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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 5965


Mrs IRWIN (8:31 PM) —In recent weeks during my statements to the House I have focused on the value that has been gained from public hearings held by the Standing Committee on Petitions. The committee has been very pleased with the level of engagement from petitioners and with the support it has received from ministers and departments. This evening, I would like to refer to two other aspects of the committee’s work, and to some of the benefits that we can hope to gain. The first aspect relates to access to information about petitions and the second aspect relates to the cooperation and goodwill that is shown to the committee by other parliaments as they share information about their petitions processes.

As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the petitions committee was first established in this the 42nd Parliament. To some extent it is carving out new territory, although, of course, I acknowledge the long tradition of petitions to the United Kingdom parliament and the inheritance in Australia of the right to petition our parliament. Australians have long been exercising that right. Something that is new to our petitions process, I believe, is the high degree of responsiveness by the executive to issues that are raised in petitions. In this way, I would argue that petitions can be seen to have a greater impact and petitioners may feel they are having increased success in getting their message across.

Something else that is new to the House, and which may be contributing to the effectiveness of petitioning, is the petitions committee’s centralised collection and publication on its website of information about petitions. That information includes details on the process of petitioning the House, the terms of petitions, statements made by members when presenting those petitions, evidence given to the committee by petitioners and public servants and the written responses made by ministers when the committee refers petitions to them.

Anyone who is interested is able to see on the committee’s website not only the terms of petitions that have been presented to the House—collected under headings that relate to the portfolio area covering the subject of the petition—but also other petitions that relate to the same subject areas. They can also see very clearly the ways that the issues that have been raised in the petitions have been dealt with by members, the House and the government. Enabling easy public access to this information is a significant aspect of the committee’s work.

When the House or Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure presented its 2007 report on petitioning the House, it began a process that culminated in the changing of arrangements for petitions and the establishment of the petitions committee. The Procedure Committee considered itself bound by six principles of petitioning. I will outline those principles, and what I think the committee intended by them. The principles were that, first, petitions belong to the public. Behind this is the belief that the ability of members of the public to communicate directly with the House is important to our democracy. Secondly, petitions sent to the House should be addressed by the House. The Procedure Committee considered that the establishment of a petitions committee was the most effective way for the House to act in relation to petitions. Thirdly, governments should respond. The Procedure Committee wanted to encourage ministers and their departments to respond in a timely way to the issues raised in petitions. Fourthly, members’ involvement should be enhanced and streamlined. By this, the Procedure Committee meant that members had an important role to play in raising and debating the issues addressed in petitions. Fifthly, rules should be relevant and fair. The committee sought to encourage a process, including the process of preparing petitions, which was easier for petitioners. Sixthly, information technologies should be used more effectively. The traditional right of people to address their grievances directly to the King now needs to be aligned with modern technology. In particular, the Procedure Committee stated that the House could not ignore the possibilities raised by electronic petitions. I suggest that these principles have, to one degree or another, been applied.

I would like to expand on the final principle, the effective use of information technology, and some unexpected benefits that have been obtained. In June last year, the Petitions Committee decided to inquire into the introduction of an electronic petitioning system for the House of Representatives. In particular, the committee wanted to consider the different models of electronic petitioning that might be introduced, changes that might be required to House practices and procedures in order to implement e-petitions, the role of members, privacy and security concerns, resource implications and the experience of other relevant jurisdictions. This is a significant inquiry for the committee and the House and it will be completed later this year.

The committee was grateful to hear from other parliaments about their innovations in petitions. It has received submissions from the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council in Tasmania and the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee. The committee has held a videoconference with the Scottish committee, enabling a very constructive discussion and establishing a relationship that continues to this day. The Scottish committee is about to report on its inquiry into the public petitions process, and the report will be read with interest. The Queensland parliament, like the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee, is generous in sharing information and views on the issues raised by e-petitions. The issues raised by petitions in modern parliaments are many and varied and the experience gained by other parliaments is valuable to us. In closing, I would like to acknowledge the cooperative attitude of committees and parliaments in other jurisdictions and the professional relationships being developed by the petitions committee. I think what we have in common is a definite commitment to facilitating direct engagement by members of the public with our parliaments.