As discussed in chapter 2, one of the Committee’s primary roles is to receive and process all petitions to the House. The Committee assesses each petition against the requirements for form and content that are outlined in the House standing orders.
Over the course of this Parliament, the Committee has reflected on the current rules regarding the form and content of a petition, including the requirements for a petition to:
contain moderate language;
refer to a matter of which the House has the power to act; and
be addressed to the House.
Other issues regarding the form and content of a petition considered by the Committee include:
the use of hyperlinks and URLs in e-petitions;
the use of any attachments;
citizenship/residency requirements for creating or signing petitions; and
a signature threshold for submitting a petition.
In assessing a petition, the Committee must consider whether the petition:
contains terms that are not illegal or promote illegal acts; or
contains moderate language.
In assessing the language used in a petition, the Committee has regard to the House standing orders which prohibits the use of offensive or disrespectful words and personal reflections in debate in the House. As outlined in House of Representatives Practice:
… petitions should not impugn the character or conduct of the 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.
The Committee explored the language requirements of other parliaments to determine whether the House’s requirements remain fit for purpose.
The ACT Legislative Assembly, for example, requires:
Every petition shall be respectful, decorous and temperate in its language, and shall not contain irrelevant statements. If, in the opinion of the Speaker, the subject matter is not within the ministerial responsibility of the Territory or is critical of a character or conduct of a person, contains unbecoming expressions, is not respectful, decorous or temperate in its language or offends any standing order other than those relating to petitions, the paper shall be returned to the Member who lodged it.
The majority of state and territory parliaments contain similar language requirements to the ACT Legislative Assembly.
In the Scottish Parliament, a petition is admissible unless it is ‘frivolous’ or ‘contains language which is offensive’. The Scottish rules require that
Petitions should not contain language that is offensive or inappropriate, for example swear words, insults, sarcasm or other language that could reasonably be considered offensive by a reader.
The New Zealand Parliament has the following language requirements:
A petition must be respectful and moderate in its language.
A petition must not contain irrelevant statements.
The current language requirements in New Zealand are similar to previous standing orders in the House. The current language requirements in the House were introduced alongside the Standing Committee on Petitions in 2008.
The New Zealand Clerk of the House of Representatives, Mr David Wilson, told the Committee that when lodging an e-petition, members of the public did not always appreciate the potential consequences of posting sensitive personal information as part of a public petition. Mr Wilson, stated:
… At times, petitions make serious allegations without authentication or hyperbolic statements that fail to meet our requirements to be respectful and moderate; we have had petitions that refer to named individuals as being “poisonous”, or that talk about “state-sanctioned killings” in a way that cannot be hosted on the Parliament’s website. Because it is so easy to create an e-petition, people at times seem to create a petition impulsively without fully considering what is involved.
Mr Wilson also raised the issue of ‘joke petitions’, submitting that there are two viewpoints about hosting these petitions on official e-petitions websites:
On the one hand, it could raise the profile of the e-petitions, noting the example of an e-petition asking the United States Government to build a Death Star, which created international media attention; OR
On the other hand, petitioning Parliament is an important process for people seeking to achieve a serious purpose, and allowing joke petitions may make light of the process; or flood the website, causing genuine petitions to be obscured.
On occasion, the Clerk of the House in New Zealand has sought a ruling from the Speaker on whether a petition is frivolous. At the time of submission, five petitions had been ruled as frivolous by the Speaker.
The Chair of the UK House of Commons Petitions Committee (the UK Committeee), Ms Helen Jones, stated that the UK Committee had strengthened its standards relating to the language of e-petitions ‘to ensure that people could not bring in petitions which appeared to target a particular community.’
The House of Commons outlines its required standards for e-petitions on the UK Government and Parliament Petitions website. These standards include that a petition will be rejected if it:
is defamatory or libellous, or contains false statements;
could cause personal distress or loss. This includes petitions that could intrude into someone’s personal grief or shock without their consent;
contains swearing or other offensive language;
is offensive or extreme in its views. That includes petitions that attack, criticise or negatively focus on an individual or a group of people because of characteristics such as their age, disability, ethnic origin, gender identity, medical condition, nationality, race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.
Ms Jones advised that at times, the UK Committee has debated whether a petition should be ruled in or out of order based on the language used. Where a petition is found to be out of order, and where possible, the UK Committee works with petitioners to assist them to amend the language so that a petition could be found to be in order.
