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Monday, 22 September 2014
Page: 9893


Mrs ELLIOT (Richmond) (10:04): Madam Speaker, in the Chair of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions' last statement, he spoke about the broad range of topics that petitions to the House have raised. Today, I would like to focus on a few interesting petitions from history. Some of these petitions greatly affected modern Australia, while others are interesting for different reasons.

While petitioning in Australia goes back to the kings and queens of England, it is an ancient practice that has been found in almost every part of the world. In ancient China, any citizen from the poorest peasant to the most powerful bureaucrat could send their petitions to the Office of Transmission, which, in some cases, would read the terms of these petitions to the emperor himself.

Ancient Greeks used petitions as part of their fledgling democracy. If a prominent citizen of ancient Athens wanted a statue of themselves put in a public place, they had to make the request through a petition, which was then put as a motion in the assembly, before being debated and voted on by the citizens of Athens. Ancient Roman petitioners would often petition the Senate seeking redress for a personal grievance.

One petition of great importance to the development of modern Australia dates back to 1628, and is known as the Petition of Right. Drafted by a committee of the House of Commons, the petition set out liberties which the king could not infringe, by seeking restrictions on imprisonment without cause and the use of martial law. This document is considered a very important English constitutional document, often seen as being equal to the Magna Carta in importance.

The Australian House of Representatives received a very interesting petition in July 1917. The petition requested that it be made illegal to buy an alcoholic drink for a friend. This anti-shouting petition, as it was known, saw such shouting as a 'danger to the wellbeing of our returned and returning soldiers'. As a result, the petition asked that shouting be banned for the duration of World War I, and an additional 12 months thereafter. Had this request been granted, modern Australia would be a very different place.

Australians have long been active petitioners. In 1880, after Ned Kelly was sentenced to hang, more than 30,000 Melbournians signed a petition requesting a reprieve. In 1891, several determined Victorian women took to the streets of Melbourne to gather nearly 30,000 signatures in support of female suffrage. Not only did this petition play an important role in the achievement of universal suffrage in Australia; it has also been preserved and digitised so that modern Australians can search it to see if their ancestors or relatives signed this petition.

Finally, I would like to mention the Yirrkala Bark Petitions. In August 1963, two petitions from the Yolngu people were presented to the House. These were drawn up on pieces of stringy bark, with traditional Yolngu ochre paintings, and contained a request in the Yolngu language and English. The petitions were about the concerns of the Yolngu people of Yirrkala regarding a recent decision to excise 300 square kilometres of land for mining purposes.

The Yirrkala Bark Petitions led in part to the formation of a select committee on the issue, and this committee ultimately recommended that the Yolngu people be compensated for the livelihoods they had lost when the land was excised, that sacred sites be protected from desecration and that the activities of the mining companies be monitored by a parliamentary committee. The petitions are highly significant and credited with being one of the catalysts for the move towards legal recognition of the rights of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, as well as the Aboriginal land rights movement.

The two copies of this petition are currently on display here at Parliament House, affirming that petitions have played a very important role in our democracy and indeed the development of modern Australia, and that they will continue to do so.