Role and operation of the Petitions Committee
The Standing Committee on Petitions first commenced operations in the 42nd Parliament, holding its first meeting on 12 March 2008. The establishment of a dedicated petitions committee was aimed at enhancing the status of petitions and acknowledging the fundamental role they play in the democratic process.
In proposing the establishment of a petitions committee, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure (the Procedure Committee) envisaged that a dedicated petitions committee could deal with or respond to petitions in a number of ways, by
forwarding the petition to the relevant Minister with a request that they consider the terms and respond appropriately;
recommending the House refer the terms of the petition to the relevant subject matter committee;
holding an informal briefing on the terms of the petition through discussions with the principal petitioner and those who could address the issues raised (Ministers, departmental officers, others as appropriate);
holding formal public hearings on the terms of the petition; and
other actions as determined by the petitions committee.
Ten years into its operation, the Committee’s role has been established in House standing orders as twofold:
to ‘receive and process’ petitions; and
to ‘inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system’.
These standing orders are broad and do not prescribe how the committee should conduct its business. It has instead been left to the committee of the day to determine how to fulfil its role most effectively.
How the current Committee, and previous committees have exercised their powers and functions are detailed further below.
Receiving and processing petitions
In undertaking its ‘core business’ of receiving and processing petitions, the Committee has been consistently concerned to work within its jurisdiction and to appropriately manage the expectations of petitioners. The Committee has always taken an impartial role in processing petitions, and takes the view that it cannot solve the problems raised in petitions; nor change government policy; nor force a Minister to respond to a petition.
With these limitations in mind, a principle of objectivity has underpinned the Committee’s operations since its establishment. The Committee has long considered that its role in receiving and processing petitions does not extend to making value-based judgments about the terms or request of a petition, beyond the requirements for form and content set out in the standing orders.
Although not necessarily agreeing with the terms of every petition, the Committee strives to respect the fundamental rights of the citizen to petition the House on any matter of importance to them—provided the petition complies with the rules of the House. This principle is reflected in the standing orders, which provide that a petition that complies with the standing orders shall be approved for presentation to the House.
During the 44th Parliament 255 paper petitions were presented to the House. In comparison, as at 3 December 2018, 299 paper petitions and 395 e‑petitions (a total of 694 petitions) have been approved by the Committee and presented to the House during the 45th Parliament. These petitions have comprised over 784,014 signatures, with one e-petition obtaining 104,185 signatures. The increase in total petitions from the previous parliament can be attributed primarily to the introduction of e-petitioning at the beginning of the 45th Parliament.
Further discussion of the Committee’s role in assessing a petition can be found in chapter 3.
The Committee is also empowered to inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system. Since its establishment, the Committee has exercised this by
conducting formal inquiries relating to the petitions system; and
conducting roundtable meetings and public hearings about specific petitions or petition topics, and the petitions process.
Over a number of parliaments, the Committee has conducted two inquiries relating to e-petitioning in the House. Following the first of these inquiries, conducted during the 42nd Parliament, the Committee made recommendations about the proposed model for an e‑petitions system. A House e-petitioning system was then launched at the commencement of the 45th Parliament. The second inquiry, conducted during this 45th Parliament, sought feedback on the initial implementation of the e‑petitioning system. The Committee made a number of recommendations for further enhancements.
As noted by the Clerk of the House of Representatives, Mr David Elder, each Petitions Committee has reported on its work and operations at the end of each Parliament, discussing any notable issues and publically outlining petitions statistics and trends over the reporting period.
A list of reports produced by past committees is outlined below.
Electronic petitioning to the House of Representatives
The work of the first Petitions Committee: 2008 – 2010
The work of the Petitions Committee: 2010 – 2013 – An established part of the democratic process
The work of the Petitions Committee: 2013 – 2016
Making voices heard: Inquiry into the e-petitioning system of the House of Representatives Petitions Committee
The Committee of the 43rd Parliament noted that it chose not to inquire into specific aspects of the petitioning system. Instead, the Chair used the petitions statement every sitting Monday as an informal mechanism to report on significant issues and activities relating to petitions matters. This reporting mechanism is still used today, and is discussed further in the context of presenting petitions, below.
