Stand Up and Be Counted on Climate Change

21 / 08 / 2014

The Story of the Monster Climate Change Petition

Earlier this month, the Victorian Women’s Trust launched the Monster Climate Change Petition, which aims to collect a “monster” amount of signatures calling on the federal House of Representatives to get serious about climate change. As suggested in the name, it takes inspiration from the ‘Monster Petition‘ of the 1890s, in which suffragettes were able to muster an amazing 30,000 signatures in lobbying for women’s right to vote.

For this edition of Sheilas, Victorian Women’s Trust Executive Director Mary Crooks AO and La Trobe University Emeritus Professor Judith Brett outline the story of how the project came about.

Read the article, then be sure to check it the Petition website, and we would love you to help us spread the word – to share with your friends, families, colleagues and other networks, to ‘wear out our shoe leather’, and to help us in generating as many signatures as possible in addressing one of the most pressing needs of our time – the environment in which we live.

By Mary Crooks and Judy Brett

In April this year public health expert and former Australian of the Year, Fiona Stanley AC, told ABC’s Radio National’s  that she was “anxious and angry” about the denigration of climate science and the politicisation of the climate change agenda. Where are the departments of climate change and health, she asked, warning that “children and grandchildren of the next generation will bear the brunt”. Judy Brett heard the interview and was struck by the word “anxious”.

“That’s how I feel, and every woman I know,” she said. “A continual sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. We can’t just do nothing.”

A month or so later, Judy, a La Trobe University Emeritus Professor, joined historian and writer Clare Wright (also at La Trobe), and the Victorian Women’s Trust’s Dur-e Dara and Mary Crooks, who all met up and talked about the idea of a mass petition on climate change, like the Victorian colonial women’s Monster petition of 1891 requesting the right to vote. Could they provide a mechanism for huge numbers of Australian women, men and children to tell the national parliament that they want immediate and urgent reduction of carbon emissions to secure a safe climate future?

And so the idea of a monster climate change petition was born, with the decision to collect as many signatures from all over the country in time to show the leaders assembled in Brisbane in mid November for the G20 that many Australians wanted serious commitments made to effect deep reductions in emissions. The petition would then be taken to the national parliament.

The Victorian Women’s Trust would become the administrative base for the petition. A donor stepped forward to provide some start-up funds. Within days the website construction was underway by talented designers Jess and Colette from ‘That Mob‘. We also wanted the petition available in other community languages. Despite super tight deadlines, the website was able to go public (click here) on 11 August.

Last week post website launch, work began in earnest on getting the word out and collecting signatures. Fiona Stanley is the lead petitioner, and there are women working together generating interest in every state and territory. Men too, for although the idea was inspired by the history of women’s political activism, climate change affects us all, and everyone can sign. In fact there are no age or citizenship restrictions on who can sign petitions to the House of Representatives, which is something of a surprise. And in a political first, the Petition is available in seven languages other than English – Turkish, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish.

The House of Representatives requires pen and ink signatures on paper. Judy Brett admits that this is a challenge in these online days. People can’t just click a mouse but have to download and print the petition, sign it and where possible, encourage others to do the same, and then find an envelope, a stamp and a post box. But it is what the House of Representatives requires and so is the only way to have a petition tabled in parliament. And with online petitions so easy, Judy Brett believes that the effort required for paper petitions makes politicians take them more seriously.  

But it does mean old fashioned political activism. In 1891, women without cars or phones or email collected over 30,000 signatures in five weeks, walking the streets and lanes, standing on street corners and knocking on doors, wearing out some shoe leather. Mary Crooks recalls that her great-grandmother on her father’s side signed the Monster Petition in the tiny hamlet of Carisbrook near Maryborough in 1891. She died almost a decade later, in 1900, without experiencing the right to vote.

The women of 1891 glued the petitions onto a 260 metre-long roll of fabric. It took two men to carry it on a cardboard spindle into the colonial Victorian parliament. There is a monument to the petition outside Victoria’s parliament house to commemorate women’s political activism.

Historically mass petitions have been important agents of change: the suffragette petitions, and before that, the Chartist petitions for political rights we now all take for granted; the anti-slavery petitions in the campaign to end the slave trade. The bark petition that hangs in Parliament House Canberra was not a mass petition, but it marks a crucial turning point in Australia’s history, from which the movement for land rights was born.

Judy Brett says she is heartened by how many people share her dismay at climate change being used as a political football and how enthusiastically people sign the petition. Many thank her for giving them the opportunity to stand up and be counted.

Mary says she has watched with increasing frustration the recent assault on climate science, our scientists and the dismantling of climate change initiatives by those who seem to have little regard for the common good. “We are better than this,” she says, adding, “For the sake of our next generations, we need to ramp up our efforts to secure a safe climate.”

Mary also says that when opportunity knocks, we need to grab it with both hands:

“We should not take our democracy for granted. The petition is a real chance for women and men, girls and boys all over the country to stand up and claim a collective voice on climate change.”

For more information, visit the Monster Climate Change Petition website or email us on women@vwt.org.au

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