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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3199

Mr MURPHY (Reid) (10:05): Today I will discuss some aspects of the most recent public hearings held by the Standing Committee on Petitions in December last year. The committee’s public hearing activities take the committee to where petitions are generated. Capital cities generate a large volume of petitions; however, the committee also considers many petitions prepared by Australians in rural and regional areas across the country. In 2011 the Gippsland region of Victoria had a particularly active community of people engaging in petitioning the House. As such, the first day of Victorian hearings was held in Melbourne, followed by a day in Traralgon, in the Gippsland region.

The House Standing Committee on Petitions does not investigate petition issues; neither does it seek to propose recommendations to government about such matters. Public hearings are therefore held to provide petitioners with an opportunity to speak in greater detail about the issue raised in their petition through a dialogue with the committee. The committee usually selects petitions that have received a ministerial response before considering them at a public hearing as this ensures that a more complete conversation takes place.

One of the standing orders governing petitioning is that petition terms cannot exceed 250 words. This word limit provides a succinct mechanism for issues from the people to be raised in the plenary and for the government to become aware of them. However, elaboration beyond 250 words, which can occur at a hearing, enables a wider and deeper perspective of a matter and provides an opportunity to hear the petitioner’s proposals for rectification or prevention of a problem. Public hearings also enable people in the community to attend in their local area and to learn more about the matter and the parliamentary process. An additional benefit is that the committee can receive feedback about the effectiveness of petitioning processes.

The petitions discussed in Melbourne and Traralgon covered a diversity of topics ranging from agricultural and environmental matters, human services, crime prevention, intellectual property to publicly funded medicines. My colleagues and I who participated found these days to be most valuable. The principal petitioners were articulate and passionate about the matters they represented and it was gratifying to see that regardless of the outcome of the petition these people participated in the hearings in a positive and thoughtful way. Some people also travelled considerable distances to attend. We thank them for their time and effort.

In Melbourne, the committee invited a principal petitioner who had petitioned for the inclusion of a life-saving medicine on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to discuss her experience of petitioning rather than discuss the petition itself given the medicine had since been added to the PBS. Significantly, this petitioner made the point that although she approached action on her issue in a variety of ways, she felt that the act of petitioning, of going out into train stations, supermarkets and malls, allowed her to directly spread the word and that it was something she and her family and friends could actively do. She also felt that for every signature she collected it represented many more people who later heard about the issue. The principal petitioner debated whether the petition played the key role in realising the action she had requested; however, she valued the investment in speaking to people in the community while collecting signatures.

These comments resonated with many of the petitioners the committee met while we were in Victoria. For example, the principal petitioner for the petition on preventing child sexual exploitation, a petition which gathered over 225,000 signatures, said:

Whether we are successful in our petition asks or not, I think we are very successful in terms of increasing awareness …

Similarly, the principal petitioner of a petition regarding information processing patents noted:

I think it was a good way to show people that you are serious about an issue.

At Traralgon, the principal petitioner calling for cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park felt that the high rate of the local community's willingness to sign his petition indicated to him:

… that we were on the right track with what we were doing.

Also in Traralgon, the principal petitioner on the implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a long-time advocate for services for the dependant disabled, said she felt that the current ministerial response process better met the information needs of petitioners. She noted:

For the very first time, in all of our petitioning years, we actually have knowledge of an outcome and a response. It is not the response that we want entirely, but it is a response nevertheless.

Finally, these interactions also gave the committee an opportunity to iron out misconceptions about the function of the Petitions Committee and to stress its role as a conduit between the House and the executive, but not as an advocate. The committee looks forward to opportunities to meet with other principal petitioners in different regions of Australia in the future.