Wednesday, 16 November 2011

How it felt: The Passing of the Carbon Price

It’s a mild, almost cold morning on 8 November 2011, with storm clouds brewing over Australia’s capital city. As I walk through the foyer I consider the seemingly historic day and the lack of tourists at Parliament. Usually here during sitting days for both houses, and used to seeing streams of tourists, staffers, school children and security, the main foyer seems empty and bare. The cool marble of the columns and staircases seem to echo with my rushed footsteps, as I hurry to check my bag and wait in line to enter the Senate public galleries. Ushered through security and directed to the right, I shuffle in and take my seat facing the government. Despite the supposed emptiness of Parliament House earlier, the galleries are almost full, buzzing with excitement. There is a mix of people here, the schoolchildren across the way in yellow polo shirts and blue shorts, not terribly interested in the jargon being spoken from the President of the Senate’s chair. There are political staffers, dressed in their suits and heels, clutching passes and watching the proceedings with great interest, the bill being passed representing late nights and unpaid overtime, coffee runs and hurried breakfasts. The gallery seems excited, looking around, watching intently. The Press Gallery by comparison, sits looking bored, with their phones and laptops out, tweeting the events unfolding to their loyal followers.

The senators on the floor are going through the motions — all knowing the bill will pass but jostling each other anyway. Calls for a division are made with every vote, the opposition senators drawing out proceedings as best they can, trying to put off their inevitable defeat. Then it happens. The Clean Energy package, a set of 17 bills detailing the new Carbon Price system, passes with 36 votes to 31. The public galleries burst into applause, many standing up and cheering for the carbon tax. The Greens senators congratulate each other, shaking hands and hugging, as it is as much their victory as anybody else’s. Bob Brown and Christine Milne hug in a moment captured by a photographer, which will adorn the front page of The Daily Telegraph tomorrow.

The public galleries quickly empty once it is done, with the people hurrying out into the hallways and outside. By this time it has begun to sprinkle rain, with the promise of storm in the air. A white tent has been erected on the lawns of Parliament House, an event hosted by lobby group GetUp. There are people milling around inside and outside the tent, eating cupcakes with the word Yes on them, wearing t-shirts supporting the cause, clutching signs about clean energy futures and climate change. They are excited, talking quickly and taking in the event. A young boy rests on his father’s shoulders; an older woman takes her seat in the front row. Groups of people begin to gather in front of the speaker’s podium.

Mary Brownlee, a member of the stolen generation, speaks to me about her role as a teacher, and being here because she believes in Australia leading the way forward in the battle against climate change.

“I’m passionate about our world, about making it a better place. A better place for our children,” she says, obviously emotional about the day’s events. Our conversation is cut short as the rain begins to pour down in earnest and we are forced inside the tent, where people huddle together to hear speeches from activists, politicians, scientists. A message from prominent American Al Gore is read out to the cheers of the crowd. They cheer yet louder when Senator Penny Wong enters, reserving the loudest cheer for Christine Milne, who is given a hero’s welcome. The speeches are full of hope, with mentions of the challenges posed by the future. Tony Abbott has vowed to turn back the changes if he wins power in the next election, much to the dismay of the people here today. But Australian Youth Climate Coalition representative Rachel Lynskey will not be troubled by these claims.

“By the time the next election has passed it will be too late” she says. “Homes and business will have already made the change to the new way. I don’t think they can turn it back now.”

Some have called the day the dawning of a new age. On his blog, Al Gore himself wrote that “With this vote, the world has turned a pivotal corner in the collective effort to solve the climate crisis. . . . Today, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we do everything we can to ensure that this legislation is successful.” Only history will tell if the day is as important as the people in this shabby tent on a mild spring day believe it will be.

This was a colour piece written for my Print Journalism class and is also published on NOWUC, UC's journalism website.