. While Dr Karl Kruszelnicki compered the event.

Following the speakers, those gathered then conducted a peaceful encirclement of Parliament House. The participants dressed in yellow and orange symbolising the bushfires, and they also sported black armbands emblazoned with the word “Declare”.

It’s only just begun

As the main rally took place, a bushfire continued to burn around 30 kilometres away from the site. And a state of emergency had just been in play in the ACT, where the Orroral Valley bushfire has burnt almost a fifth of the territory.

The PCA coalition is made up of a variety of action groups, including School Strike 4 Climate, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and Frontline Action on Coal. And it’s escalating natural events like the fires that have led them to declare that they’ll be continuing on.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke with PCA spokesperson John Wurcker about his expectations that Australian politicians will soon fall into line, why humanity is running out of time, and how Indigenous understanding of the environment needs to be reawakened in all of us.

Firstly, you’re gathered out the front of parliament in Canberra for a five day protest action, where a bushfire related state of emergency has just been called off.

The current bushfire crisis has brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of public awareness. Mr Wurcker, do you think we’ve reached a tipping point in this nation in terms of the wider community’s understanding of the threat that changing climate poses?

On Q&A last night, a senator tried to suggest that the evidence wasn’t complete on climate change being manmade. And he was basically howled at by the crowd.

We’re getting such cooperation from authorities across the board, from the National Capital Authority, the AFP and the traffic authority.

And that’s because they’re fulfilling their duties to keep people safe, but also, they’re very sympathetic to the cause, as they’ve got children. They’re got grandchildren. And they know that we’ve got a limited time left to make a huge difference.

Given that rising climate awareness, how would you describe the form of the Morrison government, when it comes to acting upon the climate science that’s been available to it since its inception? And how do you account for the direction it’s taken us in?

In short, the advances that we’ve made in reducing carbon emissions in Australia is despite government policy, not because of it.

They have all the way dragged their feet. They haven’t put forward a consistent energy policy that would encourage logical investment towards renewables. They haven’t taken into account that the economic future of this country will be based on renewables.

As Ross Garnaut said, we can be the energy capital of the world. But, the government is just so tied in with the status quo, because it suits them.

It suits their constituent. And it suits the people that pay them the most money. But, even there, you see the rhetoric move. They’ve all got hearts. They’ve all got children. And eventually, it will change. The thing is not if it will change, but when it will change.

At some stage, we’re going to leave all the fossil fuel in the ground. And people will say, “What the hell took you so long.” It will happen, it’s just when.

And that’s our mission. We’ve got to declare a climate emergency. It’s one critical step. And it will take us closer than we would otherwise be.

The People’s Climate Assembly began on Sunday. The week-long event coincides with the first sitting days of parliament for 2020. Today, Tuesday, is the main rally day. What’s the turnout you’ve got down there like?

We’ve got somewhere over 500 at the moment. Our support act is five federal politicians that will be ready to speak in the next half hour. That will include the new leader of the Greens. And then the lead act with Dr Karl and the main speakers is coming on.

People are coming from across Australia. We’re expecting within the order of 30 to 40 busloads of people to still arrive. And a lot of Canberrans will be arriving closer to 12 pm, when the main speakers start.

Also, a lot of them will want to be involved in the encirclement of parliament at 1.30 pm.

From the multiple events you’ve got going over the week, one that caught my attention is Pollie Watch. It’s being held each morning on the three sitting days of parliament. Can you explain what that’s about, and how the event went this morning?

That’s publicising something that has happened on most sitting days within the last six months. It has largely been organised by Stop Adani, but more recently, it’s been shared with XR, as there are four entrances to Parliament House to cover.

Basically, when the politicians come to work, they will go past a lot of placards. Some of them say, “Honk for Climate”. But, the main one that gets their attention, especially when they see it day after day is “Tell the Truth”. Because they all know.

Last year, I went for three or four days. And at first, a lot of politicians would look away, or pretend they were playing on their smartphones. But, after about three days, even the hardened ones would give a smile or a wave.

We know that the human brain is plastic. And what makes it change is repetition. So, each morning they’re seeing “Tell the Truth.” And that’s sinking in.

Last year, they had about a dozen people doing that at each entrance. But, I understand, they had probably a couple of hundred this morning, because there’s so many people in town.

Muruwari and Budjiti activist Bruce Shillingsworth is speaking at the rally today. And the PCA has been in consultation with the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.

Currently, Aboriginal communities in NSW are being hit hardest by the water crisis. And there’s been a lot of talk around how the wider Australian community could learn from First Peoples regarding the management of this continent’s environment.

What’s your take on how the climate crisis is impacting First Nations communities, as well as how Indigenous knowledge could improve the worsening conditions?

Bruce stayed with me last night. He’s stayed with me the other times he’s been down in Canberra recently. And he’s just been out at Brewarrina to lobby for more water for the community.

We also have very close links to the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. And they’re playing a major role today.

First Nations people have a spiritual connection to the land. They cannot understand how we can do what we do. And to me, we’ve lost that spiritual connection. All of us would have had a spiritual connection to some land in the past.

Real change will involve us realising that when we hurt anything, we hurt ourselves. Everything is connected. That might be a bit spiritual, but we’re seeing scientists tell us that.

Why are we losing all the insects? Why are they not pollinating? Mother Nature, the Earth, is coming back to bite us. It’s not just the fires and the floods. It will impact us in so many ways. And it’s the people who contributed least to the problem, who are the most vulnerable.

I’ve worked in developing countries most of my life. It’s Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands that are going to suffer most.

It’s not well-heeled people in Australia, especially city people. Of course, until a bushfire comes along and burns half of Sydney, which it will if we don’t act soon.

The agricultural system is going to have to change dramatically. I’m from a third generation farming family in the Hunter Valley. And the smart farmers know it. They’re aware that climate change is going to stuff them.

We are having less rain. It’s getting hotter. When it does rain it’s coming in small events: hard rain, which is of little or no benefit.

And lastly, Mr Wurcker, the People’s Climate Assembly is in Canberra right now trying to get the current government to admit that there’s a climate emergency, however it seems that vested interests have got the Coalition sticking to its denial stance to the detriment of the globe.

In your opinion, how much longer can the government continue to propagate the idea that there’s no climate crisis? And what’s going to get us to the point where denial is no longer something it can get away with?

They’re changing slowly. However, at some stage, there will be so many people calling for action – say by budget time. By then, they’ll find there’s a peaceful crowd at Parliament House, and it will be much bigger in numbers.

So, by budget time?

Yeah. I think so. This is a dialogue. A message giving. It’s movement building. We’re not going to go away.

I’m just about to become a grandfather. I’ve used these resources for 62 years. This is my payback.

Photos taken by Leo Bild.

Author

Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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