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Monday, 3 March 2014
Page: 1255

Dr JENSEN (Tangney) (10:02): Last week, as Chair of the Standing Committee on Petitions, I outlined the role of the committee and summarised the threshold requirements that petitions must meet before they are presented in the House and then referred to a minister. Today, I will outline the process for referring petitions to ministers and receiving their responses.

Once a petition that the committee has found complies with standing orders has been presented, either by me as the chair or by a member, standing orders enable the committee to refer the petition to the 'minister responsible for the administration of the matter raised in the petition'. The minister is expected to lodge a written response with the committee within 90 days. Ministerial responses are then considered by the committee and presented by me during this timeslot for petitions allocated by the House; provided to the principal petitioner; printed in Hansard; and then made available on the committee's page on the Parliament House website. So the House's process for petitions is airing not only the issues raised by the petitioner. The government's response to those issues is also made public by the committee.

Before the Petitions Committee was established, the practice was for the House to be informed of the subject matter of each petition and the number of signatures, either by an announcement by the Clerk on sittings Mondays or by a member during members' statements. Petitions were then forwarded to the relevant minister, but it was unusual for responses to be made. For example, there were only 15 tabled responses to petitions between 1973 and 2007.

As you know, Madam Speaker, the tradition of people petitioning the parliament is a very old one. One of the principles underlying the improved petitioning arrangements that began in 2008 is that governments should respond to petitions. Strengthening the ministerial response process has helped people to see the value of engaging with the House through petitions. Petitioners see that their issue is being raised directly in the House and can usually expect to receive a response from the relevant minister on the matter raised. So it seems fair to say that the tradition has been brought up to date, at least to some degree, and information of interest to many Australians is made public.

While for petitioners the ideal would be have their concerns addressed and neatly resolved by ministerial response, in a well-functioning democracy this is likely to be relatively rare. If substantial changes are to be made to government programs, for example, formulating government policy and administrative process can take months of consideration before being implemented or found not to be viable. Further, if legislative changes are required, these will have to go through the robust parliamentary process, which also takes considerable time.

Most petitioners understand this. What is especially valuable about the ministerial response process is that there is a formal acknowledgement that the minister has considered their concerns and outlined why a circumstance may exist and why the government acts, or does not act, in a certain way.

On some occasions, though, a matter is resolved to the satisfaction of petitioners. An example is a petition last year requesting that a certain medication for the treatment of metastatic melanoma be added to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, or the PBS. In the response, the Minister for Health acknowledged the seriousness and high incidence of skin cancer in Australia and advised that the government had approved the listing of the medication on the PBS. We cannot know what role the petition played, but we do know that concern about a serious issue was drawn to the attention of the House, and the government's response to that issue was made public by a committee of the House.

While the Petitions Committee does not have the power to pursue ministerial responses, the current arrangements have led to a significant increase in response to petitions, from 0.3 per cent in the 41st Parliament, under the previous system, to 58 and 67 per cent in the 42nd and 43rd parliaments. These figures indicate the number of response letters presented, although one letter might be a response to multiple petitions. If this is taken into account, the real response rate for the 43rd Parliament would be closer to 90 per cent. I would argue that this illustrates that both petitioners and ministers see the value in the petitioning system as a way to engage more directly on issues. The Petitions Committee is pleased to be able to facilitate that engagement on behalf of the House.