I recently saw a tweet from the Twitter account of the New Zealand Parliament regarding the launch of an electronic petitions system. I’m not sure if the Australian House of Representatives social media people also read that tweet, but the next day I saw its account had sent a tweet reminding people that a new e-petition platform had been launched in September 2016, following the start of the 45th Parliament. The right to petition the legislature or the government is a feature of various democracies around the world, and the move to online platforms for receiving petitions is an example of the impact of technology on how parliaments engage with the public.
A little history…
Information about the history of the right to petition parliament can be found on the websites of both the Australian and New Zealand parliaments. The relevant chapter of Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, available online, states:
The earliest legislative acts of the English Parliament were often transacted by the Commons petitioning the King that a certain amendment be made to the law, but petitions as a source of legislation soon disappeared from the picture, apart from the field of private legislation. In New Zealand, the only vestige of the petition’s former role in legislating was formerly to be found in the field of private bills, which were initiated in the House by the presentation of a petition from the promoter of the bill. However, following changes to Standing Orders in 2011, a petition is no longer required to introduce a private bill. In 1993 Parliament passed legislation permitting the presentation of petitions seeking the holding of referendums. These statutory petitions are the subject of their own special rules. [Links added by author]
The vast majority of petitions addressed to the House relate to public policy issues and private grievances of various kinds. From its first meeting in 1854, the House, continuing an ancient right exercised in England, has admitted petitions seeking redress for an almost unlimited range of real or supposed wrongs done to petitioners, advocating amendments to the law or changes in Government policy, or seeking public inquiries into unsatisfactory situations. By petitioning the House, the citizen can express his or her opinion on a subject of concern and address it in a public way to the country’s legislators. The act of petitioning may or may not have any practical consequences, but it ensures that the petitioner’s concerns are heard and given some consideration by those in authority.
An Infosheet about petitions on the Australian website similarly states:
In the United Kingdom the right of petitioning the Crown and Parliament for redress of grievances dates back to the reign of King Edward I in the 13th century. The origins of Parliament itself can be traced back to those meetings of the King’s Council which considered petitions. The terms ‘bill’ and ‘petition’ originally had the same meaning. Some of the earliest legislation was in fact no more than a petition which had been agreed to by the King.
The present form of petitions developed in the late 17th century. The House of Commons passed the following resolutions in 1669:
That it is an inherent right of every Commoner of England to prepare and present petitions to the House in case of grievance; and of the House of Commons to receive them.
That it is the undoubted right and privilege of the House of Commons to adjudge and determine, touching the nature and matter of such Petitions, how far they are fit and unfit to be received.
The effect of these resolutions was inherited by the Australian Parliament and the right of petitioning thus became the right of every Australian.
In modern times the practice of petitioning Parliament does not have the same primary role as an initiator of legislation or other action by the Parliament as it did in early history. There are now other, and usually more effective, means of dealing with individual grievances—for example, by direct representation by a Member of Parliament, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman or by bodies like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It is hoped that the current arrangements for responding to petitions highlights petitioning as an important means of community involvement in the work of the Parliament.
Among the most famous and influential petitions in the two countries are the women’s suffrage petitions in New Zealand in the early 1890s, and petitions in the 1950s regarding a constitutional referendum related to indigenous people in Australia.
Each house of the Australian Parliament actually has its own rules for petitions. The House of Representatives now specifically allows e-petitions under its standing orders, while the Senate’s standing orders do not expressly address this. The Senate does, however, accept print-outs of petitions that have been posted online and signed electronically, provided they meet the other rules.
There are also different processes for the presentation of petitions to the two chambers. The House of Representatives has a standing Petitions Committee. The role of this committee is “to receive and process petitions, and to inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system. The Committee does not make recommendations on, or implement, any actions requested in petitions. If a petition is deemed to have met relevant Standing Order requirements by the Committee, it will be presented to the House and referred to the relevant Government Minister for response” (since 2008, when new petitioning procedures were introduced, “almost all petitions presented have been referred to Ministers and received responses”). A petitioner’s local member can also agree to present the petition to the House.
For a petition to be presented in the Senate, it must be presented by a Senator. However, “[w]hile there is nothing in the rules of the Senate to compel a senator to present a petition, most senators take the view that they should seek to present any petition forwarded to them, even if the views represented in the petition do not reflect the views of the senator presenting it.” Once presented, petitions are brought to the notice of the appropriate Senate committee, which may seek a reference from the Senate to consider the issues. Sometimes, Senators refer petitions to debate by the whole Senate.
In New Zealand, a Member of Parliament (not necessarily a petitioner’s local member) must agree to present a petition to the Parliament, and can only do so once it has closed for signatures. It is the role of the Office of the Clerk to check that petitions meet the requirements. Previously, up until 1985, a dedicated committee had reviewed petitions (in fact, there were two such committees before 1962), but now any petitions presented in the House are referred directly to the relevant subject matter select committee. Once the committee has discussed a petition, it reports back to the full Parliament. If the committee has any recommendations for the government, the government must respond to these within sixty working days.