Since the establishment of the first Petitions Committee, previous committees have informally inquired into petitions matters by holding roundtable hearings with principal petitioners and senior officers of relevant government agencies, to follow up on issues raised in specific petitions and ministerial responses.
Committees have held these informal hearings predominantly at Parliament House, inviting public servants to discuss responses to petitions that had been presented during particular periods. Hearings have also occurred interstate, where the Committee has taken the opportunity to speak to principal petitioners living near the city or town where the hearing was held. Transcripts of all hearings were made available to petitioners and to the public.
Reflecting on the purpose of roundtable hearings held during the 43rd Parliament, the then Committee commented:
These [roundtable hearings] are intended to facilitate a public dialogue on the petition issue raised and not to investigate the matter with a view to resolving or following-up any individual petition concern…
… These public discussions enable explanation and exploration of issues beyond that allowed by the petition’s 250 word limit.
These principles were upheld during hearings held throughout the 44th Parliament, as the Committee reiterated that it would facilitate a public dialogue on the issues raised in a petition, rather than investigate a petition with a view to ‘concluding, recommending any action, or of resolving matters’.
The Clerk of the House further explained the Committee’s objective in these hearings as being to air a petition’s contents and responses, rather than act as advocate or opponent of the causes raised in petitions.
The Clerk of the House noted that the Committee may wish to consider whether hearings or roundtable discussions might be useful to initiate in the future. It was envisaged that the Committee might make use of video conferencing facilities now available at Parliament House to enable the committee to undertake such work in the future, should it wish to do so.
It is clear that while the Committee’s powers broadly capture the original scope anticipated by the Procedure Committee, in practice the Petitions Committee has taken a narrower role than was originally canvased.
Professor George Williams AO, Mr Sam Lee and Mr Daniel Reynolds were of the view that the Committee’s traditionally narrow interpretation of its broad power to ‘inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions’ has limited its ability to respond to petitioners’ concerns and improve public engagement with Parliament and its democratic processes. This issue will be discussed in further detail in chapter 4, as part of a wider discussion of what actions can be taken on individual petitions.
Since the establishment of the Petitions Committee some 10 years ago, the core business of the Committee has been to receive and process petitions. This role has expanded during the 45th Parliament, with the introduction of e-petitioning in the House.
The second facet of the Committee’s power relates to the ability for the Committee to ‘inquire into any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system’. This power has been used in a number of ways since the Committee’s establishment. This includes reporting to the House on petitions matters and related issues through the Chair’s statement every sitting Monday; conducting formal inquiries into the House petitioning processes; and facilitating more informal inquiries into individual petitions, by holding public hearings or roundtable discussions.
In the 45th Parliament, holding roundtables and public hearings on individual petitions has not featured in the Committee’s work. This can be attributed largely to the introduction of e-petitioning and the associated increase in number of petitions received for processing. In addition, the Committee focused on conducting an inquiry into the e-petitioning system, as a means of receiving feedback on the system and developing recommendations for further enhancements.
The Committee considers that holding roundtables and public hearings about individual petitions matters remains a worthwhile way to assist some petitioners to voice their concerns and receive information from relevant representatives of government on issues raised in their petition.
This discussion will be continued further in chapter 4, in the context of taking action on petitions.
Presenting petitions in the House
Once a petition has been approved by the Petitions Committee as meeting the requirements for form and content, it is presented to the House. A petition may be presented by the Chair of the Petitions Committee during the allocated petitions time at 10.00 am on each Monday that the House meets. Alternatively, it can be presented by any other Member of the House, during one of the following times:
90 second statements in the House and Federation Chamber;
3 minute constituency statements in the Federation Chamber;
Adjournment debates in the House or Federation Chamber;
Grievance debate in the Federation Chamber.
When a Chair or Member presents a petition to the House, it does not mean the Chair or Member necessarily agrees with its terms. Rather, the Chair or Member presents the petition to the House on behalf of the principal petitioner.
This principle has been affirmed by previous Committees:
Members do not need to support a petition they present; similarly the Petitions Committee may or may not agree with the content of a petition it approves for presentation. Accordingly, when the Chair of the Committee presents petitions he may personally agree with some, and disagree with others, but this is irrelevant in his independent role as Committee Chair.
The Chair’s presentation
During the allocated petitions slot on Monday morning, the Chair presents a report listing all petitions that have been approved for presentation by the Committee since the last statement. The Chair also presents responses to petitions that have been received by the Committee.
It has been the practice of the Chair to make a short oral statement in addition to presenting the above-mentioned report. This statement does not refer to each petition that has been listed in the report, but instead speaks to general petitions trends, petitions of note due to factors such as the signature count, and the current work of the Committee.
The Clerk of the House observed that this statement is often brief, meaning there is often several minutes left over from the Committee’s allocated time. Mr Elder considered that to make full use of the allocated time, options for consideration of the Committee could include:
enabling another member of the Committee to take up the remainder of the time with a statement (this is currently allowed under the standing orders);
altering standing orders to allow other Members to present petitions during this period; or
altering standing orders to reduce the presentation period to five minutes.
The Clerk also queried the current process of the Chair presenting a report, rather than reading out a summary of petitions requests and the number of petitioners for each individual petition. While the full terms of petitions are available in the Hansard record the following day, the efficiency of presenting a report rather than reading out a summary of petitions requests and the number of petitioners may obscure the action of petitioners bringing to the attention of parliament their concerns and requests.
Presentation by individual Members
If a Member wishes to present a petition personally, they are encouraged to first refer it to the Petitions Committee for consideration of whether the petition is ‘in order’. Once the petition has been approved by the Committee, the individual Member is free to present the petition at specified times provided in the rules of the House.
As at 5 December 2018, individual Members (other than the Chair of the Petitions Committee) have presented 40 paper petitions and 10 e‑petitions during the 45th Parliament, as approved by the Committee. Table 2.1 below provides a summary of all petitions presentations in the House. For more information about Member presentations, refer to Appendix D.
Table 2.1: Presentation of Petitions
Source: Standing Committee on Petitions
Individual Members of the House have presented a higher proportion of paper petitions than e-petitions. This might be attributed to the greater use of paper petitions by local communities to raise awareness about issues more relevant to an individual electorate. Further, it could be inferred that constituents are more likely to choose to submit a paper petition through their local Member, and more likely to request their local Member present a paper petition on their behalf. Conversely, e-petitions are lodged directly through an online portal on the Australian Parliament House website, so individuals are perhaps less likely to contact their local Member to present a petition on their behalf. In this way, the petition may not come to their local Member’s attention.
In several instances, Members have presented both an e-petition and a paper petition in identical terms, from the same principal petitioner. For example, on 23 October 2018 Hon Dr David Gillespie presented an e-petition and a paper petition regarding access to supply of Pharmaceutical Benefits in Bonny Hills, New South Wales.
The Committee has observed that Members (that is, Members of the House of Representatives, outside the membership of the Committee), have been enthusiastic about engaging with petitions to the House, including presenting petitions on behalf of constituents from their electorates.
The Committee considers that the current opportunities for Members to present petitions in the House and the Federation Chamber should be maintained. However, the Committee supports the inclusion of an additional opportunity for individual Members (outside of the Committee) to present petitions to the House during the Chair’s allocated time on sitting Mondays. The standing orders currently provide that the Chair is able to present petitions at that time, with the Chair and one other member of the Committee allowed to ‘make statements concerning petitions and/or such reports presented’. As noted by the Clerk of the House, the Chair’s statement does not currently utilise the allotted 10 minutes of speaking time. The Committee envisages that if the Chair’s statement was limited to four minutes, up to three Members could also present a petition and speak for up to two minutes on the petition.
The Committee recommends that standing orders be amended to allow Members of the House of Representatives (outside of the membership of the Committee) to present petitions during the allotted petitions time at 10.00 am until 10.10 am on sittings Mondays, should any time remain following the Chair’s statement.