It is the right of any person or organisation to petition Parliament to obtain redress of grievances, or to ask it to take some action or not to do something that is contemplated. The right to petition Parliament is of great antiquity.
The presentation of a petition to the Senate is a proceeding in Parliament and is protected by parliamentary privilege. The publication of a petition before presentation is not similarly protected.
Petitions nowadays are mainly used to express views on public policy issues. The use of petitions to request redress of personal grievances has declined as other avenues for that purpose have developed. Senators frequently attend directly to the problems of constituents, and other sources of redress have been provided by the establishment of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman and legislation relating to administrative appeals and reviews.
Petitions when presented, like other documents presented to the Senate, are public documents. Any person may therefore inspect a petition and extract any information from it, including names and addresses of signatories. There is nothing to prevent such a person then sending material to the signatories. The harassment or other adverse treatment of a person in consequence of their signing a petition could be held by the Senate to constitute a contempt and punished accordingly.
Petitions are presented only by senators. This means that a person who wishes to petition the Senate must forward the petition to a senator and ask the senator to present it. Senators are not obliged to present petitions, but most senators take the view that they should present any petition forwarded to them, unless it is contrary to the rules of the Senate, and despite any disagreement they may have with its contents. This principle was the subject of questions to the Clerk at the additional estimates hearings of the Finance and Public Administration Committee in 2011.
Petitions to be presented are lodged with the Clerk. The senator presenting the petition places the senator’s name at the beginning of it, together with a statement of the number of signatures. Petitions must be lodged with the Clerk at least 3 hours before the meeting of the Senate at which it is proposed to have them presented. In practice the rule is that petitions for presentation on days when the Senate meets early are lodged the previous evening.
Petitions must be certified by the Clerk as being in conformity with the standing orders. Rules relating to the form and content of petitions are set out in standing orders 70 and 71. The most important rule is that a petition must be addressed to the Senate and contain a request for action by the Senate or the Parliament.
Petitions which are posted and signed electronically on the Internet are accepted if the Senator certifies that they have been duly posted with the text available to the signatories.
Petitions are tabled by the Clerk at the time provided in the routine of business. A summary which is circulated indicates in respect of each petition the senator who presents it, the number of signatures and the subject matter. These petitions are deemed to have been received and the texts of the petitions are printed in Hansard. A motion may be moved that a petition not be received. Petitions that are received are ordered to be published under standing order 167 and therefore attract parliamentary privilege.
There is no provision in the standing orders for petitions for private bills, which in some legislatures are founded upon a petition of the interested parties, but which are unknown in the Commonwealth Parliament.
Senators often receive representations from citizens which do not qualify as petitions, such as petitioning letters or documents not properly addressed to the Senate or the Parliament. Such documents may be presented as petitions if the President is satisfied that exceptional circumstances so warrant. Exceptional circumstances are, for example, that the subject matter of the petition is immediately before the Senate, that the petition refers to facts of which the Senate might not otherwise be aware, that the petition refers to a serious grievance or injustice to which the Senate should give immediate attention, or that there is no other way in which the document can be treated so as to bring it to notice. Circumstances which are not exceptional are, for example, that there are a lot of signatures attached to the petition, that a great deal of trouble has been taken to collect the signatures, or that the subject matter of the petition is an important public issue.
Some unusual petitions have been presented, including one relating to the textile, clothing and footwear industries written on a jacket and continued on a roll of cloth, which was presented on 2 April 1992.
A petition received in 1991 was from foreign nationals resident outside Australia. Some senators questioned the propriety of this, but the President ruled that there is nothing to prevent such petitions being presented. There are many circumstances in which foreigners overseas could legitimately ask the Senate to take some action in relation to matters of concern to them.
Petitions presented to the Senate are brought to the notice of the appropriate legislative and general purpose standing committee. Committees have occasionally undertaken inquiries based on petitions relating to their standing references.
Standing order 207 contains residual provision for any question concerning the election, choice or appointment of a senator which cannot, under the provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act, be brought before the Court of Disputed Returns, to be brought before the Senate by petition.