There are various other technical rules around presentation and response processes. Generally, however, in both Australia and New Zealand, petitions that comply with the format and content requirements will receive some form of consideration. It is worth noting that neither country requires a certain amount of signatures to be obtained in order for a petition to be presented to the parliament. The New Zealand Parliament’s guide for petitions states that “[y]ou do not have to collect signatures. A petition with just your signature will go through the same process as one with many signatures.” The Australian House of Representatives frequently asked questions on petitions states that “[t]he minimum number of signatures required is one (1). The person requesting the petition (the ‘Principal Petitioner’) is the first signature on each petition.”
Standard requirements for petitions
In New Zealand, petitions of parliament must
- be in English or Māori
- use respectful and moderate language
- ask the House of Representatives to take a defined action
- not contain irrelevant statements.
The guidance also states that “[p]etitioning Parliament should be your last course of action. If you have other legal options, like going to an Ombudsman or to court, then your petition will not be accepted.”
Petitioners of the Australian House of Representatives are advised to make sure their petition is
- about something that the House of Representatives is responsible for (the House cannot take any action on issues that are the responsibility of individuals, local councils, State or Territory governments or private companies)
- addressed to the Speaker and the House, for example not the Prime Minister or an individual Minister
- clear what you are asking for
- does not promotes illegal acts and
- does not contain language that is offensive (another page also says that petitions must be in English and written using “moderate language”)
In order for a petition to be accepted by the Senate:
- the petition must be addressed to the Senate
- it must contain a request for action by the Senate or the Parliament
- the text of the petition must be visible on every page
- only original documents will be accepted – no faxes or photocopies
- no letters, affidavits, or other documents can be attached
Features of the e-petition sites
The Australian and New Zealand e-petition websites are structured a little differently. The New Zealand site takes petitioners through a step-by-step process, requiring the completion of one separate step before moving on to the next. This includes a step for searching for existing petitions that are similar. A bar at the top of the form shows you what step you are at and what you have left to complete. The Australian site also provides an online form, with the first page requiring the reasons and request for action boxes to be filled out before moving to the next stage. The first page does not show what steps are remaining.
Both sites also allow users to find and sign existing petitions online. The New Zealand site lists the petitions that are open for signature, along with the number of signatures that each has currently. A search box on the left side of the page also allows filtering by date. Once you click on a petition you can read the details, see when it is closing for signature, and click a button to sign the petition (there is also an option to view the details of all the petitions on one page). This takes you to a form where you provide your name and email address and confirm that you have read the privacy disclaimer before clicking the “Sign Petition” box. There is also a “share” toolbar at the bottom of the page for each petition so that people can spread the word on social media or by email.
Similarly, on the Australian site you can view all of the petitions currently open for signature, their closing date, and the current number of signatures. You can also just view petitions that are “recent” or “popular,” and there is a search box as well. Clicking the “sign” button beside a petition takes you to a form that requires your name and email address, and to check a box stating that you agree to abide by the terms and conditions for ePetitions (and also declare that you are not a member of parliament). Each page on the site also has a share toolbar.
I should also note that, apart from the federal parliament, some Australian state parliaments also allow e-petitions, specifically Queensland and Tasmania, although they seem to require that a request form to be filled out and printed, rather than petitions being submitted directly online. Once published online, people can join or sign petitions using the websites.
E-petition platforms in other countries
In researching this post, I learned that the United Kingdom House of Commons launched a new e-petitions site in July 2015, enabling online petitions of both the Parliament and the UK government. E-petitions were actually previously authorized by 10 Downing Street, which first launched its platform in 2006, with petitions directed to government departments. The UK government later launched a new site in 2011. Under the old approach, there was only a prospect of response if a petition obtained more than 100,000 signatures. Now, if a petition gets 10,000 signatures the government will respond, and if it gets 100,000 the petition will be considered for debate in Parliament.
Earlier adopters of e-petitions were the Scottish Parliament (active since 2000) and the Welsh National Assembly. The German Bundestag has had an e-petition portal since 2005, and I also located sites in Ireland and Luxembourg. The European Parliament has such a portal as well. A comparative study of the right to petition in European countries, which includes a discussion of e-petitions starting at page 25, was published by the European Parliament in 2015. The library of the Parliament of Victoria, in Australia, also published a research paper that examines different systems in 2016.
Outside of Europe, the Canadian House of Commons system for receiving petitions online went live in December 2015. The guidance for e-petitions shows that people need to create an account in order to submit a petition. They also need a member to sponsor the petition and must obtain at least 500 signatures in 120 days in order for the petition to be presented in the House. Once that occurs, the government has 45 days to respond.
In 2016, an Australian blogger wrote an interesting comparison of the features of the new Australian, Canadian, and UK sites, as well as the “We the People” system on the White House website in the U.S. One observation, for example, was that with regard to the Australian system, “[t]he entire process felt very cold and impersonal, unlike the UK and US experiences – which were warm and inviting.” Overall, he was critical of the Australian approach and thought the site could be designed better with the user in mind.
The Petitions Committee of the Australian House of Representatives is actually currently examining the e-petitioning system, including the extent to which it has “met the expectations of Parliamentarians and members of the public” and possible future enhancements.
Do you know of any other parliaments (or governments) with e-petition portals?