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Standing Committee on Petitions - 22/09/2015 - Selected petitions from Melbourne presented up to 22 September 2015
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BRETT, Professor Judith, Private capacity

BROWNING, Ms Jan, Volunteer, Victorian Women's Trust

CROOKS, Ms Mary, Chief Executive Officer, Victorian Women's Trust

Committee met at 09:24

National and International Action on Climate Change

CHAIR ( Dr Jensen ): Thanks for coming. I welcome all witnesses and members of the public to the hearing today. Under the rules of the House of Representatives, the Petitions Committee is required to consider whether petitions comply with the requirements for petitioning the House. If so, the petition may then be presented to the House and the committee may refer it to the relevant government minister for a response. The committee may also hold public hearings into petitions, allowing both principal petitioners and the government agencies to further consider the concerns raised in petitions and the response made.

I remind participants and interested parties that in undertaking hearings on a petition the committee is not endorsing or advocating the contents of a given petition. Nor are we able to grant the requests made in petitions. It is not the committee's practice to make any recommendations based on hearings of this kind. These hearings are an opportunity for participants to cover in more detail the issues raised in petitions—which, as we know, are restricted to 250 words—and for the committee to hear about people's experience of engaging with a House of Representatives petitions process.

Today we will begin the hearing by talking with representatives of the Victorian Women's Trust to discuss a petition that calls for national and international action on climate change. I remind the witnesses that although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath this hearing is a legal proceeding of parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the chambers themselves. The evidence given here today will be recorded by Hansard and will attract parliamentary privilege. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear?

Prof. Brett : I was involved with the petition in association with the Women's Trust.

CHAIR: You may make a brief opening statement, or we can go straight to questions.

Prof. Brett : The petition was a bipartisan petition that requested that the federal parliament take leadership nationally and internationally to reduce carbon emissions. It is a neutral petition as to the means used and expresses the urgency that was felt and is still felt by many Australians about the dangers that climate change poses to the future of our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It reminds the parliament that its fundamental duty is to protect Australia's people, its land and its seas and to keep Australia safe, and it asks parliament to respect the science.

It began as a petition for women only. I went and talked to Mary about this, and it was inspired by the suffragist petitions, in particular the 1891 Monster Petition to the Victorian parliament that calls for women to be given the vote. As it turns out, there is a sculpture for that petition on the lawns just outside here. So, that is the name we took—the Monster Climate Petition. However, almost immediately the idea that it be a women's-only petition was abandoned, and it was for all to sign—for women and men, boys and girls. The fact that there is no age limit in signing petitions meant that it was an opportunity for those who were too young to vote but who were going to reap the whirlwinds of what is happening with the changing climate and are vitally concerned about the issue to have their say. However, the petition was led and organised by women: 12 prominent women, including one from each state, sponsored it, and the lead petitioner was Dr Fiona Stanley, a former Australian of the Year and the Western Australian child and public health specialist, and the Victorian Women's Trust provided the administrative support.

So, we collected signatures through organisations, schools, community groups and churches. Signatures were also collected by individuals who canvassed door to door and on the streets, and through family and community networks. Some people collected over 1,000 signatures. Many of the petitions that were sent in were accompanied by letters that thanked the Victorian Women's Trust for giving them the opportunity to have their voice heard. On this sheet of paper, which I will leave with you, are some examples of the sorts of comments that accompanied the petition. I think it is fairly clear that members of the public see this petitioning process as an extremely valuable part of the democratic options that are available to them. Signatures were also collected through the Body Shop, which helped give the petition a national reach, and many prominent Australians signed it, including Quentin Bryce, Bob Brown, Germaine Greer, Ross Garnaut, Malcolm Fraser, Gareth Evans, Costa Georgiadis, Graeme Wise and John Hewson.

The petition was taken up to Canberra on 3 December last year to present to the parliament. More than 20 members of parliament came out to meet the lead petitioners, who included Professor Stanley, Mary Crooks, me and Clare Wright from Victoria and Pam Robinson from the Northern Territory. We took up a little over 72,000 signatures, which became, after the secretariat did the checking, 71,762. We have subsequently collected some more.

