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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10355

Mrs IRWIN (8:32 PM) —The world of communications is changing rapidly and the growing use of email and other forms of online communication presents a challenge to parliamentary representatives around the world. As I indicated in an earlier report, I have recently returned from a series of visits as part of my overseas study entitlement which focused on the responses of parliaments to online communication and in particular e-petitioning.

My study took me to the Scottish Parliament, where e-petitioning has been in operation for four years; the House of Commons, where its Procedure Committee recently tabled a report into e-petitioning; and to the United States Congress, where online communication has emerged as a critical tool in presenting petitions and communicating with members as well as an efficient campaign tool.

I would note from the outset that the approach of one of the newest parliaments, the Scottish Parliament, was significantly different from two of the oldest parliaments, the House of Commons and the US Congress. As the Petitions Committee of the Australian House of Representatives—and I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, that you are a member of that committee—draws on the Scottish model, it was valuable to discuss experiences and developments with their Public Petitions Committee and, by chance, to see one of the best examples of a petitions committee in practice.

My visit to Edinburgh coincided with only the second full debate on the tabling of a report by the Public Petitions Committee. The subject of the report and the progress through the committee make an excellent case study in petitioning. The petition sought to allow the National Health Service to continue to provide treatment where a terminally ill patient had provided cancer treatment drugs at his own expense. This is a complex issue and one which is, as members will appreciate, highly emotive.

The report of the Public Petitions Committee was presented by the committee convenor, Mr Frank Macaveety, and responses were made in the parliament by the health minister, the Leader of the Labour Party, the Chief Minister of the Scottish National Party government and the Leader of the Conservative Unionist Party. It was by all descriptions a full and frank debate and one which demonstrated the approach of the convenor that petitions and the petitions committee can be, in his words:

the public gateway to the parliament, and;

a means to engage with those least engaged.

By contrast, the House of Commons Procedure Committee, which has a report before the House recommending some changes to petitions, appears reluctant to go as far in opening the system of petitioning. The clerk to the committee, Mr Mark Hutton, press said that while the Scottish model was meeting the public’s expectations in Scotland he was concerned that a similar approach in the House of Commons would raise expectations to a level which could not be met. He referred to the large numbers of online petitions submitted to the Prime Minister’s petitioning system and the difficulty in satisfying the expectations they may have raised with the public. Their report therefore recommends retaining the role of the constituency member in facilitating petitions and excludes a specific petitions committee, with the Procedure Committee retaining an oversight role in the system.

The nature of the US Congress as a legislative body determines the individual role of members, according to Mr John Sullivan, the ‘parliamentarian’ or what we would refer to as the Clerk of the Congress. The right to petition is covered in the first amendment and, as no form is prescribed, any petition, including online petitions, is valid.

Mr Sullivan advised that petitions are referred by his office to the relevant committee. A key consideration of committees and congress members is the number of signatories to petitions. For this reason, there is concern that electronic signatures cannot be easily verified and online petitions will be more effective when signatures can be authenticated.

Mr Sullivan’s comments were supported at my meeting with Mr Tim Hysom, Director of Communications and Technology Services of the Congressional Management Foundation. The foundation provides advice and training to staff of members and senators in handling communication with constituents. Each year it awards the ‘Gold Mouse’—a funny name—for the best websites on Capitol Hill. Mr Hysom pointed out the rapid growth of online communication and commented that during the passage of the financial bailout legislation, which had passed a few days prior to my visit, the volume of online traffic was so great that the Capitol Hill servers went down. He said that this was an indication of the future volume of online communication.

These are just a few details arising from my study. I will, in due course, set out the full detail of my discussions, which I trust will assist the Petitions Committee in our own inquiry into e-petitioning. At the time of my discussions with the Scottish parliament I suggested that we might arrange a teleconference between our two committees, and I am pleased to announce that the conference will take place later this month.

Along with those I have mentioned in this speech, I would also like to thank Mr Fergus Cochrane, Clerk of the Scottish parliament’s Public Petitions Committee, and SNP committee member Mr Nigel Dunn. I would also thank Mr Grahame Wear, liaison officer of the Scottish parliament, Ms Sue Pamphlett of the House of Commons and Mr Chris Benscher of the Australian Embassy in Washington for their assistance. They did a wonderful job.