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Meet the Canberra man behind those oversized political puppets

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In a suburban Canberra shed hang some over-sized political puppet heads—Morrison, Turnbull, Abbott, Shorten and Barnaby.

They’re being stored away in bags following a dramatic halt to public protest rallies. COVID-19 has, for now, silenced environmental activists.

Just nine months ago, the momentum of climate change activism was reaching fever pitch.

In September last year, 4 million people joined Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a climate strike across 161 countries—the largest climate demonstration in history. A record 300,000 people joined strikes in 100 cities and towns across Australia, including Canberra where 15,000 students congregated in Glebe Park.

Amidst the crowds were these giant foam puppet heads, which have travelled up and down the east coast of Australia from Melbourne to Brisbane. The man who commissioned these puppets, political activist Matthew Armstrong, is patiently biding his time during COVID-19 restrictions.

“Some momentum has been lost,” Matthew admits. “But organisers can focus on long-term work strategically and building an online community. There are good things happening despite the change.”

Matthew says he didn’t come into activism until 2013. “I come from an activist family. My mum got herself arrested at Jabiluka and my aunties have been stirrers so it’s a bit of a family tradition.”

When Matthew did decide to take a stand, he turned to puppets, commissioning Canberra artist Hilary Talbot to create the head for a 3.3-metre high, stilt-walking puppet, which had a smoke machine at the back to blow smoke out of Tony Abbott’s rear.

Image supplied.

“Tony Liar Pants on Fire,” explains Matthew. “That was a big, complex and exciting-to-look-at puppet. It’s incredibly hard to operate a 3.3-metre high stilt-walking puppet and the guy who was in it was in a total sweat by the time he finished walking up to Melbourne Town Hall.”

The puppet heads are modelled based on high-resolution images. They begin as clay models, which are then used as a template for foam cut-outs.

Worn on the shoulders with a chest frame hidden under clothing, Matthew says they were quite comfortable to wear. The puppets often did regular appearances on Northbourne Avenue, seeking honks from passing cars.

“Some protest rallies are pretty dark,” says Matthew. “The issues you’re there for a very serious so the puppets come along with a ‘cartoon’ and there’s a chance to laugh and interact with them. So one of their really important characteristics is that they add humour and it’s easy for someone to share a funny puppet cartoon on social media.”

Despite climate change protests stalling and the current pandemic, the climate crisis is not going quietly.

Only recently, the UK’s The Independent reported that carbon dioxide levels had risen to the highest point since the evolution of humans. That’s more than 417 ppm (parts per million) levels of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere—not just in recorded history, not just since industrialisation but since before modern humans existed millions of years ago.

“There’s just no way it’s going away,” says Matthew. “It’s just going to keep hammering on our door till we open it and say ‘right, we better work with this’. I just can’t believe that there could be so much evidence and so much distress and so much destruction and it’s still not the key issue. It’s not going away.”

Image supplied.

As the pandemic restrictions drag on, there are some optimists who hope that the world will think differently once we come out the other side.

“People do forget,” says Matthew. “But something will go wrong again, that’s how we’ll get the topic back in the news again. Disaster is so profoundly disruptive socially with long-lasting effects and it can actually create incredible fault lines in communities.”

“Maybe for people who have had drought, fires and now COVID, it’s going to be a long time for those communities who have been hammered to recover. There are people who are motivated to do something about climate change but there are people who are still just in plain shock.”

While in lockdown Matthew has been busy maintaining his social media presence to pursue his political activism. In his spare time, he creates memes for his Facebook page (facebook.com/puppetpolitics) and starting his Instagram account (@funky_cool_dad) and he is well aware of how the new generation has transformed political activism. Young people are more visible on social media and they are coordinated.

Image: facebook.com/pg/puppetpolitics

From Canberra to Washington D.C, children are walking out of the classroom and marching in the streets to fight for their future. Their demands are not about saving the whale or the rainforest; they are about saving our planet.

The youth influence was so strong that Thunberg inspired an international movement to fight climate change in just 18 months. She was named Time Magazine‘s 2019 Person of the Year.

“Looking at my children, who are in their early 20s—there’s a whole world of social media that can be used to liven up protesting,” says Matthew.

For now, social media is Matthew’s method of activism while his puppets are stored away. He says that his family instructed him to put the puppet heads in bags “because they didn’t want to see Tony Abbott as they walked into the shed.”

“I used to just have them hanging there and they’d walk in to get something out of the freezer and get a fright.”

The Museum of Australian Democracy has expressed interest in acquiring the political puppets for exhibition.

Feature image: Supplied.

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