‘Rather die in jail than a nursing home’: climate activists show stiff resolve as they face Queensland court

Group who allegedly disrupted parliament are mainly grey-haired activists who worry more about grandchildren’s future than going to prison

Fourteen climate activists who allegedly briefly but raucously disrupted Queensland parliament last November emerged from their first court appearance on Wednesday morning to blistering sunshine, rowdy cheers from supporters and an expectant media pack.

“Are you worried about the prospect of three years in jail?” a reporter asked one outside court.

“No,” John Sheridan, 81, replied. “I won’t live that long.”

Sheridan laughed, but there was an edge to his joke. The former Queensland state epidemiologist and professor had a heart procedure less than a week ago and, no doubt, a chance to contemplate his mortality. The prognosis, he says, was not good.

So too has his wife, Rae, had a chance to consider mortality – and it equally stiffened her resolve.

“I’d rather die in jail than in a nursing home,” she says.

Neither plans on going gently into that good night. ​Rae, 78, is doing a PhD in museum education.

The Sheridans are not outliers among the accused. Theirs is a group mainly composed of grey-haired activists, including retired doctors, nurses and public servants – professionals of distinction.

Not least of whom is Lee Coaldrake, an anaesthetist who happens to be the wife of the former Queensland University of Technology vice-chancellor, Peter, who last year led a review into the integrity of the public service and Queensland government.

It was a high-profile connection that proved an irresistible target for the press pack. It was not one, though, on which Coaldrake is keen to elaborate.

“Well I don’t think my husband’s got anything to do with it,” she says.

John Sheridan told reporters that he is not worried about the prospect of jail as his wife, Rae (bottom right), watched on.
John Sheridan told reporters that he is not worried about the prospect of jail as his wife, Rae (bottom right), watched on. Photograph: Jono Searle/AAP

“Actually, no one asked me what I felt about his report into integrity in the public sector. We run our own races.”

When pressed, she adds that her husband is “supportive of the need for urgent action on climate change”. But then, so too are the Australian people, she said. The only people who don’t “realise the urgency” and the need to act on the climate crisis, she said, are “our governments”.

Not only that, the activists fear governments are taking increasingly draconian measures to crack down upon non-violent protesters.

Retired public servant Dave Tucker, whose wife, Dianne, is among those facing charges and who is also an activist, says the case will test how far Queensland has gone down the path of its southern neighbour, New South Wales.

Last December, Deanna “Violet” Coco was sentenced to 15 months in jail after a climate protest on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Coco is appealing against the sentence.

Tucker also fears the outcome of the case could see the sunshine state regress back to the era of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The charge his wife and her fellow protesters face is of disturbing the legislature, one not laid since the reign of that notoriously repressive premier.

“Are we going to see a slippery slide back to the days of Joh?” Tucker asks.

Not all the activists were retirees – a luxury Tucker says affords them “the privilege to stand up and speak out”.

Miree Le Roy from the bayside suburb of Sandgate runs her own IT company, so she didn’t have to ask her boss for the day off to attend court. If she is worried about the impact of her encounter with the legal system upon her business, she is far more concerned about the impacts of climate inaction.

“I’m worried as shit about what’s coming down the line,” she says.

Which was a sentiment shared by the group’s most senior member, 87-year-old Judith Rasborsek.

“I’m not worried about going to jail,” she says. “I’m worried about my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. What kind of a world are they going to get?”

The 14 were released on bail under the condition they not enter parliament and the case will resume in two weeks, when prosecutors are expected to hand over their brief of evidence.


Joe Hinchliffe

The GuardianTramp