The petition was presented to the House of Representatives in three sections earlier this year, by Ms Cathy McGowan and Mr Adam Bandt on 23 February and by Mr Mark Butler on 2 March. We understand that these were then referred to the Minister for the Environment for a response by the Petitions Committee secretary and that the responses are normally received within 90 days. However, as yet there has been no response, and we are very disappointed by the minister's failure to respond. We have followed this up with inquiries as to the reason, and, again, we have had no response to these inquiries. We realise that the minister is not obliged to respond, but we point out that the petition was one of the largest received by the House in the past 10 years. We have been waiting for a response because we want to be able to report back to the people who collected the signatures and were involved with the petition. We are at a loss to understand why Minister Hunt has chosen not to respond to a petition of 72,000 citizens when he has responded to all but one of the other petitions on matters» relevant to his portfolio which have been presented during the 44th parliament, including petitions on similar topics, and the one to which he has not as yet responded has been referred only quite recently.

We have also sought an explanation as to this failure to respond from his office, because we want to pass that on to those who worked so hard to collect the signatures to make the voices of their fellow citizens heard on this urgent issue. Otherwise, we can only conclude that we, the women who organised the petition, and the Victorian Women's Trust, which administered it, have been treated with disrespect by Minister Hunt for some reason of his own, which we find very disappointing.

I want to finish with two final comments which go more to process. Many of those we approached for signatures asked us about why we were not using an electronic petition. They expressed impatience with the old-fashioned cumbersomeness of pen and paper. We had to explain to them that it was the standing orders. Others were very pleased to be able to sign in pen and ink, and they felt that it was a stronger and more personal action than the 'click activism' of electronic petitions. I am sure this is an issue the Petitions Committee has been considering. I wondered whether some sort of compromise such as what the British House of Commons uses—where there is a threshold of pen-and-ink petitions before one goes to the collection of electronic signatures—might be an option worth considering. My final comment is that we wish to acknowledge the assistance of the staff of the Petitions Committee, who at all times were extremely helpful and courteous. We would like that to be recorded.

Ms Crooks : Perhaps I could make just a couple of follow-up comments. For a start, regarding the Monster Petition, which is sculptured off Macarthur Place, women led that petition in 1891 in Victoria and within five weeks collected over 30,000 signatures, which at the time was about 10 per cent of the adult female cohort in the colony. So, across the state, or the colony, it was a massive effort. We collected most of our signatures by women's energy. Women brought men into the process, so it was a great act of female leadership across the country. We collected those 72,000 signatures in about eight or nine weeks, effectively, and we have left it open this year.

The second point I want to make is that there is a huge hunger across the electorate for genuine engagement with the democratic institutions and their parliaments, beyond «electoral offices and beyond the party alignments. There is a huge hunger, and we were thanked many times by card, by letter, by email and by phone for the opportunity to engage in a genuine way like this. I just wanted to emphasise that.

The third point I want to make is that the petition process might seem old-fashioned, but to us it is a really important tool for nourishing our democratic values, and I think there is the opportunity for the Petitions Committee to further strengthen the petition process, modernising it with rigour and respect for the social capital part of it. What it did that 'click activism' does not do was actually bring people eyeball to eyeball in meaningful exchange and respectful dialogue without taking pot shots at one another. So there is an argument, in an era where our politics have become way too toxic, for being able to strengthen ways like the petition process that actually bring people together in respectful exchange.

The fourth point I would make is that, despite one's position on the climate science, there is across the electorate a huge, burning desire to protect our country and the global climate for the next generations of youngies. We had scarcely a knock-back. If we had had the foot soldiers, we could have gone into a couple of hundred thousand petitions over a year, for example. The hunger for sophisticated and hard-edged genuine policy responses to secure a safer climate is very strong across the population.

Ms Browning : The only thing I would add, which has probably been touched on anyway, is that I have been in the role of receiving the petitions as they have come in for this second round. It is the young people that I am interested in. They see it as an opportunity to have a say. Many of them did not necessarily realise that they were able to sign petitions to the parliament, so they found that empowering. Of the schools that have responded, there have been hundreds and hundreds of signatures. So there are two things. One is that they are interested in participating in that process. Secondly, they are very, very involved in the environmental issue themselves. Nearly all the schools, when I look at their websites, have very strong emphases on environment and the need to protect it for their students in their schools as part of their ethos.

CHAIR: You were just talking about the collection of signatures. You have told us about some of the interactions that you have had. Did you find that the young people that you are talking about otherwise felt disengaged from the political process, but suddenly this gave them an avenue?

Ms Crooks : There was a palpable excitement. In one instance, early, half-a-dozen or so public and private schools in Melbourne came together, and they between them collected several thousand signatures, but they also made it the focus of their Environment Day as a group of schools. When I went and received their petitions, they were absolutely excited by the fact that they had been able to do something, and I think that is a constant. We can become world weary, but there will always be people in a democratic society who yearn for genuine opportunities to participate and keep it healthy.

