First published on 13 May 2012. Updated on 4 Jul 2012.
They met as idealistic young things at the founding summit of her Australian Youth Climate Coalition five years ago. Now Anna Rose and Simon Sheikh are two of Sydney’s most influential twentysomethings – and they’re hitched. Sheikh, just 26, heads GetUp!, the country’s leading lobbying voice on progressive issues from marriage equality to mental health reform and an affront to any Australian government stifling change. Rose, who founded the AYCC and last month tangled with climate sceptic Nick Minchin on the ABC documentary I Can Change Your Mind on Climate Change, is fast becoming the face of her important movement. And the extra-ordinary – and extraordinarily young – Sydney power couple say they’re just getting started.
Congratulations on the wedding. The first and most obvious question is: how sustainable was it?
Anna Rose: I got back from filming the documentary [I Can Change Your Mind on Climate Change] about three weeks before the wedding and we hadn’t really organised much except the venue. We wanted to make it as green as possible, so I got a second-hand wedding dress from Gumtree; we had it in a national park on the harbour; we had local vegetarian food; we organised a bus so that people didn’t have to drive; we didn’t buy a lot of new stuff... We encouraged a lot of people to donate to AYCC and Oxfam. It was beautiful, it was simple; it was definitely the best day of my life.
I hear you spent your honeymoon writing the book, Madlands, about your time with Minchin. Doesn’t seem very romantic…
AR: We postponed the honeymoon actually, because three days after our wedding the carbon price passed. So we drove down to Canberra in the Prius and we were together in the gallery as the carbon price passed. We took a couple of weeks to wrap things up before we went on our honeymoon; we just drove up to Byron through the national parks and it was so nice. But yeah, I did have to write every day – not ideal.
Simon Sheikh: It was a wonderful honeymoon actually, because now we’ve got something to show for it. Not just the photos but an actual book! I think I was sucked up in some of the research on various occasions as well…
AR: I was like, ‘Google this!’
That’s dedication on both your parts. Anna, what triggered this drive in you to save the planet?
AR: I grew up in Newcastle and I used to surf before school – there were usually between 20 and 30 coal ships on the horizon. But I spent all my summer holidays on my uncle’s farm and my grandparents’ farm in Moree and Gunnedah. The drought was really severe back then and I started connecting the dots between the drought that was affecting my family’s farm, the coal that my hometown was exporting and this greenhouse effect thing that I was learning about in school.
Simon. Did you have similar triggers growing up?
SS It’s a different story to Anna and yet it’s one embedded in the same value set. I grew up on the border of Newtown and Enmore – a great part of the world, and a part of the world that’s changed a lot in the last 20 years. I was in public housing at the time. But what I kept seeing were people around me who were in even more challenging circumstances. One of my earliest memories is of my primary school principal having to use her own money to fund basic clothing and footwear for some of the other students. That embedded in me the same sense of social justice that drove Anna.
One formative experience outside of school you’ve spoken about was caring for your mum, who has chronic mental illness.
SS: It was from a fairly early age that my father got sick – he had a severe heart attack – and wasn’t able to play the caring role for mum. It meant that from about ten, I took a more full-time role in that capacity. Simple things like making sure my mother was going to the doctors’ appointments and the dentists, buying the train tickets and going with her. And then you take on a further role in coordinating healthcare efforts, because the mental health system is very disaggregated - lots of parties all over the place. A lot of work’s being done now through the Mental Health reform package [which GetUp! has campaigned for strongly under Sheikh] to bring together aggregated care, but in those days that didn’t exist.
You’ve also got to have all the medication shots; you’ve gotta make hard decisions about whether or not to try new medications. One of the things that my mother was unfortunate enough to have to go through was to be a guinea pig for every second mental health drug there was over the last 30 years. And that doesn’t leave one in a good position to be able to function.
It’s a cliché to ask: but did it make you grow up more quickly?
SS: Well, I think we all respond to the contexts we find ourselves in, and the context where I found myself was one where I had to respond to an ever-increasing set of complex moments. I think that’s been useful to be able to understand the complexities of various systems. I use that in my work to understand what we should be doing to campaign in various areas.
[A man walks past the café we’re sitting outside and yells, ‘Keep up the good work, stick it to them.’ Simon says the couple get that all the time.]
Anna, a lot of climate change activists wouldn’t have done the doco you did with the ABC because it’s so “fair and balance” where climate science really isn’t.
AR: I was hesitant at first because climate science is very clear and the science of climate change – the science of human-induced climate change – is actually more certain than the science of linking HIV to AIDS and smoking to lung cancer. But many Australians still have questions about the science – a result of the campaign that mining billionaires have been waging over the last decade really. I thought: if many still have questions about it then it’s important to answer them. And yeah, I’m definitely open to engaging with people who don’t agree with me. Travelling with Nick Minchin for a month was a good example of that!
How was that?
