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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1514

Mr MURPHY (10:03 AM) —I would like to take this opportunity today to speak about several matters relating to petitioning, including the form and content of petitions and the role of technology.

Firstly, I would like to briefly talk about the form and content of petitions. While petitioning may be a longstanding tradition in our parliament, the rules governing petitions have changed more often over the years than one might think.

The most recent major changes, which include the creation of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions, also removed the requirement for all petitioners, other than a principal petitioner, to provide an address. Before this, all people who signed a petition were required to provide their address. The rationale behind the earlier requirement was to verify that the individual signing the petition was indeed genuine. However, in recent years there have been increased concerns about protecting the privacy of petitioners.

Also, evidence provided to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure for its 2007 report Making a difference: petitioning the House of Representatives suggested that the requirement for petitioners to provide their address was a disincentive to petitioning.

This report led to a number of changes in the standing orders governing petitioning, making petitioning a more vibrant and active way for the public to interact with the House and also increasing the responsibility of ministers to respond to the issues raised in petitions.

Nevertheless, many people continue to draft petitions in the older, traditional format. While this inclusion does not render any petition out of order—and the signature pages are not published online—I would like to make the point that it is not necessary. I also note that petitions, once presented in the House, are included in the Votes and Proceedings, and the originals are therefore available to be viewed.

As I noted earlier, petitioning in the House of Representatives has changed significantly in the last few years, and some long-held rules have been altered to take into account the changing times.

One of the reasons for this is the changing role of technology in all our lives. Computing and the internet have changed the way that we undertake even the most basic of tasks, and that too is starting to change the way petitions are being organised by the public.

We are seeing an increasing use of email to distribute petitions by principal petitioners under the current arrangements of the House. From this point, the signed, hard-copy petitions are sent back to a central point for collation or sent straight to the House of Representatives. At this stage, petitions must still be signed and they must be original hard copies if they are to be considered by the Petitions Committee for presentation to the House.

Potential petitioners interact frequently with the Petitions Committee secretariat through email, often asking for information on the requirements of the House and sending draft petitions to get some feedback. This is a very practical step for petitioners to take before they go to the trouble of collecting signatures. It helps them to prepare petitions that are likely to be found to be in order, thus enabling their concerns to be heard by the House and referred to ministers for a written response.

The Petitions Committee’s webpage on the Parliament House website has information about contact numbers for the secretariat and how to prepare petitions. The secretariat cannot compose petitions and it does not decide whether they are in order or not, but it can provide information to help petitioners ensure their likely compliance with the House’s standing orders.

Technology also has a role to play in publicising the concerns that are raised in petitions. After a petition has been found in order by the committee and presented to the House, its terms are published in Hansard and placed on the committee’s website for public perusal. If a ministerial response is requested and received—and this happens in most cases—the text of the minister’s response is placed alongside the terms of the petition on the committee’s website, as well as being notified to the principal petitioner.

I note in passing the great increase in the number of ministerial responses to petitions since the establishment of the Petitions Committee in 2008. For example, from 1997 to 2007 the number of ministerial responses each year was either none or one. In 2008, 56 responses were received; in 2009, the figure was 94; and, in 2010, 53 responses were received—that is, about 77 per cent of petitions received a ministerial response.

Making information on petitions and responses available online enables non-principal petitioners and other interested individuals to follow the progress of petitions and to read the ministerial responses, informing the community generally and reducing the need for principal petitioners in particular to try to pass on the response to a possibly disparate group of fellow signatories.

The next natural step in the evolution of electronic communication and petitioning is likely to be the introduction of electronic petitioning, if the House follows the example of a range of other parliaments. Several jurisdictions overseas and Australian state parliaments—Queensland and Tasmania—have introduced electronic petitioning. While the systems they use to process the petitions may vary, they all seek to simplify and modernise the petitioning process to improve access to parliament for the people.

While electronic petitioning may have seemed a radical concept several years ago when introduced and promoted by the Scottish parliament, the processes that have been established in Queensland and Tasmania show that an electronic petitioning system can operate effectively alongside the more traditional system of hard-copy petitions in a parliament such as ours.

We look forward to the next stage in the process of petitioning and to finding new ways of engaging Australians in the work of the House.