In the Westminster tradition 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. It was from petitions that legislation by bill was gradually derived. Petitions have indeed been described as ‘the oldest of all parliamentary forms, the fertile seed of all the proceedings of the House of Commons’.
The form and purpose of petitions changed over the centuries, the present form having developed in the 17th century. The rights of petitioners and the power of the UK House of Commons to deal with petitions were affirmed by 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.
In Australia the right of petitioning Parliament remains a fundamental right of the citizen. It is the only means by which the individual can directly place grievances before the Parliament. Petitions may be received by the House on public or individual grievances provided that they relate to matters over which the House has jurisdiction. Petitions may ask the House to introduce legislation, or repeal or change existing legislation; to take action for a certain purpose or for the benefit of particular persons; or to redress a personal grievance, for example by the correction of an administrative error. However, most petitions concern public issues.
The practice of accepting petitions has been viewed from time to time in the past as an ineffective anachronism which makes excessive demands on the time of the House. Individual grievances can often be dealt with by more direct non-public action by Members, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and by such bodies as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Public grievances may be more effectively brought to public attention through other parliamentary forms such as questions, debate and committee inquiries, and through direct communication with Members and Ministers.
About 300 petitions are presented each year. In 1993 a petition was presented from an estimated 513 445 citizens (concerning health care funding). A new record was set in 2000 when a petition was presented from 792 985 citizens (concerning taxation and beer prices). It would seem from these figures that the many people who organise petitions and the thousands who sign them consider their efforts to be worthwhile. An important effect of the petitioning process is that Members and the Government are informed, in a formal and public way, of the views of sections of the community on public issues. Even if no action is immediately taken on a petition, it and others like it may assist in the creation of a climate of opinion which can influence or result in action. The petition usually forms part of a broader attempt by individual groups within the community to draw public attention to grievances. Petitions also provide a focal point for individuals and groups attempting to organise campaigns on various issues—for example, public meetings are sometimes organised around the signing of petitions.
Major changes were made to the standing orders concerning petitions in 2008, following an inquiry by the Standing Committee on Procedure. The committee’s report Making a difference: Petitioning the House of Representatives made recommendations aimed at enhancing the status of petitions and making the petitioning process more effective. The following text outlines current procedures: additional historical information may be found in earlier editions.
Definition of a petition
Standing order 2 defines a petition as ‘a formal request to the House to take action that is within its power to take’, and states that a petition for presentation to the House must comply with the standing orders.
The request must be to the House—that is, not to the Parliament, nor to the Government or an individual Minister. Any legislative or administrative action requested must concern a matter on which the House, as part of the Commonwealth Parliament, has the power to legislate. If the House has the power to grant the request of a petition, the impracticality of the request is no objection, in itself, to the receiving of the petition.
Rules for the form and content of petitions
The rules associated with the form and content of petitions are designed to ensure that the authenticity of petitions is established and hence provide protection to the petitioner and the House alike. It is important that those involved in drawing up petitions follow a suitable format and familiarise themselves with the rules governing petitions before taking steps to collect signatures. This will avoid the possibility of the petition being found to be out of order and not presented to the House.
The standing orders do not impose any particular style of expression, but a recommended form of a petition to the House of Representatives, in contemporary language, is shown at page 631.
Standing Order 204 provides that:
- A petition must:
- be addressed to the House of Representatives;
- refer to a matter on which the House has the power to act;
- state the reasons for petitioning the House; and
- contain a request for action by the House.
- The terms of the petition must not contain any alterations and must not exceed 250 words. The terms must be placed at the top of the first page of the petition and the request of the petition must be at the top of every other page.
- The terms of the petition must not be illegal or promote illegal acts. The language used must be moderate.
- The petition must be in English or be accompanied by a translation certified to be correct. The person certifying the translation must place his or her name and address on the translation.
- No letters, affidavits or other documents should be attached to the petition. Any such attachments will be removed before presentation to the House.
- A petition from a corporation must be made under its common seal. Otherwise it will be received as the petition of the individuals who signed it.
The terms of the petition consist of the reasons for the petition and the request for action by the House.
The new procedures for petitions introduced in 2008 did not initially provide for electronic petitions. Although the words ‘a petition must be on paper’ no longer appeared in the standing orders, in practice this requirement remained in force. Soon after its establishment the Petitions Committee inquired into the subject of electronic petitioning, and in 2009 recommended that such a system should be introduced.
Although not permitted under the standing orders, on rare occasions petitions have been received with attachments to them. While no comment was made in the House on their acceptability and the attachments were not mentioned in the Votes and Proceedings, they were probably kept because they were important for a full understanding of the petition itself. For example, a petitioner requested the House to appoint a select committee to inquire into his plans for altering the law of legal tender and his plans were appended to the petition. Petitions consisting of a typed sheet of paper pasted to a bark sheet with surrounds decorated in a traditional Aboriginal manner were presented to the House in 1963 and 1968 on behalf of the Yirrkala Aboriginal community. A translation was submitted with these petitions.
Standing order 204(c) requires the language used in a petition to be moderate. Relevant criteria include the rules concerning offensive words and personal reflections which apply to debate in the House.
Reflections must not be cast upon the Queen, members of the Royal Family, the Governor-General, members of the judiciary, or Members and Senators. The Clerk of the House has declined to certify a petition criticising the conduct of a judge of the Family Court of Australia and praying for the judge’s removal from office, and a petition which reflected on a named Senator. Petitions calling for the censure of certain unnamed judges have been received. In 1979 the Clerk certified, and the House received, a petition which asked the House to take action to receive the resignation of certain unnamed Members for allegedly not having honoured an election undertaking. It was considered acceptable because it was not disrespectful and, in seeking the resignation of several Members collectively, it did not breach the spirit of the standing orders. A petition, also not disrespectful, calling for the resignation of a Minister has been received. The rule has also been held to apply in respect of a prospective Governor-General. In August 1988 a petition, although it did not identify a prospective Governor-General explicitly, was not accepted, as it was considered to impugn his character. In 1976 petitions praying that the House call on the Governor-General to resign were certified by the Clerk and received by the House. The petitions complied with standing orders and made no express criticism of the character or conduct of the Governor-General. According to May, petitions should not impugn the character or conduct of Parliament, the courts or any other tribunal or constituted authority. However, it is considered that a petition is acceptable if its language is courteous and moderate, provided it conforms with the standing orders in other respects. In 1977 the Clerk certified petitions which were critical of individual members of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and the Schools Commission. A petition asking that boisterous behaviour by Members be dealt with harshly has been received.
Rules about signatures
Standing Order 205 requires that:
Every petition must contain the signature and full name and address of a principal petitioner [see page 860] on the first page of the petition. All the signatures on a petition must meet the following requirements:
- Each signature must be made by the person signing in his or her own handwriting. Only a petitioner incapable of signing may ask another person to sign on his or her behalf.
- Signatures must not be copied, pasted or transferred on to the petition or placed on a blank page on the reverse of a sheet containing the terms of the petition.
A Member must not be a principal petitioner or signatory to a petition.
Petitioners, other than the principal petitioner, are not required to supply addresses.
Forgery of signatures
There are precedents in the UK House of Commons for the forgery of signatures to petitions, the subscribing of fictitious signatures to and tampering with petitions being regarded as contempts. In the House of Representatives in 1907, in voting to receive a petition, Members took the view that a petition should not be invalidated, and the persons who signed the petition should not be disadvantaged, because of some individual’s improper conduct. It was also considered that neither Members nor the House can ensure that every signature on every petition is genuine. The petition was referred to the Printing Committee to investigate alleged forgery. The committee concluded that specified signatures were forgeries and that available evidence pointed to an unnamed individual as the perpetrator. The committee recommended that the Crown Law authorities be requested to take action with a view to a criminal prosecution of the offender and that the evidence gathered by the committee be placed at their disposal for that purpose. The House adopted the report and was subsequently informed that the Crown Solicitor had advised that, in his opinion, a prosecution for forgery would be unsuccessful.
The requirement for a principal petitioner was introduced in 2008, along with the establishment of the Petitions Committee (see below), in order to improve the ability of the House to respond to petitions. A principal petitioner is needed even where a group of people sponsor a petition. This person, who initiates, sponsors or organises a petition, must provide his or her full name and address and signature on the first page of the petition. This enables the Petitions Committee to contact him or her regarding any response or follow-up to the petition.
The House’s website contains information for potential petitioners. Principal petitioners are encouraged to refer to this information and to contact the Petitions Committee prior to the distribution of petitions for signature to ensure that the form of the petition is correct and that it will be able to be accepted by the committee on behalf of the House.