Prof. Brett : But I would add to that that I think it has something to do with the issue. I actually think this is an issue that a lot of young people are really very engaged with, and they did not know—they thought they had to be of voting age to sign. When they found out that they did not, this was something that they saw as an avenue for an issue that they are really—people are scared, basically, about what is happening, and they really wanted that message to get through.

We worded it very carefully so that it did not prioritise one means or another for the solution so that it was bipartisan for the parliament, because it was being formulated when there was a toxic debate about the carbon tax, so we wanted to stand back from that so that people who supported the coalition, supported Labor or supported the Greens could all feel that they could—some of the people who would not sign were people who did not think it was strong enough. They wanted it to be a petition that asked for X per cent reduction, but we did not want to get into that policy debate. We wanted this to be a broad public petition. People are not experts. They are not going to sign up for some percentage when they do not know. We wanted it to just be a fairly simple expression: 'We're worried about this. You'—the parliamentarians—'do something'.

Mrs GRIGGS: Just following on from Jan's questions and the discussion about how you were collecting signatures, there is a big emphasis now on the online petitions. Younger people are seen to be engaged in that process, and it is very easy. Sometimes you do not even really know what you are signing up for.

We as parliamentarians get hundreds and hundreds, even thousands, of emails that come from those click petitions. They are not always effective, because, as parliamentarians, you really are concerned about the feel of your electorate. You have talked about Victoria, and I know Pam Robinson from Darwin. I just want to know: did you use social media as a way to promote the petition? You talked about the schools, but what other ways did you employ to get such a successful petition? I have run many petitions myself, and I know how difficult it is to get people engaged on the issue. Clearly, you have—

Prof. Brett : We had a website, and we had a Facebook page. That worked for some of the young people, but I do not think that that is how we got the bulk of our petitioners. We got it through face-to-face work. I collected 1,200 petitioners. I got to the point where I did not want to go outside!

Ms Crooks : One woman in Tasmania sent in two tranches, so she collected about 900.

Prof. Brett : Yes, one of my daughters collected 700.

Ms Crooks : We did promote it across social media, but I guess one of the things that I liked about our process was that it is the interaction between people that is important—with the collector and the short conversation in the street. But also, when we presented on 3 December last year, we made sure that we communicated back to all of the petitioners that we had collected. Where we had addresses, we sent them a printed or email bulletin back, so we accounted back to them, which is why we would want to get back and say, 'The minister has responded,' because that is an important part of the democratic closing. It is nourishment.

Prof. Brett : You could print it off from the web page or from Facebook. People could print off a copy of the petition. We had PDFs. That way, somebody could collect it, and we had some pointers about how to go about approaching people.

Ms Crooks : Also, Judy, I think there was the fact that we very consciously built a state and territory focus so every state had a woman. We wanted the symbolism of it being women led. Every state and territory had a very strong, capable woman who then started to alert her networks. Pam Robinson is a formidable woman, now a Darwinian, and has vast networks. Fiona Stanley is the same, as is Kim Rubenstein, in Canberra. We had women who were prepared to get off their backsides in their own states and alert people to it. We just found that people, in the short space of time, were flocking to it. If we had had it open for six months, we would have doubled it.

Prof. Brett : Also we had the Victorian Women's Trust, in Victoria, which gave us there a broader organisational network because of its mix with other sectors—into the church sector. It is quite hard getting into the church sector. I did quite a lot of work there. If you can find the right person, you are right. So we ended up, I think, with more signatures from Victoria, partly because I think the community sector is probably a bit better organised in Victoria, and also it started with Victorians. You wanted to say something?

CHAIR: You talk about one petition, but in effect, formally, you have three petitions.

Prof. Brett : That is right.

CHAIR: Can you go through that process?

Prof. Brett : The reason we did that? Yes. This was partly from conversations with people in the petitions office. It meant that we were able to make it more bipartisan. We were worried about who we were going to ask. Would it look like it was coming from a party? So that was one reason. We invited all of the parliamentarians to come to meet us to talk about it, but we did not get any responses from anybody from the coalition. That is their choice. But also it meant that we got three different people presenting it and putting arguments on the issue into the parliamentary record. It was a desire to maximise the exposure and also to communicate—to give three members of the parliament who are really concerned about this issue a chance to talk about that and also for them to know that there are a lot of citizens behind them in the stance that they are taking on climate change.

