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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11489

Dr JENSEN (Tangney) (10:03): Today I will outline some important aspects of the committee's role and limitations. I have outlined the committee's role in previous statements to the House, so today I will focus only on a couple of pertinent areas.

Last week I spoke of the committee's public hearing process and of the hearing held in Melbourne in late September. These public hearings bring home to the committee the difference between the intent of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions hearings on petitions and most general purpose and joint committee inquiry hearings: that is, when the committee conducts public hearings on petitions, it is not doing so in order to resolve the petition issue itself nor to make recommendations to government. It does not intervene or seek resolution with the executive government. The process does, however, provide more public information about the petition issue which may be explored during discussions at the hearing. This information is recorded in a Hansard transcript.

Similarly, no submissions or exhibits are received at Petitions Committee public hearings or afterwards, because the committee is not examining the matter further.

Another aspect of the committee's role which I have come to reflect on recently is the importance of its autonomy. The committee, as you are well aware, is independent of executive government. A key function of the committee is to act as an intermediary between the House and the executive on petitions presented in the House and responses to them. But it does not engage with the executive on the subject matter of petitions nor on the responses to them.

The committee has recently seen examples of misunderstandings of this independence and the committee's largely procedural oversight role. Some petitioners request the committee to assess and comment on petition subject matter or to follow up with the executive a perceived delay in a ministerial response—some with a prompt for a specificresponse. Some petitioners also request responses to their petition from specific ministers. Of course the committee has no influence over ministerial responses once the petition is referred. The manner in which a response is prepared, and from which portfolio area, is a ministerial decision—not a committee decision.

Petitioners may be dismayed at the House's petitioning process if they perceive the petitions process to be a simple 'ask and you shall receive' system. Of course some petition matters are resolved by changes in government policy, administration or regulation, but it is never easy to determine whether the petition itself, or alone, resulted in this outcome—and very few ministerial responses are able to provide advice of a resolution simply because the petition cycle, as outlined in the House standing orders, is relatively short. That is, the standing orders provide guidance for ministers to respond to petitions within 90 days of petition referral. This provides a timely turnaround, which most petitioners seek—however, this time frame is unlikely to result in the required research, review, organisational requirements or parliamentary actions to resolve the majority of petition concerns.

Petitioners should feel confident that their petition will be considered by the committee in an objective manner—but only against the standing order requirements of the House. If the petition meets the requirements, their petition issue may be brought before the House of Representatives and may be referred to the executive for a written response. The committee's decision on the compliance of a petition is completely independent of the executive and of any member's personal views on the subject matter. This independence—although some petitioners may find it an annoyance when they want action and would prefer the committee to have influence—is of immense value to them. The petitions system the House has established, which includes the non-resolution role of the committee, protects petitioners from being discriminated against on the basis of their petition's subject matter.