The Elephant in the House.

Nearly three-quarters of us are going through the motions, showing up but only doing what is necessary to get through the day at our jobs.

Julia Gillard and Ellie, The Climate Change Elephant, August 12, 2010

Claire Snyder took active steps to find work that she could love. Meeting recently at RMIT in Melbourne, we discussed her transition from journalist to activist.

A freelance consultant for environmental advocacy and purpose-driven groups, Claire has high profile organisations such as OXFAM, Greenpeace and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) on her resume. Along with the majority of Australia’s 1 million independent contractors, she is now her own boss.

“A bit of a mixed bag,” Claire’s background is in journalism. Working at a local paper and as a writer/sub-editor for the Australian Associated Press (AAP) in her twenties, she felt psychologically unattached to her job. A dream job for many, but she was only putting time —not energy or passion— into her work. She’s not alone. On top of not feeling engaged, only one in five workers in Australia and New Zealand strongly agree they even like what they do each day according to Gallup. “I was doing entertainment and sports lift-outs, things that weren’t very close to my heart.” She decided to find a new life.

“Who knows if it’ll work, but I’ll give it a go”

claire snyder, activist

An interest in the environment and exposure to the climate change movement as a volunteer lead her down a new career path. One of her first gigs was during the 2010 Federal Election campaign when prime minister Julia Gillard was running against Tony Abbott. Tasked by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) with motivating young people, Claire had to get the environment “into the narrative of the election in a colourful way.” She explains a tactic called bird-dogging where “you go and hound candidates, jumping in front of the camera to get a message across, usually while wearing a costume or holding a crazy sign”. A strategy based solely on photobombing for publicity, they followed candidates around the country wearing elephant costumes. “None of the politicians were talking about the environment, climate change was the elephant in the room.”

To get the message out at each campaign stop “we would throw people in taxis with signs and elephant suits.” She laughs, remembering how they “followed along on Twitter to see where the candidates were going to be.” They had elephant costumes ready to go in every capital city, and this culminated in a final Election Day stunt. “We hired a giant, four-metre-high elephant which we towed around on a trailer.” The Climate Change Elephant was a successful awareness campaign, Gillard personally tweeted an invitation to host Ellie (the elephant) and the AYCC team at Parliament House. Post-election polling would later show that Labor’s decision to defer the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) was a liability for the party.

In 2011, Gillard established the Climate Commission, an independent body to provide authoritative information on climate change. Claire was contacted with another job offer when then-prime minister Tony Abbott abolished that commission in 2013. “It was quite a big deal” when sacked chief commissioner Professor Tim Flannery announced he would relaunch as the Climate Council, a community-funded body. She joined the campaign thinking “who knows if it’ll work, but I’ll give it a go.” They asked the public for help, “people were so annoyed and unhappy that the government had sacked the organisation.” Raising a million dollars in the first week, it became a good news story. “It was fun to be involved in something that had so much momentum.”

I asked about her worst professional experience. Blushing, she admits “I have a few actually.” The most embarrassing one? When she was a sub-editor for AAP, responsible for writing and distributing syndicated content to regional papers. “I sent the wrong file, but no one picked up on it. Every local paper on the eastern seaboard printed syndicated, week-old news — the same thing they had printed the week before.” Though mortified, she didn’t lose her job but “our contracts promise 100% accuracy so there were a lot of apologies and retractions.” At thirty-four, she is more pragmatic, “look, it was my first job. I was twenty.” When mentoring junior teams, she still shares this experience. “Hey, whatever you think you’ve stuffed up can’t be that bad. Don’t worry, seriously — everyone stuffs up.”

Madonna Deverson, CONTXTURE

The Elephant in the House.