Talk about a busman’s holiday. I’ve spent a bit of time in these non-sitting Senate weeks reading more of a fascinating Canberra book called There Being No Objection. Editors Tim Bryant and Brien Hallett describe it as “an Australian Senate miscellany” and it is filled with useful (and useless) Senate facts and anecdotes.

Pages from There Being No Objection.

One chapter that grabbed attention this week was headed “Petitioning the Senate”. It was of more than passing personal interest because, after that 60 Minutes expose of sheep cruelty, I launched a petition calling for a phased-in ban on live exports. It has attracted more than 80,000 signatures.

When the Senate is in session, there is actually a daily provision, for senators to present petitions from constituent individuals and groups.

The first petition ever received by the new Australian Senate was in May, 1901. It was from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of NSW and called for the opening of each session with a daily prayer. Sadly (and bugger the separation of church and state) that practice was adopted in both Houses in June that year.

We do still open with the Lord’s Prayer every morning — but in “the other place” only two or three of the Opposition ever turn up. In the Senate, most Greens, many Labor and cross-benchers, including moi, stare at the ceiling. Senators Canavan and Georgiou always cross themselves and Malcolm Roberts used to stand with palms upturned in supplication. He never did produce the “empirical evidence”.

The biggest volume petition ever submitted was a Catholic Church protest over land mines. It attracted 224,110 signatures in 1995. And there’s a prescient issue from the “some things never change” category. Two petitions submitted in 1902 related to “the conservation of the waters of the Murray” and the “improper diversion of the waters … for irrigation purposes”.  I read a similar email last week — 116 years later.

But back to my petition.

Sky News host and commentator Janine Perrett had a good angle on the current live export debate – triggered (again) by a TV current affairs expose of on-board cruelty. Perrett tweeted that Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, could turn out to be the most inappropriately named pollie in Canberra. Littleproud could end up with much to be proud of, judging by his early comments about the latest examples of mistreatment and his threat that company directors found guilty of such abuse should be heavily fined or jailed.

I thought Littleproud had been effective in the wake of the current scandal. He’s young, he’s new and “You know what?” (to employ his most over-used expression) he’s talking some blunt sense. Post Barnyard Barnaby, we could see some real changes. Especially after the new minister savaged his own department for, shall we say, a lack of transparency.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I was on 3AW when the last ban kicked in and warned campaigners, like Lyn White, not to pop the champagne corks because the ban wouldn’t last. And it didn’t. In retrospect, an instant shutdown was ill-conceived. It probably caused instances of cruelty because it left cattle and sheep stranded. That is why my new petition calls for a ban to be phased in over three years.  State governments have done that to industry before — like phasing out cancer-causing tanning beds.

After we launched the new petition I said I hoped to present Minister Littleproud with 100,000 names when Parliament resumes for the Budget session next month.

I’m also cautious, because it is now nearly 40 years since (pre-social media) I took a petition of 30,000 names to Canberra calling for a ban on live exports. It was 1981, in another Coalition government, when I handed it to Primary Industry Minister Peter Nixon in the Rose Garden.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey