5 Mar 2019

Climate change protest on school day divides MPs

7:25 pm on 5 March 2019

Labour and Green party MPs supporting next week's school strike for action on climate change are being careful not to encourage students to wag classes to protest.

Thousands of young people gather in Parliament Square in central London to protest against the government’s lack of action on climate change.

Last month, thousands of young people gathered in central London to protest against the government's lack of action on climate change. Photo: WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto/ AFP

The strike scheduled for Friday 15 March is part of an international day of action and organisers are expecting thousands of young people to participate.

The protest includes a march on Parliament and it's clear that Labour and Green MPs are supportive of the strike while National Party MPs said it should not be happening on a school day.

Green Party co-leader and climate change minister James Shaw agreed immediately when asked on TVNZ's Q and A programme on Monday night if students should leave classes to protest next week.

But he told RNZ today he was not urging children to participate in the event.

"In choosing to take time out in order to do this, these students are placing something at risk. That's actually the point of a strike, you're placing something at risk and that is an individual choice that people have to make for themselves."

Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw.

Green Party co-leader and climate change minister James Shaw says he is not urging children to participate in the climate change protest. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said it was up to schools to decide how to handle the strike.

"I want kids to be learning. If taking part in this action is part of the learning process, then there may be some merit in it. If they're just taking a day off school then actually they're just punishing themselves," Mr Hipkins said.

Other Labour ministers were more supportive.

"It's great to see young people getting involved in issues like climate change because actually if there's one issue that's going to affect the next generation it's climate change," Housing Minister Phil Twyford said.

Agriculture minister Damien O'Connor said he would be happy for his children to go on the strike.

"We have teacher-only days so this'll be a kids-only day. These kids are smart, we are dealing with their future, I think it's pretty organised, I have no problem with it," Mr O'Connor said.

National Party leader Simon Bridges said climate change was an important issue, but the strike should not have been held on a school day.

He said the protest could have been timed to coincide with the upcoming strike by secondary school teachers on 3 April.

"We know that there's a number of strike days coming up, maybe they should protest on one of those days," he said.

Mr Bridges said a small proportion of school children closely followed climate change and he doubted anyone would contest their participation in the strike.

"What we wouldn't want to encourage is a situation where a whole lot of people who are fair-weather friends on this issue say 'you know what, sweet, this is a day off school, I'm going to join the protest'," he said.

National Party leader Simon Bridges.

National Party leader Simon Bridges says the climate change strike should not have been held on a school day. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

National Party education spokesperson Nikki Kaye said government ministers should not be encouraging students to participate.

"I'm a bit concerned that we have got the Minister for Climate Change out there encouraging people to not be at school and that does put parents and principals in a pretty difficult situation," she said.

"The main thing is that parents have given permission, otherwise we may have unsupervised kids, 12 or 13 years old, in the streets."

Ms Kaye said ideally the strike would have been held outside of school hours.

National Party MP Judith Collins was dismissive of the protest action.

"Their little protest is not going to help the world one bit," she said.

The former environment minister, Nick Smith, said the cause was good but a strike was not the best option.

"Young people getting engaged and involved in the issue of climate change - great thing. Disrupting schools for a day? I'm a conservative, my view is that generally strikes cost us all as a community and we can all find excuses to drop tools, not work, not get educated," he said.

But one of the event organisers, Sophie Handford, said it needed to be held on a school day in order to drive home the urgency of action against climate change.

"We're sick and tired of not being listened to and it's come to the point where we actually almost have to disrupt some of the norms to actually have our voices heard. It shouldn't come to this, but we're ready to stand up and fight for that," Ms Handford said.

"It might be one truancy for kids but kids take time off school often, when they're sick, when they're attending other events like sports days," she said.

"It's one day and it could make a world of change for the future generations and for us."

Ms Handford said more schools were supporting the strike than opposing it and it appeared likely that thousands of young people would participate.

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