The Committee has an important role in ensuring that the traditional principles of petitioning are upheld. The Committee, as a conduit to the House, must encourage a person’s right to petition the House on matters of concern to them, in their own words. To support this principle, the rules for preparing a petition should not be overly onerous or unfair. A petition should not be rejected because one Member or the whole Committee disagrees with a request, or the values or opinions being expressed in the terms of a petition.
However, the Committee must also ensure that people petitioning the House abide by the same principles of courtesy and respect that govern debate and other parliamentary proceedings in the House. To this end, in its assessment of ‘moderate language’, the Committee takes into account the context surrounding an issue raised in a petition; the community values attached to a particular request; and the possible negative consequences that might flow from a petition being published on the Committee’s website.
The Committee is of the view that the current rule requiring the use of moderate language in petitions should remain, to allow scope for the Committee to assess the language of each petition on a case by case basis, with regard to standards of debate that apply to the House.
Similar to the practice of the UK Committee and the New Zealand Parliament, where possible the Committee assists petitioners to reword their petition in a way that meets language requirements, either before or after it is assessed by the Committee.
The Committee made a number of recommendations in its report into the e‑petitioning system, including the need to simplify the information provided on the petitioning webpages and to provide online tutorials for creating and signing petitions. Implementing these recommendations will assist in improving the transparency of the assessment process and will make it easier for people understand the rules for petitioning.
The Committee envisages that the updated information on the House petitioning webpages will include guidance on using ‘moderate language’, so that petitioners are aware of the Committee’s expectations and requirements.
The Committee will continue to monitor the use of ‘moderate language’ in petitions over the coming parliament. If stronger guidelines for language are required, such as in the UK, the Committee can consider further change to the standing orders at that time.
Matters for the House
In assessing a petition, the Committee must consider whether it is a matter on which the House (as part of the Commonwealth Parliament) has the power to act. This means that the subject of a petition must relate to a matter that the Federal Government has responsibility for (i.e. is nationally controlled) rather than the responsibility of a state or territory or local government, or a private or commercial matter. Generally, a petition meets this requirement if it seeks a change in federal legislation, or federal government policy.
The Committee often receives petitions that are outside of the powers of the House, and instead relate to a state/territory or local government issue. Petitioners can find it difficult to determine whether an issue is a ‘matter for the House’, as the responsibility for a certain issue can be divided between several layers of government. Some aspects of an issue may be the responsibility of state governments, whereas other aspects of the same issue may fall under the responsibility of a federal agency.
For example, the Committee received a number of petitions relating to the sale of baby formula during the 45th Parliament. These petitions related to concerns about ongoing supply and access to baby formula on supermarket shelves, and contained various requests for further regulation. Assisting petitioners to navigate this policy area was complex, noting that the Federal Department of Agriculture and Water Resources was the agency responsible for the regulation of the export of Australian-made dairy products. However, there were a number of formula brands that were not Australian-made, and therefore the issue falls outside the remit of the Department (and the House). Moreover, supermarkets (i.e. private corporations) hold responsibility for working with their suppliers regarding stock levels and enforcing limits on individual purchases.
On this issue, the Committee considered that petitions making requests regarding the export of Australian-made baby formula were in order, as this was a matter that the House could legislate on. Petitions that sought restrictions on formula stock held in supermarkets were ruled out of order, as they fell outside the remit of the House.
The Committee appreciates that petitioners can find it confusing to draft a valid petition that contains a ‘matter for the House’. There are many areas of public policy where responsibilities are shared between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, and local governments. There are other issues that are matters for private industry and corporations, and cannot be dealt with by government. Where possible, the secretariat engages with petitioners to provide advice on how to meet this requirement.
As mentioned earlier, the Committee is committed to providing clearer information for petitioners to assist them in drafting a petition that meets requirements. Such information should include information on what is (and isn’t) a matter for the House. The development of video tutorials as recommended in the inquiry into the e-petitioning system will provide one such opportunity to assist petitioners.
The Committee foreshadows including regular updates on its webpages about current happenings in petitions. Such updates could include explanatory information about petition topics that have been prevalent in recent petitions received, and why some requests fall outside of the remit of the House.
Request to the House
When submitting a petition to Parliament, an individual can choose to petition either the Senate or the House of Representatives. By petitioning the House, a person is requesting the House to act on the matter raised.
There are two elements contained in the standing orders that govern how a person should address their petition:
A petition must be addressed to the House;
A petition must contain a request for action by the House.
