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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8158


Mrs IRWIN (8:31 PM) —Last week I was speaking in the House about the inquiry by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions into electronic petitions, but unfortunately the clock defeated me. E-petitioning is the last remaining reform arising from the work of the Procedure Committee in its review of the petitioning system. I would like to encourage any member who is interested to make a submission to our committee on this subject. As I indicated last week, the nominal closing date for submissions has passed, but the committee would still welcome any comments members might wish to make.

The whole issue of electronic petitioning is quite complicated, and it is not as straightforward as being either in favour of it or not. What sort of system do we want to introduce? Will we have a system run by and controlled by the House, or will we accept electronic petitions posted and collated by organisations such as GetUp! on their own websites? What sorts of security arrangements should be put in place to record the details of online petitioners, to ensure that people are not signing up to petitions multiple times? Should electronic petitions be open to everyone or only residents of Australia? What information on petitioners should be available online, and what information should be included when the petition is formally presented to the House? How long should a petition be ‘open’ for signatures? Should petitions on the same topic, but in slightly different terms, be allowed? What is the role for members in electronic petitions? Indeed, do members have a role at all? How could a member associate themselves with a petition if they wished? What resources will be required to run an e-petitioning system?

As I indicated last week, there are a number of quite complex questions that we will be seeking to address over the next couple of months. We will of course be looking at the two Australian jurisdictions that have electronic petitioning—Queensland and Tasmania. I am delighted that both parliaments have made a submission to the inquiry, and we expect to discuss their experiences with them.

We will also be looking at the Scottish parliament’s experience. As the first parliament to set up a full electronic petitioning system, they are in a unique position to give us some guidance on the challenges that we might face. I was similarly very pleased to receive a submission to our inquiry from the presiding member of the Scottish Public Petitions Committee. Again, we will be looking to develop a dialogue with them. Not only does Scotland have electronic petitions, but as part of the system it also has online discussion forums where people can indicate why they support a particular petition. So what the Scottish parliament ends up with is not just a list of email addresses attached to terms of reference but also comments about an issue that add to the debate on a policy matter. Whether the House of Representatives should go down this same path will also be something we will be examining as part of our inquiry.

I will be visiting Scotland early next month to see firsthand how its system operates, and I look forward to sharing some of my findings with the House on my return. I will also be visiting the House of Commons. They are looking to establish electronic petitioning in 2010, following on from a very, very successful e-petitioning system set up for Downing Street. They are facing many of the same challenges that we are in balancing security and other concerns with making the system accessible to all citizens.

There are a great many subjects that have come before the committee in its first six months of operation. Many of the issues are common across all electorates—roads; services in the local area such as post offices, Medicare or Centrelink offices; access to pensions; funding for health and education services; and the list goes on and on. However, one petition has captured my attention because it is on an issue that I know very little about, and I would like to take the time remaining tonight to speak about it.

The East Africa Women’s Foundation has sent a petition to the committee, drawing the attention of the House the use of the drug khat. Khat is a flowering plant native to tropical East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has been grown for use as a stimulant for centuries in the region—in fact, chewing khat predates the use of coffee and is used in a similar social context. As well as being chewed, khat can be taken as tea or smoked.

The petition raises concerns that khat is addictive and can induce antisocial behaviour. The plant gives users a rush, mild euphoria and sometimes hyperactivity or manic behaviour. Users can become violent or aggressive. It is claimed that it can be linked to medical problems including gastrointestinal and cardiovascular disorders and can induce psychiatric symptoms. The petition notes that khat is legal in Australia and asks the House to prohibit the sale, distribution, use, importation and production of khat in Australia.

In looking to learn more about this substance, I was interested to learn that there is not a great deal of information about the use of khat in Australia. In 1993 it was estimated that from 700 to 1,000 people in Melbourne used the plant. And, given the increase in immigration of people from East Africa, it is possible that khat use has become more common. Khat chewing is predominantly a male activity, although women do use it and there appears to be some anecdotal evidence that women who did not chew khat in their former homelands have begun to use khat after their arrival in Australia.

Khat is not illegal in Australia, but its import is controlled under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations. A person wishing to import khat needs a licence to import and a permit to import for each shipment, and there are limits on how much can be imported each month for personal use. In addition, I understand that the plants themselves are also subject to examination by AQIS to ensure that they are free of insects and so on.

Khat is illegal to sell, use and possess in France, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, and is a controlled substance in the United States, Hong Kong and Canada. It is uncontrolled in the United Kingdom, as far as I was able to determine.

This is obviously an issue for some parts of the East African community here in Australia, and I look forward to receiving a ministerial response to this petition in due course.

I hope that, on future occasions, this speaking time will be used by other members of the Petitions Committee, as well as me, to highlight various petitions, ministerial responses or related matters. There is certainly a great deal of positive work being done by the committee, and I look forward to sharing some of it with the House in the coming months.