Portrait

Lunch with School Strike 4 Climate lead organiser Jean Hinchliffe. By Kath Kenny.

Activist Jean Hinchliffe

Jean Hinchliffe suggests we meet after her speech in Hyde Park at a rally to fix the New South Wales transport system. I stand back as people shake her hand, have a word. Uncle Raymond, who earlier gave the Acknowledgement of Country, stops us as we’re leaving and asks Jean and her fellow climate strike leader Daisy Jeffrey for a picture with his little girl under the park’s giant fig trees.

Celebrity has seeped into the 15-year-old’s life since she “super insanely” emailed the Melbourne organisers of School Strike 4 Climate late one night last year, offering to run a Sydney event. “I went down to my mum and said, ‘I think I might be organising a giant school strike on November 30.’ She said, ‘Oh my god, Jean. Why are you doing this? Aren’t there any adults that can help you?’

“I said: ‘No, that defies the point of the movement.’ ”

The girls are hungry after two hours of speeches and marching, so I propose a late lunch at Bodhi, the vegan restaurant overlooking Cook + Phillip Park. On the way, a mother with her young daughter stops us. She wants to know whether she can take her daughter to the strike on March 15. “Yes!” Jean replies.

We talk over iced tea and dim sum about overnight fame. It was an interview on The Project last year that established Jean as one of the faces of Australia’s student climate movement. In her white school shirt, big red “Stop Adani” earrings and John Lennon glasses – her voice hoarse from a day of interviews and speeches – she charmed a nation. When host Hamish Macdonald raised Environment Minister Matt Canavan’s slur that “the best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue”, Jean just shook her head and cracked a smile. “That is insane!” she told him. “Honestly, the Liberal government hopefully will be voted out soon, so he should be the one waiting in line ...”

 

Jean was a natural last year in front of the crowd that came to the first big school strike in Martin Place. Her voice was unfaltering, passionate. Her speech punctuated with sentences ending in joyful little laughs. I’m surprised when she tells me that was her “first time speaking in front of a crowd”. One on one she’s just as eloquent, the chuckles at the end of her sentences are still there but she’s a little quieter, a little more reserved.

“No one was very interested in us until the day it happened,” Jean says now, “people saw that us kids, we could mobilise so well and create such an impactful movement. Now we have a lot of adult groups who want to jump on the bandwagon.”

Already she is wise to politicians seeking selfies and support. “They know the general public supports us,” she says. “But if we try to support someone, it can be exploited very easily.” Labor’s target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 policy doesn’t impress. The student strikers are demanding 100 per cent. “It’s not a left-versus-right issue,” Jean says.

Jean’s academically selective government school, Fort Street High School, claims Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton, Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson and former GetUp! director Simon Sheikh among its alumni. She’s a match for any of them, I think. An image of her comes to mind, leading the transport march a couple of hours earlier and holding a white cardboard “I”, part of the “FIX NSW” sign. Just keeping it vertical in the wind blowing down Elizabeth Street is a valiant effort.

Between school and her climate change activism, she’s somehow found the time to film a television series, “a sci-fi drama aimed at 12-year-olds” is all she can say now. Jean doesn’t rule out a career in politics. But, she says, she knows you can “have power even if you are not in government”.

When I ask who she looks up to, her reply is instant – “Greta Thunberg”, the then 15-year-old who started all of this with her own month-long strike outside Swedish parliament. “At every single level it’s female-dominated,” Jean says of the movement. “On the Sydney leadership team, we’re more than three-quarters female. I’m friends with people in the US … there are three girls there leading the movement nationally.” It’s the same story in Britain and Europe.

When I ask why, she has a short answer: “Women are amazing. We’re so badass. We can lead movements, we can create these international events.” And a longer answer.

“It probably has to do with oppressed peoples caring so much because those who aren’t in a position of power don’t benefit from the social structures,” she says. “Climate change often isn’t seen as an intersectional problem. But as climate change gets worse, you can see more and more natural disasters and that creates communities being poorer and more desperate, which leads to more rape and more crime.”

Daisy checks her phone and tells Jean the next strike now has 1600 confirmed to attend, with 4000 interested. It’s still two weeks away. “Already that’s more than we had on the day of the first strike,” says Jean. “Fifteen hundred said they would go, and we had 7000 on the day.”

She recalls stopping for an early television interview in November at Martin Place. “I was standing away from the crowd right next to the stage. I could see kids coming in but I didn’t know what the crowd looked like. Maybe there were 100 kids before I started the interview,” she says. “All of a sudden, I turned around and the whole place is filled up. I couldn’t believe it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Girl power". Subscribe here.

Kath Kenny
is a Sydney-based writer currently researching a doctorate.