To address a petition correctly, a petition cannot be addressed to ‘the Parliament’, ‘the Senate’, ‘the Government’, or an individual Member. The recommended form of words to address a petition is ‘To the Honourable the Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives’.
The request contained in the terms of a petition must also ask the House to take action, rather than the Government, the Parliament, the Senate, or an individual Member. The form of words recommended for the request is, ‘We therefore ask the House’. Further, where a request is too vague, or a clear request for action by the House cannot be ascertained from the terms, a petition may also be ruled out of order.
Following the introduction of e-petitioning in the 45th Parliament, the Committee received a significant number of e-petitions that were considered ‘out of order’ because they did not contain a request to the House. Many of these petitions would otherwise have met requirements, except that they made requests to the ‘Government’, or the ‘Parliament’, as examples.
To rectify this issue, a mandatory field was inserted in the e-petitions form, so that all petition requests started with the words, ‘We therefore ask the House’ (as demonstrated in Figure 3.1). This field cannot be deleted. This insertion has led to a significant reduction in petitions being incorrectly addressed.
Figure 3.1: e-petitions mandatory fields
This image displays the pre-filled text, including the address to the House and request to the House that is displayed when creating a petition.
On occasion, the Committee still receives paper petitions that are addressed incorrectly (either the address or the request). Petitioners are encouraged to provide their draft petition to the secretariat by e-mail prior to collecting signatures, so they have the chance to reword the petition address or request, if necessary.
In 2003, the Canadian House of Commons simplified requirements for petitions. A petition can now be addressed to the House of Commons, the House of Commons in Parliament assembled, the Government of Canada, a Minister of the Crown or a Member of the House of Commons.
As noted earlier in this report, the Committee considers that the rules for petitioning the House should be simple and should not exclude people because the requirements are overly onerous.
It is clear that the requirement for a petition to be addressed to the House, or to contain a request to the House, has hindered some individuals from submitting a valid petition. Many people do not understand the distinction between the House, the Parliament, and the Government. Adding to this confusion is the fact that a successful petition will likely be responded to by a Minister, being a representative of the Federal Government, rather than by the House itself.
The House of Representatives and the Senate continue to have separate petitioning processes. The requirements for form and content are different for each Chamber, which no doubt adds to confusion regarding how to address a petition, particularly for members of the public who have little or no exposure to the workings of Parliament.
The Committee has observed that the introduction of mandatory words in the e-petitions form has led to a reduction in e-petitions that are incorrectly addressed. The Committee secretariat has also endeavoured to work with individuals before they submit a petition, to assist them to meet requirements. Where a petition has been ruled ‘out of order’, the secretariat works with petitioners if they need assistance resubmitting their petition.
The Committee supports the approach taken by the Canadian House of Commons, in accepting petitions that are addressed to the House of Commons, the Government of Canada, a Minister of the Crown, or a Member of the House. Petitions should not be discounted solely because they are addressed incorrectly, particularly when the petitioner’s intention is to address their petition or request to the House is clear.
The Committee sees merit in investigating whether the House and Senate petitions processes could be streamlined into one process of ‘petitioning the Parliament’. Creating one petitioning process for the Federal Parliament could encourage more engagement with petitioning the Parliament, by removing one of the current roadblocks and areas of confusion for petitioners and member of the public alike.
In the meantime, the Committee is of the view that the House petitioning process could be simplified by encouraging petitioners to complete one online form for both e-petitions and paper petitions. Currently, there are two separate processes outlined on the House petitions website. People wishing to create an e-petition are directed to an online form. People wishing to create a paper petition are encouraged to prepare their own petition based on a sample provided on the website.
If these pathways were merged, the Committee envisages that a person would complete one online form to create a petition, and then choose at the conclusion of this process whether they wish to print the completed form for submitting as a paper petition, or submit an e-petition through the online portal. This streamlined process would have the advantage of encouraging all petitioners to use one standard form approved by the Committee, giving a higher likelihood of meeting the necessary requirements for form and content.
To reduce the number of out of order petitions, the Committee recommends that petitions be considered as ‘addressed to the House’ if they are either addressed to the House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Federal Government, the Parliament, a federal Minister, or a Member of the House of Representatives.
The Committee recommends that the process of creating a petition be streamlined so that petitioners complete one online form hosted on the Australian Parliament House website, to create either an e-petition or paper petition.
