People’s Parliament: Stories for Change
[Joseph-Zane Sikulu, as told to Clodagh Schofiel]
My family home is on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga. For me, climate justice is about protecting my family and where we come from. My journey into action on climate change all started at home.
My family, we have a tradition of planting trees when it comes to marking big occasions. My grandparents, they always told us that our family are like trees and that the branches will grow high and they’ll grow to reach out into the world. The leaves will fall off and fly away and they’ll reach so many places, but so long as the roots remain deep in the ground, that tree will always grow strong.
My grandfather passed away when I was young, and for his funeral, we planted a mango tree on their property which was about two metres from the sea. It’s probably been about 15 years since he passed away. In that time, the water has slowly crept in and eroded all the land between the tree and the sea to the point where that mango tree has died. I sat down one day, just trying to understand why that had happened. So I learnt about climate change and what was happening to the islands. And that curiosity turned to anger.
Three hundred people including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, people from communities affected by coal and coal seam gas, Pacific Islanders, faith leaders, and climate warriors occupied Australian Parliament House to tell the stories Australian political leaders have failed to listen to. On the day we held that space, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came back to parliament from the COP21 negotiations in Paris. What he had committed to was ridiculous, he didn’t do anything at all. We ran our own parliament, the People’s Parliament, to allow voices that are so often silenced to be heard.
In the Pacific, we communicate through storytelling. I grew up learning my history, my background, through stories. Stories are how we find our connection between each other and they are powerful when they’re used in the right spaces. In the People’s Parliament, we formed circles and heard Auntie Mabel, an elder from Bailai country, talk about the devastation fossil fuels have caused to the land around Gladstone. We listened to retired Minister John Brentnill of the Uniting Church call on Christian MPs to respect God's commandment to love thy neighbour, and act on climate change before it is too late for our farmers, our First Nations folk, and our Pacific neighbours. We sat in awe as 96 year old Kokoda veteran Bill Ryan recalled the friends he lost in the war and what they fought for. He told us that this time, we are fighting for the whole planet. For me, the People’s Parliament was about bringing these stories to light, and using them to change everything, because we must change everything to win these fights.
I was so moved while speaking and standing amongst these voices that I felt empowered and completely overwhelmed all at once. When the security came to take people apart, I had a sense that I had this energy, this spirit of urgency, that I wanted to pass on to everybody that sat in that circle. I felt such a need to get the story of the Pacific out there, because it’s so important for everybody to hear what it is we have to say. People were getting anxious, but in that moment I felt so calm. I felt like we were exactly where we needed to be, doing exactly what we had to be doing. And all we had to do was just sit there and hold strong. That’s what I wanted to be able to pass on to people.
Three hundred people were dragged out of Parliament House that day, one by one. Although the People’s Parliament is over now, the stories we told and the connections we forged are a part of a strong movement fighting to put people before polluters. We are not drowning, we are fighting, and we won’t stop until we win the climate justice all communities deserve.
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