There was a stark juxtaposition outside of Sydney’s Town Hall before Wednesday’s climate rally: as thousands of protesters gathered in the hour preceding the event, a giant Christmas tree loomed over them while people dressed in clashes of red and green, some in Santa hats, hurried to seasonal parties and pub crawls.
In a couple of hours, the crowd of protesters would swell to approximately 20,000 impassioned Australians. They took to the streets to protest the climate emergency and bushfires that have befallen their country and covered Sydney in a blanket of thick smoke for weeks. They would listen to inspiring speakers, raise their voices and hold handmade signs to the sky. They would march.
The symbols of December normalcy that existed alongside the gathering procession — the upcoming holidays, work, frivolity, stress — served as a subtle reminder that one protest, even two, need to serve as stepping stones if we are to see change.
That isn’t to say this protest wasn’t an impressive step, though.
Dubbed ‘NSW is Burning, Sydney is Choking – Climate Emergency Rally’, the event was pulled together in mere days by Extinction Rebellion, Uni Students for Climate Justice and NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge.
It was organised in response to the catastrophic fires ravaging NSW and other parts of the country, and sought to demand immediate climate action, funds for fire services and protection against smoke for workers.
Protesters were encouraged by the organisers to wear P2 masks, not only for protection against the polluted Sydney air, but “as a symbol of the climate crisis and public health disaster we’re facing.”
Once the growing crowd began to file into Town Hall Square, it became evident that this was going to be a significant protest for Sydney. People were angry. They were organised. They were en masse.
A sea of signs and outrage welcomed the speakers who stood on the steps above to address the growing crowd.
They heard from Shoebridge, a health care professional from the Nurses’ Union, as well as one of the organisers, Chloe Rafferty. All expressed their anger at the lack of policy and action regarding climate change.
Fire Brigade Employees Union state secretary, Leighton Drury, also took to the stage to state that these are the worst fires that he has seen in twenty years on the job. He called for budget and policy to help firefighters take on the blazes spreading across the country.
“Year after year since [the Liberal party] got in, in 2011, fire services have had their budgets cut and we’re on the bones of our arse,” he said. “Our members are saving lives, property, wildlife, stock and pets. Our professional firefighters are spread thin and our volunteers are exhausted.”
Drury went on to remind the crowd that fires have been burning for three months and they will most likely continue for another three. He said more than 2.5 million hectares of land has already been burnt, despite only being eleven days into summer.
But he said there is a solution, and that it should be a “simple” one.
“Firefighters put out fires. That’s what we do. Politicians put out policies and budgets … We need policy and budget that reflects what we see during a fire season,” he told the crowd.
The protest also served as a reminder of how the bushfires and the subsequent smoke is impacting workers’ rights.
A wharf worker and Maritime Union Association representative Nat Wesley described to the crowd what it has been like to be forced to work outside in dangerous conditions under threat of being stood down.
“As a wharfy, it’s a high risk environment. We work in heat. We work in rain. We’re exposed to diesel particles and dust. But like you, we have never, ever experienced what has been happening over the past couple of weeks and it’s not covered by our current work agreement,” she said.
Last week, around one hundred workers took action due to feeling unsafe to work under the terrible air quality conditions in Sydney. According to Wesley, many were stood down by their bosses and docked pay despite exercising their right under the health and safety act to not work if you feel there is an imminent risk to your safety.
She described how her own managers tried to force wharf employees at Port Botany to continuing working in Tuesday’s smoke haze “as normal”.
“One of them had the absolute gall to say to me that it was just like working in fog,” Wesley said.
“It took a fire alarm being set off in our operations building by that smoke and the managers themselves being forced to come out and stand in it for them to finally concede and give us some reprieve not only from the smoke, but their threats to stand us down.”
An indigenous speaker also educated the crowd on the impact that mining has had on the land, as well as the climate.
Climate activist Gavin Stanbrook laid the blame at the feet of the both the Liberal and Labor parties.
“These people are whetted to the project of digging every ounce of coal out of the ground. What a disgrace,” he said.
‘Disgrace’ was a term repeated often during his speech and was always met with cries of “Shame” from the rapt crowd.
He attached the phrase to those driving coal and uranium mines around the country and linked it back to the destruction of native land.
“In Western Australia right now the state Labor government is trying to tear up native title to build a uranium mine. Clearly the relationship between the fight against the climate crisis and the fight against racism and the fight for land rights is fundamentally connected. We cannot fight one without the other,” said Stanbrook.
Stanbrook said Australians can’t rely on either side of the bench when they continue to support coal mining and send firefighters onto the front lines with inadequate equipment and resources.
“These people, we cannot rely on them. We have to rely on ourselves and protests like this,” he said.
Once again, declarations or “disgrace” and “shame” echoed across Town Hall Square.
Not long after, the crowd was invited to march — energised and inspired by the speakers.
They took to the streets with signs, chants and music. The air was thick with determination. The half-hour procession between Town Hall and Hyde Park punctuated a two hour period where it felt like 20,000 people could take on the world.
But of course, the protest had to end at some point. As the crowd began to dissipate it made one wonder what the next steps would be. Would everything we just witnessed actually force change?
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge certainly thinks so.
“I think what we’re seeing here is the start of a growing movement. A mass globalisation. And that’s going to make both our state and federal governments increasingly illegitimate. They don’t have any answers to climate change. They seem committed to extracting more coal, continuing to log our forests and pretending its business as usual,” he said in a post-rally interview with Gizmodo Australia.
“Tragically, the continued forecast is for a dry and hot summer. We’re going to have continued fires and the volunteer network we have for dealing with these fires is already exhausted. We really are at a crisis point.”
Mr Shoebridge remains confident that the fight for climate change action won’t disappear into the Christmas and New Year period.
“I think we’ll see more mass marches early in the new year. We’re going to see continued support for our fire fighters and the extraordinary work they do. But we can’t just fight the climate crisis by fighting fires. We need to stop the climate cycle that is building the fires in the first place,” he said.
A mere hour later, the angry red sun that NSW has become accustomed to had set across the city. The Christmas tree perched atop Town Hall was twinkling with fairy lights and passersby chatted about regular, everyday things. Work. Gossip. Last minute presents.
Almost all evidence of the protest and its 20,000 marchers had been erased. Let’s hope its message hasn’t been.