The Standing Committee on Petitions was established in 2008 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 consists of ten members—six government and four non-government members.
The committee checks that each petition lodged for presentation complies with the standing orders, and if the petition complies the committee certifies it for presentation to the House. The committee has taken the view that it is required to certify a petition for presentation if it complies with the standing orders in terms of its form, content and language. Approval of a petition for presentation does not indicate that the committee agrees with its content.
The committee is also able to recommend action to be taken on a petition. The committee will advise principal petitioners when their petition has been presented to the House and inform them of any action the committee has recommended. In some cases the committee may choose to seek further information on the subject of a petition, through meetings with the principal petitioner and other relevant individuals and groups. Petitions from individuals or small numbers of people go through the same process as petitions with many signatures.
All petitions presented are listed on the committee’s website, which shows (with petitions grouped by portfolio area): the text of each petition; presentation details; number of signatures; and any further action, including responses from Ministers and relevant transcripts from public hearings of the committee.
Lodging a petition
All petitions must be lodged with the Standing Committee on Petitions. Petitioners may send their petitions directly to the committee or via a Member. In the latter case, a petition that a Member wishes to present personally is returned to the Member concerned after certification by the committee. A petition to be presented must be lodged in sufficient time for committee consideration.
While most petitions are presented by the chair of the Petitions Committee at the scheduled time on Monday, they may also be presented by any Member.
Presentation by the Petitions Committee
On Mondays the first 10 minutes of the period provided for committee and delegation reports and private Members’ business is reserved for Petitions Committee business. The chair of the Petitions Committee presents the petitions lodged for presentation, indicating in the case of each petition, the number of petitioners and the subject matter of the petition. If petitions in the same terms are lodged, they are grouped together for the purposes of the announcement. The announcement includes ministerial responses to petitions previously presented. Reports by the Petitions Committee are also presented during this period. The chair and one other member of the committee may make statements concerning petitions and reports presented. Apart from these statements, discussion on the subject matter of a petition presented is not allowed at this time. The full terms of the petitions and responses are printed in Hansard and published on the House’s website.
Presentation by a Member
A Member may present a petition during:
- the period for Members’ 90 second statements in the House, in accordance with standing order 43;
- the periods for Members’ constituency statements in the Federation Chamber, in accordance with standing order 193;
- adjournment debate in the House in accordance with standing order 31, and in the Federation Chamber in accordance with standing order 191; and
- grievance debate in accordance with standing order 192b.
Members presenting a petition during these periods may discuss the petition.
The fact that a Member presents a petition or lodges one for presentation does not mean that he or she necessarily agrees with its content.
Before being presented, every petition must be certified by the Petitions Committee as complying with the standing orders. If a Member purports to present a petition which has not been certified by the Petitions Committee it is treated as an ordinary document rather than as a petition (see below). If on examination by the committee it turns out to be in order it is presented by the committee as a petition on a subsequent day.
Presentation of out of order petitions
The Petitions Committee cannot present to the House petitions which are out of order. However, staff of the committee liaise with principal petitioners to ensure as far as possible that petitions are in order before they are formally received.
Before the establishment of the Petitions Committee it had become the practice for petitions which were out of order to nevertheless be presented to the House as ‘ordinary’ documents by the Leader of the House. Similarly, if a Member now purports to present a petition which has not been certified by the Petitions Committee as complying with the standing orders and it is subsequently found to be out of order, it remains treated as a document rather than as a petition. Such documents are not formally announced in the House nor recorded in House records as petitions received; they are not referred to a Minister for response, and no further action is taken.
Motion at time of presentation
Each petition presented is received by the House, unless a motion that it not be received is moved immediately and agreed to. As petitions which do not conform with the standing orders are not presented to the House (that is, as petitions—see above), it is unlikely that a motion that a petition be not received would be moved on procedural grounds.
No other motion can be moved at the time of presentation. Formerly a Member could move ‘That the petition be printed’ if intending to take action on the petition. Such action was rare, but is noted here as background to the cases cited below of petitions being referred to select committees. Although such action is in practice unlikely, all petitions, as documents presented to the House, are referred to the Publications Committee, which may recommend that a petition be made a Parliamentary Paper. In 1909 the House agreed to a motion, moved by leave, that a petition be printed (that is, as a Parliamentary Paper), even though the then Printing Committee had considered it and had not recommended its printing.
