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Monday, 21 November 2011
Page: 12865

Mr MURPHY (Reid) (10:05): As we near the end of 2011 I thought it might be useful today to reflect a little and to present a snapshot of the petitioning activity that has occurred in the House of Representatives during the last year.

Since the beginning of the 43rd parliament I have made, on behalf of the Standing Committee on Petitions, 13 announcements at this time on sitting Mondays. This year we have had 11 announcements covering a total of 143 petitions. In addition to these announcements on sitting Mondays, various individual members have presented petitions to the House totalling 49 petitions in 2011 to date. A total of 192 petitions have been tabled so far during 2011, compared with 136 in 2010. This represents a significant increase—41 per cent—on the figures for 2010.

The increase in the total number of petitions presented between 2010 and 2011 is a considerable one, even allowing for the election period, which would be expected to slow down activity. But, if we compare the numbers with the last non-election year, 2009, when 150 petitions were presented, there has still been a significant increase—of 28 per cent. The increase in petitions presented in 2011 emphasises a continuing upwards trend since the House Petitions Committee was established in 2008.

I also note that a number of petitions received this year have enjoyed considerable public support, demonstrated by the very large volume of signatures collected. There were five petitions which each collected over 30,000 signatures. The largest of these was the petition on child sex trafficking, with 225,328 signatures. This petition alone accounted for half of the year's total signature count on all petitions tabled. The figures I have just quoted are not just another set of bland statistics. They show trends of a strengthening in petitioning activity in Australia. They remind us how fortunate we are to live in a parliamentary democracy where people have the opportunity to air their views to those who represent them and where those same people are willing to make the effort to take up this opportunity.

As Australians engage with their federal parliament in this very active way, they are also engaging with other Australians. This is pertinent, especially given that the House currently does not accept electronic petitions. So collecting a large volume of signatures for paper petitions, as in the case of the five large petitions I mentioned previously, but also in other cases, would have taken physical effort and required petitioners to personally interact with others in their communities on the issues that matter to them. Given the effort required to engage in this way, in a society where we increasingly interact at arm's length, Australians must still see value in participating in a traditional petitioning process. The fact that petitioners are now receiving ministerial responses to their petitions must also be a contributing factor, in my view.

There were 136 responses by ministers to the 192 petitions presented in the same period in 2011. This constitutes a response rate above 70 per cent. This is a remarkable rate given that from 1997 to 2007, the number of ministerial responses to petitions each year was either none or one. I am reminded of President Obama's words when he addressed the House last week:

… democracy can be messy and rough.

It is true that when an issue concerns people sufficiently for them to petition the House, they may express themselves passionately and there will often be another, perhaps totally contrary, view. But the beauty of our system is that no matter how untidy or inconvenient it might be sometimes, provided that people express themselves in a reasonable way, we enable the views for or against a matter to be aired and brought to the attention of the House and the government. I am sure that when people who draw up petitions go out to collect signatures, while many people will agree and be happy to sign a petition, there will also be others who disagree and who will tell the petitioners exactly that. This kind of exchange can be a very healthy aspect of the process in itself, and this all seems to me to be a very authentic exercise of democratic rights.

The Petitions Committee does not see its role as one of advocacy for or against causes, but it does see its role as an enabler, enabling the issues that cause concern to be brought to the attention of the House and then to be considered and responded to by the government. Finally, I would like to thank my colleagues on the committee—and I note one member is in the chamber—for their interest, goodwill and active participation in its work. The year 2011 has been a busy and constructive one for us, and it is not over yet.

The SPEAKER: Before calling the Clerk, I remind members of my immediate left that, whilst I am very pleased to see members from Queensland getting on so famously, they should do so in a quieter fashion.