Jo Clay - Inaugural Speech to the ACT Legislative Assembly


Madam speaker, I seek leave to give my first speech.

I'd like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people whose lands we meet on. I pay respects to their elders, past, present and emerging. I acknowledge them as the true custodians of this land and I will try and learn from our First Nations peoples and care for our land better.

Now that we're in a climate emergency, what are we going to do about it?

I am seriously worried about climate change. I've known about it my whole life. Back when I was a kid, we called it the greenhouse effect. I thought that by the time I grew up, someone else would have fixed it. But no one has.

I grew up in a world of denialism. There were endless tedious debates about whether the climate was changing and whether it might be a result of human activity.

In the late nineties when I was at Uni, Australia signed the Kyoto protocol. Great, I thought. That's settled it. We've accepted the problem. Now someone can fix it.

I was wrong.

We've since had two more decades of rising emissions. Two more decades of missed opportunities. It's 2020 and I don't need to tell you what that means. The predictions made by Ross Garnaut in his 2008 climate report have come true. Flood. Drought. Hail. Heat. Fire. Climate change is here and it's a blazing disaster.

I don't come from a line of prophets and doomsayers. I come from lawyers and artists.

My dad, Peter Clay, was a really good lawyer and a very kind man. He helped a lot of people by quietly getting on with the job.

My uncle on one side and my aunt on the other were artists. I can think of no greater joy than making something just because you want to.

So I went to Uni and I studied law and creative arts. I had a lot of fun and then I had a career. I worked on legislation and policy. It was a good way to make money but I came to doubt each role, no matter how rewarding it was.

What's the point, I thought. This doesn't deal with the real problem.

I've taken a lot of gap years in my life. My first was at seventeen and I worked in an English boarding school. I travelled about with a very good friend and I've been addicted to wandering ever since. I’ve lived in several countries and I’ve done a lot of snowboarding and diving and some fun silly stuff. I have lived two entirely perfect days, which is two more than most people get.

But I'm flying away from the problem, I thought as I tore off the lid on another airline meal and listened to the jet engines. And I'm making it worse.

I like to create things. I've made stories and books and films and mucked about with art. I won some awards and had a book published. But that nagging voice continued. I realised that everything I made was about apocalypse. There's a reason our TV screens are full of end-of-the-world fiction. Ecological disaster and social collapse and armies of zombies mindlessly consuming the world. Our artists can't imagine any other future. For many, it's already here.

That's the first half of my speech and the first half of my life. Now let's get on to the hard bit. Why am I here in this Assembly? Because we're in a climate emergency.

Change is no longer a choice. Change is already happening.

The EV didn't ruin the weekend and the greenies didn't cancel Christmas. The bushfires did that.

Green tape didn't kill business. Smokepocalypse did.

The hippies aren't coming for your steak. The cows died in the drought.

It's 2020, the year of the mask, and now we're living through another disaster. This one isn't caused by climate change. Coronavirus has disrupted everything about how we work and play and make our money and spend our time. One point five million people have died around the world. Everyone's affected. There is a lot of suffering. But there is also hope. For the first time in my life, global emissions have dropped.

Coronavirus hit the pause button. So what are we going to do?

I've learned a lot since accepting I'm part of the problem. I've learned far more working on solutions than I ever did running away from them. For a start, I learned the word 'no'.

I've been in the environmental movement my whole life but that mostly involved signing petitions, writing emails, donating money and agreeing that everything was awful.

I stood up for real after having a baby. Like many new parents, I looked at my daughter and I looked out the window at the world she was inheriting, and I said no. I joined the protest movement.

Climate activism is a global phenomenon and Canberra's no exception. We have 350, XR, Knitting Nanas, the Artivists, Stop Adani and more. I've helped out where I can. I've seen arresting art and actual arrests. Giant banners and bigger boycotts. Grannies that shut down banks by sitting quietly outside with their knitting.

And then there are the School Strikers. I've marched with my daughter alongside thousands of children. I've listened to them beg for their lives. Like any grown-up with a beating heart, I find this part of the movement incredibly painful. The kids put it best in their own words. Here are a few of their slogans.

Why go to school if you don't listen to the educated?

If you act like children, we'll act like adults.

I've seen smarter cabinets at Ikea.

You'll die of old age, we'll die of climate change.

Our children will die of climate change. All we have to do to make this happen is nothing.

Why aren't those kids in charge? I thought. I can't wait to see it when they are.

But we don't have time to wait and it's not their job to fix this. It's ours.

Despite my fears for the future, I'm a positive person at the core. As well as learning how to say no, I've learned how to say yes.

I began my post-graduate education with Pedal Power. I started out as a bureaucrat who liked bikes. After eight years I transformed into a lycra-clad street warrior. It was a joyous adventure. Cycling is the most delightful treatment for whatever ails you. Climate change, congestion, obesity, poor mental health. It doesn't matter what your problem is, cycling's your solution, for those fortunate enough to be able to ride.

I wanted to learn more about environmental management so I took a job in waste. I then partnered up with a colleague on a recycling venture. National recycling expert, Graham Mannall, came up with a neat idea to tackle a problem waste stream. We threw it together and patented it and launched Send and Shred. I learned business, ecommerce and the white-knuckle hope of the start up.

I had the great privilege of working with the talented team at the Green Shed. Sandie, Charlie, Elaine and Tiny have been rolling out local solutions to the world's big problems for years. Between them they've built dozens of successful businesses, saved over 70,000 tonnes from landfill, donated over a million dollars to charity and supported a rich ecosystem of artists, entrepreneurs and traders. They've been personally applauded and nationally lauded. They've even been effigised in cake. Tiny has a simple life motto that drives him through his philanthropy. If you can, you should. It's a powerful motto.

A little rubbed off on me so while running Send and Shred, I decided to set up a new venture to tackle climate change. Something small and manageable, I thought. How about cutting 75% from my carbon footprint?

I learned carbon accounting and web development and set up the Carbon Diet. I slashed my footprint and that of the average Australian through a series of one-week experiments. Fly less. Swap steak for chicken and snowboarding for surfing. Turn down the heater. Try out an EV.

Our Federal Government makes so much fuss about tiny cuts so I assumed my ambitious target would be a spectacular failure. I finished earlier this year. While the Federal inventory claimed a 0.1% emissions cut, mine cut 77%. Apparently, I'm 7,700 times more effective than our Federal Government. It's almost as if they're not really trying.

While my project succeeded, my mission's in peril. I always intended to finish my climate change project by looking at its victims. I planned to interview an overseas refugee from some remote island that was sinking into the sea. Tuvalu or Kiribati or the Marshall Islands. Someone else from somewhere else. But this year, I've had climate refugees living in my house. Theirs burned down in the fires. My final interview wasn't with some foreigner from a distant place. It was with Ted Pettigrove, volunteer Patrol Captain for the Broulee Surf Club. Ted found a new role on New Year's Eve running an evacuation centre on our local beach. This is what climate change feels like.

I've been exchanging pleasantries with the Greens my whole life but I only recently came to the party. Like many Canberrans, I've always viewed politics with fascinated distaste. When I was a public servant, it never seemed right to join a political party, although public servants can join and the world would be better if more did. I voted Green. I watched what Greens did. My heart broke every time a Green idea failed or, more often, was killed.

I was particularly interested in the ACT Greens who had somehow managed to enter not only the Assembly, but government itself. I crossed paths with Shane and Caroline while working on cycling, recycling, plant foods and climate change. I watched what they said but more importantly, I watched what they did.

Caroline told us at a 2010 climate rally that we'd have 100% renewable electricity by 2020. Pfft, I thought. What a crazy dream. Yet here we are.

With Greens in the Assembly, Canberra passed one climate milestone after another. Declaring a state of climate emergency. Setting a real action plan. Making big cuts to our emissions. Rolling out effective transitions. I saw a salve to the great despair of why people in power do nothing for the climate. Some do and more could.

A little over a year ago, I had a conversation with another renowned Green, Tim Hollo. We talked activism and the environment. We talked about Belconnen. I said I grew up in Weetangera and I lived in Macquarie with my family and I adored the whole place. Tim asked me an intriguing question.

Could I run?

It had never occurred to me to enter politics. But I desperately wanted more environmentalists in every parliament at every level. If not me, then who?

I thought about Tiny. I could, so I did.

It's not easy running a political campaign. I don't mean for the candidates, although we do work hard. But there are so many other people behind the scenes slogging their guts out. It is a huge drain on their time and energy and it comes at no personal gain and often great cost. We have a huge community of staff and volunteers and members. I would particularly like to thank Adam, Adele, Annie, Barbara, Ben, Callum, Chris, Clancy, Eddy, Fiona, Hugh, John, Josie, Maverick, Michael, Nick, Peter, Paul and Trevor. Thank you all. We would not hold these seats without you.

My support candidates, Katt Millner and Tim Liersch, led volunteers and listened to the community and kept coming back for more no matter how much I asked of them. Thank you. You both did an amazing job.

 My partner Rob and my daughter Xander have been incredibly supportive and have put up with my constant distraction and frequent absence. I love you both.

We Greens have been extremely lucky this year because no matter how much people give, a campaign doesn't always lead to a seat. This one led to six. I'm blessed with a spot at this table. I will do my absolute best to use it for the climate.

I'm glad that here in the ACT, politics has moved beyond outright denialism. That election proved it. The ANU's Smartvote survey asked each candidate two questions about climate change. The responses showed that while plenty of climate denialists ran, none were elected. In this building at least, we've moved beyond the toxic debate about whether climate change is happening and whether people are responsible for it. It is and we are.

But the older I get, the less I care about what people say. I care more about what they do. It's a better guide to what they believe and it shows what they'll actually achieve.

Don't talk to me about food politics. Show me your dinnerplate and I know who you are.

I'm not interested in theories of divestment. Give me five minutes with your accountant.

It's a frightening position, I know. Anyone who aims for an ideal is doomed to fall short. The only thing Australians hate more than a hypocrite is a politician. I guess I'll have to live with being both.

But that doesn't matter. We are in a climate emergency and I know what we need to do. We need to do everything and we need to do it now. I will try my best for the climate. I will do it for the planet and for today's refugees. I will do it for the school strikers until they are old enough to take over from me. I will do it for my daughter and for hers, assuming we are lucky enough and bold enough to succeed.