Action taken on petitions
Referral to a Minister
The Petitions Committee may choose to forward a petition to the Minister responsible for the administration of the matter raised in the petition. If this is the case, there is an expectation that the Minister will provide a written response to the committee within 90 days. Details of ministerial responses are tabled in Hansard and published on the Petitions Committee’s web site.
Before 2008 all petitions presented were automatically referred to the relevant Minister and Ministers could respond to a petition by lodging a written response with the Clerk. However, as noted by the Procedure Committee in 1999, few such responses were provided. Since 2008, under the new procedures, almost all petitions presented to date have been referred to Ministers, and almost all have been responded to.
Public hearing by Petitions Committee
In the case of selected petitions, the Petitions Committee may hold public hearings at which the committee may seek further information from petitioners regarding their petition and from government departments in relation to a ministerial response.
Referral to another committee
Apart from the motion that a petition not be received, the only motion relating to a petition that may be moved is a motion on notice that the petition be referred to a particular committee.
General purpose standing committees are empowered to inquire into and report on any petition referred by either the House or a Minister. However, to date none have been so referred. In 1999 the Procedure Committee recommended that all petitions be automatically referred to the relevant general purpose standing committee for any inquiry the committee may wish to make, but this recommendation was not adopted.
All petitions are now received by the Standing Committee on Petitions. A possible course of action open to the Petitions Committee could be to recommend to the House that a petition be referred to another committee for inquiry.
In 1963 a Member presented a petition from the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala praying that the House, inter alia, appoint a committee to hear their views before permitting the excision of any land from the Aboriginal Reserve in Arnhem Land. The Member indicated his intention to submit a notice of motion in connection with the petition and moved that the petition be printed. The motion for printing was agreed to. The Member’s subsequent motion for the appointment of a select committee was also agreed to. In 1970 a similar sequence of events followed the presentation of a petition praying that the export of all kangaroo products be banned. The House subsequently agreed to a motion, which had been foreshadowed by the Member presenting the petition, appointing the Select Committee on Wildlife Conservation to examine, inter alia, the issues raised in the petition.
Petitions from unusual sources
The standing orders specifically provide for petitions from a company or corporation. Petitions from individual citizens and from minors may be received. Receipt by the House of petitions from Australian citizens abroad is permitted, but the House does not normally receive petitions from foreign citizens abroad. An exception was a petition signed by citizens of the United States of America which was presented by a Member by leave of the House. Petitions sent directly to the Speaker from foreign citizens abroad have normally been referred to the relevant Minister for information and the petitioners have been informed.
In 1962 a Member presented a petition from certain Members of the Northern Territory Legislative Council praying that the House debate and redress the grievances set out in a remonstrance earlier made by the Council. In 1975 a petition was presented from the Northern Territory Legislative Assembly praying that the recommendations of the Parliament’s Joint Committee on the Northern Territory on the transfer of executive powers and administrative functions to the Territory be implemented.
Abuse of the right of petition
Various abuses of the right of petition have been dealt with as contempts in the United Kingdom. The following are examples cited by May:
- frivolously, vexatiously, or maliciously submitting a petition containing false, scandalous or groundless allegations against any person, whether a Member of the House or not, or contriving, promoting or presenting such petitions;
- presenting a petition containing gross misrepresentations;
- inducing parties to sign a petition by false representations;
- threatening a Member that a petition would be submitted to the House unless he took certain action;
- tampering with a petition; and
- forgery or fraud in the preparation of petitions or in the signatures attached, or being privy to, or cognizant of, such forgery or fraud.
The House of Representatives has only once taken action on an alleged abuse of the right to petition. The case concerned allegations that signatures had been forged (see page 860). With the enactment of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 any action proposed in such matters needs to be considered, inter alia, in terms of section 4 of the Act which provides, in effect, that conduct does not constitute an offence against a House unless it amounts or is intended to amount to an improper interference with the House, its committees or its members.
Privilege attaching to petitions
Under the Parliamentary Privileges Act the presentation or submission of a document (including a petition) to the House, and the preparation of such a document, is absolutely privileged.
May notes that petitioners are considered as under the protection of Parliament and that obstruction of or interference with such persons, or conduct calculated to deter them from preferring or prosecuting petitions, may be treated as a contempt. May gives as an instance of this kind of offence bringing an action against petitioners for a libel alleged to be contained in a petition presented by them to the House.[292 ]