CHAIR: In your submission, in talking today, you have gone through a whole lot of the questions that I would normally have asked about the process, and thanks very much for that. Is there anything further you would like to add about how you found the petitioning process, how you found dealing with the secretariat and what recommendations you might have for both the secretariat and indeed the Petitions Committee in terms of how we might make the process even better?

Ms Crooks : I would make two points. One Judy has already mentioned, but I think it is worth affirming. Right from the beginning, we had nothing but quality support from the petitions people in the federal parliament.

Prof. Brett : James Bunce—

Ms Crooks : James Bunce in particular. We had nothing but quality. We had good communications and turnaround responses to clarifications. James was there when we came on 3 December. It was good to put a face to it as well.

Prof. Brett : Yes, because he had to physically take the whole thing.

Ms Crooks : Oftentimes, good process does not get recognised enough, so I think that the federal parliament should be proud of the fact that the arms and legs, the non-parliamentary arms and legs who were working with the public, were working to such a good standard. They made it a lot easier for us.

The second thing, though, is from the committee point of view. I have been working in the area of respectful civic engagement for more than 30 years, and I would really hope that the committee can take up this challenge of a modernising of the petition process but with rigour and in a way that still retains those less visible qualities of people being able to interact with one another, people being able to come together to have a respectful dialogue, even on the street, outside a bakery or whatever. I think it would be a pity to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because there is a less visible social capital component of the petition process. I think the fact that young people, schoolkids, children, responded favourably to our petition is an indication. Let's not just corral people into some kind of electronic process at the expense of being able to meet and talk and respect even a different opinion. There is an enormous social capital part of the equation that needs to be protected and enhanced.

CHAIR: Yes, I have to say that I agree with that. At first blush when I thought about it, I was in favour of electronic petitioning, and I am starting to have certain doubts in terms of what you guys call click petitioning. That is exactly right. Mrs Griggs was pointing to emails that we get, and I know that, when we have click petitions in that regard, I will go through the email. I just go straight to the bottom: constituent, no, delete; constituent, yes, form reply. What is very powerful is those individual interactions that you talk about, whether it be signing a petition physically. It means that they have actually put some effort into it. It is the same thing with an individually worded email. I commend you for what you have done. Is there anything further that you would add?

Ms Crooks : It does not matter how IT smart we become—and that is the way of the future. But there is still no substitute for conversation.


Prof. Brett : The other thing I would add—because we are very disappointed about Minister Hunt's failure to respond—and this is probably outside your area, is about whether there could there be an obligation on the minister to respond. In the standing orders, he does not have to, does he?

CHAIR: No, that is right. And ultimately, as the secretariat has said, it is the House's standing orders, not the committee, that uniquely decide that. Ultimately that is for the House to determine.

Prof. Brett : But it is the other side of the process of mutual respect, I think, when a lot of voluntary effort goes in because it is, as Mary said, about keeping the democratic process alive, of citizens going out.

CHAIR: I understand what you are saying but I have to say that since the Petitions Committee was constituted, the rate of return in ministerial responses to petitioners has significantly increased.

Prof. Brett : That is very good. That is why we feel insulted—because nobody else has been responded to except us!

CHAIR: But prior to the Petitions Committee having formed, the rate of response was, quite frankly, abysmal. It has improved a lot. Obviously from your experience, it is not perfect yet.

Ms Crooks : We will use some of our other democratic opportunities in a media release and possibly a letter to the new Prime Minister in terms of accountability, so we have other options.

CHAIR: The other thing is, as Brian pointed out, the transcript will obviously be sent to the minister.

Prof. Brett : I will actually send it to his office today because I have been onto them but they keep fobbing me off. Anyway, that is politics.

Ms Browning : Because there is a large disengagement with politics amongst the population, perhaps that might change, who knows? But this process, I think, is one that is a valuable one for citizens, for Australians to be able to participate in. One of the things I felt was that a lot of people did not realise the strength of it or how it could be accessed, especially young people, or that they could participate and sign petitions. Perhaps there needs to be some more education in that regard.

CHAIR: We are trying.

Ms Browning : People were very pleased. Children, when we spoke to them at various venues, were really quite proud of the fact that they could have a say.

CHAIR: Thank you for your participation today. If the committee has further questions for you, the secretariat will contact you.

Prof. Brett : I just thought it would be helpful to leave a copy.

CHAIR: I am now formally tabling a statement to the Petitions Committee re the Monster Climate petition. That was given to me by Professor Judith Brett.