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BY DANIEL REYNOLDS & GEORGE WILLIAMS

Over the past two decades, the idea of petitioning the Australian Parliament has been quietly heading towards extinction. A petition is a document signed by members of the public that requests Parliament to undertake action such as amending a law or asks the government to perform some administrative action. While in the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of petitions were submitted annually to the House of Representatives by members of the public seeking redress for their grievances, this figure has since fallen to around one hundred per year.

On 13 September 2016, the House of Representatives sought to address this by adopting a system allowing for the electronic submission of petitions (or ‘e-petitions’) to the House. The immediate effect is to do away with the outmoded requirement that all parliamentary petitions must be printed on paper, hand-signed by each petitioner, and physically delivered to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Petitions (‘Petitions Committee’).

This is a welcome reform, but one that is unlikely on its own to revitalise the once vibrant tradition of parliamentary petitions. That is because, as the authors have argued in a recent article in the Australasian Parliamentary Review, the most successful petition reforms around the world have gone further. They have done more than merely reform the procedure by which petitions are submitted.

Other parliaments have also brought about changes that ensure petitions can have a substantive impact. In particular, petitioning has flourished in jurisdictions where prescribed outcomes are guaranteed at certain thresholds of signatures (for example, in the United Kingdom, where Ministerial responses are guaranteed for all petitions garnering 10,000 signatures), and where a parliamentary committee tasked with considering petitions is also able to inquire into the matters raised by the petition.

Petitions can be submitted on an extraordinary array of matters. These might include, to list contemporary issues, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to the plebiscite on same-sex marriage, or from the reestablishment of the Australian Building and Construction Commission to the creation of life-time travel bans for asylum seekers.

The Australian experience of petitions

For most of the first sixty years of Australia’s federal Parliament, petitions were a mere footnote. While 100 to 200 per year were presented in each of its Houses in the years following 1901, this quickly tapered off. Indeed, in the Senate, in thirty of the years between 1901 and 1968, no petitions were presented at all.

This changed in the late 1960s when each of the Houses experienced a surge in the number of petitions being received, with thousands being presented in the House of Representatives and hundreds in the Senate. This continued for roughly the next 20 years. The variety of these petitions is almost as remarkable as their quantity, touching on topics as diverse as land rights, breast cancer, internet gambling and political prisoners in Chile.

Then at the start of the 1990s, just as quickly as petitions had burst onto the parliamentary stage, they all but disappeared, falling from a peak of 5,528 presented to the House of Representatives in 1986, to exactly 104 presented in each of the last three years. Whatever the causes for both the rise and decline of petitions in these periods, it is clear that in around the early 1990s, petitioning the federal Parliament went out of fashion. The result is that importance of petitions in modern-day parliamentary deliberation appears to be minimal at best, with Senator Bob Brown observing in 1997:

An enormous amount of effort goes into signing petitions, some of them with tens of thousands of signatures. Yet at the end of the day they have little above zero impact on the thinking of we senators.

A number of parliamentary committees have been tasked with identifying the causes of, and solutions to, the decline of petitions in Australia. Eleven reports have been produced since the downturn began, most of them by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure.

Until this month, the most significant reform to emerge from this series of inquiries and reports was the establishment of the Petitions Committee in 2008, which was tasked to receive and process petitions, and to inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system. This reform has led to some measure of improvement, such as better Ministerial responsiveness.

Nevertheless, its impact should not be overstated. Petitions are still rarely, if ever, debated in Parliament. The number of petitions presented annually has continued to decline, and now at 104 per year is the lowest it has been since 1969. Public interest in, and awareness of, petitions is also low. For instance, when the Committee set out in March 2010 to undertake a review of the petitions system since its inception, it received only one submission, which came from the Clerk of the House. Even Ministerial responses, though now more frequent, typically serve only to explain the government’s reasons for refusing the request. As the Committee has noted: ‘It is rare for the actions sought in petitions to be achieved.’

Lessons and reforms

Australia’s recent federal experience of petitions begs the question: if petitions rarely succeed in achieving substantive outcomes, and if people have lost faith in them as a useful tool for making their voices heard, then what ongoing purpose do they serve? Or in other words, why not abolish them?

The answer to this lies in the potential of petitions rather than in their recent performance. There is a well-documented disjunction between the democratic ideals that Parliament ought to embody, and the way that it is operates and is perceived to operate in practice. Petitions can play a remedial role in this context, as a more effective system could give members of the public the chance to meaningfully raise their concerns for consideration by their elected representatives. A more effective petitioning process could provide a means by which parliamentarians can listen to electors, and not only at election time.

Such potential is being realised in other jurisdictions that have until recently experienced a similar public indifference to petitions. The best example – because the improvement has been the most pronounced – is the United Kingdom.

Until recently, petitioning to the UK’s House of Commons was in a similarly neglected state to Australia. Then in May 2014, the House of Commons established an e-petition system, to be overseen by a purpose-created Petitions Committee (which was given a substantive role to play, like Scotland’s Public Petitions Committee mentioned below).

The system also introduced guaranteed outcomes for certain thresholds of signatures, with any petition receiving 10,000 signatures being guaranteed a response by the relevant Minister, and any petition receiving 100,000 signatures being considered for parliamentary debate. The results so far have been striking. Since the new site went live on 20 July 2015 until mid-September 2016, 21,518 petitions have been submitted online. Since the reforms, there have been 285 petitions which have received a Ministerial response, while 32 have been debated in Parliament, the most famous examples being the petition to ban Donald Trump from entering the UK, and the petition demanding a second referendum on whether Britain should leave or remain within the European Union. While it is too early to assess public attitudes to the new petitions model, the enormous rise in the extent of engagement shows a high level of public willingness to engage in this channel of communication. It demonstrates just how effective a petitioning system can be as a form of civic expression in a Westminster democracy.

While Australia’s Petitions Committee has interpreted its function narrowly as being confined to receiving and processing petitions (rather than inquiring into the matters raised in petitions), equivalent committees in other jurisdictions have taken on a much broader role. For example, in July 2011, in response to a petition it received, Scotland’s Public Petitions Committee on its own initiative conducted an extensive public inquiry into child sexual exploitation which culminated in the creation of a National Action Plan by the Government. Whatever the merits of the policy involved in that plan and any subsequent legislation, a petitioner in that situation would be hard-pressed to feel that their concerns had not been taken seriously.

Conclusion

While Australia’s recently announced reforms are a welcome development, the experience of comparable jurisdictions supports the need for at least two further reforms:

  • Empowering the Petitions Committee to inquire into and engage substantively with the issues raised in petitions; and
  • Setting signature thresholds beyond which petitioners can expect a Ministerial response or the holding of a parliamentary debate.

These reforms offer the promise of reviving the dying democratic tradition of the petition in Australia’s federal Parliament. It would provide a more effective means by which members of the public can have their voice heard in Parliament and by government. This might assist in rebuilding confidence in the role of Parliament and more broadly Australia’s democratic traditions. It might also alleviate the frustration and anger felt in sections of the community that their concerns are being ignored, and that there is no effective way of bringing these to the attention of their elected representatives.

Daniel Reynolds is a Researcher at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of New South Wales, and a Graduate at Herbert Smith Freehills.

George Williams is the Dean of UNSW Law. He is the Anthony Mason Professor, a Scientia Professor and the Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the Faculty of Law. 

Suggested citation:  Daniel Reynolds and George Williams  ‘Australian democracy could be improved by breathing new life into an ancient tradition‘ on AUSPUBLAW (10 November 2016) <https://auspublaw/2016/11/breathing-new-life-into-an-ancient-tradition/>