Just to have a conversation with him is quite pleasant – if it doesn’t involve politics.
Much of the debate you guys have been involved with isn’t very pleasant. Simon, GetUp!’s been compared to the “Hitler Youth wing of the Greens”. Others say you guys don’t change anything, just tilt the agenda.
SS:The best thing to do is to look at the examples of what our members have been able to make an impact on. We raised the mental health example earlier. That’s a scenario where you’ve got the mental health minister saying very clearly: GetUp! members put this issue on the agenda and then helped get it across the line. And those who suggest that we’re somehow Hitler Youth are surely doing so because we’re being effective. Not because the Hitler Youth were effective, but because the first person to bring up Hitler loses the debate. If you’re driven to that extreme, then you must be very frustrated because the world you’re seeking to protect is changing.
Do critics ever dismiss you because of your age?
AR: For me it hasn’t been so much my age but my gender. When you look at the people who are opposing action on climate change – people like Clive Palmer, Tony Abbott and Nick Minchin – it is a bit of a boys’ club. To come up against that not only as a young person but also as a young woman, it sometimes makes it easier for them to try to dismiss you.
You don’t seem to ever stop Anna – I've seen you talk taxi drivers around from climate scepticism. Is there a part of you that wants to occasionally switch off and veg out?
AR: I’ve had the last two weeks where I was supposed to be resting and taking it easy [Anna had her tonsils taken out days before we spoke], but I find that hard to do. The International Panel on Climate Change has said we need to have global emissions peaking and then declining by 2015; the International Energy Agency has said the deadline is 2017. Either way it’s very, very soon. So no, I don’t really find it enjoyable with those deadlines in my head to not actually be working on climate.
SS: Although... I think that we’ve also done better in the last year to take time for each other and for ourselves as well, recognising that this is a long fight. It’s gonna be a long many years ahead of us!
Will those years see either of you running for parliament? A husband-wife Green leadership perhaps…
AR: I think that at the moment what needs to happen to solve climate change is for hearts and minds to change in the community. And most people don’t trust politicians. Therefore, the work that needs to be done has to come from outside of politics.
SS: Yeah. And I think both of us share an outside theory of change that drives the work we do, and it’s pretty hard to move past that. When you get to see the power of movements versus the power of political parties, you know where you want to work.
Six ways Simon and Anna are changing:
I Can Change your Mind About Climate Change
In early 2012, whilst in the middle of planning a wedding, Anna embarked on the production of a documentary for the ABC in which she attempted to change Liberal pundit Nick Minchin’s views on the climate change debate. The doco aired over two nights in April, followed by a special edition of Q&A, and once more put clean energy at the forefront of public debate. She released a book about the journey the same month. Oh, and she kicked Minchin’s ass.
2009 saw Anna organising the country’s first youth summit on climate change. With conferences, workshops and one particularly moving flash-mob, Anna and her organization (the coalition of progressive young groups called the Australian Youth Climate Coalition) created a dialogue amongst the next generation of environmentalists and activists. The couple are together on this front with Simon and GetUp! also being major players in the climate reform debate – Simon was a founding member of the AYCC when at the United Nations Youth Association.
GetUp!'s marriage equality campaign
Only the heartless remained unmoved after watching GetUp’s marriage equality advert, showing a POV gay relationship in fast-forward, which proceeded to go internationally viral and moisten the tear ducts of more than six million people. But that was just the tip of the work the group was doing: Simon and GetUp! have worked tirelessly to bring this issue to the fore in Australian political debate through rallies, petitions and lobbying, having a huge hand in the changing political tide on the issue.
GetUp’s Electoral Act Challenge
Who could forget the 2010 electoral enrolment fiasco – Australians left, right and centre being unable to enrol after 8pm the day the election was called. Simon and GetUp! were hot on the heels of the case and took it straight to the top, the High Court, to challenge any semblance it had of legitimacy. Their winning appeal allowed many thousands of Australians to vote who otherwise would have been left without a voice.
Save the Tarkine!
One of Australia’s most significant natural landscapes and the largest tract of temperate rainforest in the world is under threat and GetUp! is charging to the rescue. With ten new mines proposed in the Tarkine over the next 10 years, some of them highly damaging strip mines, Simon and his team are pursuing every avenue possible to put a stop to the potential destruction of a natural wonder – including a taking Federal Environment Minitser Tony Burke on a three day trip to the Tarkine to see what Australia might lose.
Poker Machine Reform
With gambling addiction still ripping lives apart across the country, GetUp! are involved in lobbying pokie producers (Woolworths and Coles to name but two) to cap bets and minimise losses and halt addictive spending cycles. As well as direct contact with poker machine manufacturers, GetUp! are petitioning Governmental bodies to tighten legislation around the whole nasty business.
is out now through Melbourne University Press. RRP$29.99.
Anna Rose speaks at The School of Life: How to be Rick, Wired and Green on Sun Jul 15.