Use of attachments and web links
Currently, petitions are not allowed to include attachments of additional information such as letters, affidavits or other documents. In the event that an attachment is submitted with a paper petition, it will be removed prior to presentation and returned to the principal petitioner.
During the Committee’s inquiry into e-petitions, Mr John McLean submitted that the principal petitioner should be provided the opportunity to include supplementary information to support their petition. This suggestion is similar to the current practice of some jurisdictions overseas. For example, the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee (PPC) offers principal petitioners the opportunity to provide background information with their petition. This can be ‘any other information [the petitioner] want[s] to let the Parliament know about to help [Members] to understand why [the petitioner] would like them to consider the issue.’
Since the introduction of e-petitions, the Committee has received a number of petitions that include Universal Resource Locators (URLs), or other web links. Where these petitions have met the requirements for form and content, the Committee have accepted these petitions and published them online for signature. Paper petitions that include URLs and other web links have also been permitted.
This differs to the practice of the Canadian House of Commons, which will not accept petitions that contain URLs or other links or web-based references.
The Committee sees the merit in providing petitioners with the opportunity to include additional information in support of their petition, as occurs in the Scottish Parliament. Where a petition is referred for response from a Minister, additional information might assist the Minister in understanding the petitioner’s concerns. As the Scottish Parliament conducts ‘mini-inquiries’ for most petitions received, the provision of background information presumably informs the Committee’s understanding of the subject matter and how it conducts further investigations.
However, permitting additional information to be submitted along with a petition would require careful consideration regarding the parameters that would be placed on such attachments. Such considerations would include how the attachments would be reviewed by the Committee and then dealt with by the House at presentation. If the additional information was then published on the Committee’s website, the Committee would need to assess whether the material contained ‘moderate language’ and otherwise complied with the standing orders. Further, the e-petitioning system would have to be updated to allow for the inclusion of additional information.
Having regard to the above considerations, the Committee is of the view that such an addition to petitioning procedures is not required at this time. Petitioners can summarise the reasons for their request within the 250 words currently allowed in the terms of a petition. In the event that an inquiry into a petition is undertaken by this or a future Committee, further information can be requested of the petitioner, or other stakeholders, as part of this inquiry. Should the petitions process and the role of the Committee evolve further, the provision of additional information could be re-visited.
The Committee currently accepts e-petitions with web links. However, Canadian practice has prompted further consideration of issues that may arise from including web links in a petition that is presented to the House and published on the House petitions list. Firstly, providing web links on an e-petition could be construed as providing a type of ‘attachment’ of additional information.
Secondly, the Committee is concerned that information hosted on web links are not static and can change over time. This poses a number of potential risks where the link is included on the House petitions webpages. For example, the information attached to the link could change over time to include information that falls outside the rules of the House, or the ICT policies of the Australian Parliament.
The e-petitions inquiry included a recommendation that e-petitions have the ability to be shared easily on social media platforms via a unique URL. If petitions are able to be shared easily, this may open opportunities for petitioners to share e-petitions on their own social media pages, where they can also share additional information about their cause. In the Committee’s view, this is a more appropriate way of attaching additional information to a petition. This would lessen the need to attach additional information to a petition. Paper petitioners already have the capacity to provide additional information to people before they sign a petition, although such information cannot be included with the petition they submit to the House.
Standing orders should be updated so that petitioners are not able to provide ‘URLs’ or web links as part of the terms of a petition. This reflects the reality that the Committee cannot and does not review the content of any URL or web link provided in the terms of a petition.
The Committee recommends that standing order 204 (e) should be updated so that a petition cannot include any Universal Resource Locators (URLs) or reference to specific web links.
Currently, there is no requirement that prevents a person from submitting a petition in the same terms on multiple occasions. During the 45th Parliament, the Committee has, on occasion, declined to refer a petition to a Minister for response, where a petition with similar or identical terms has already been responded to in the same Parliament.
Since the introduction of e-petitioning to the House, some petitioners have enquired about combining an e-petition and a paper petition. Currently, the Committee does not accept combined petitions. Instead, a petitioner can submit a paper petition and an e-petition in the same terms. These are taken as separate petitions and the signature counts are not combined.
The Committee has observed that there have been a number of ‘campaign’ style petitions that have been submitted for consideration during the 45th Parliament. These campaigns have involved one group or organisation rallying people from different areas of the country to submit the same petition, signed by the people of their local area. These ‘campaigns’ include the following:
89 petitions seeking action on climate change. These petitions were in identical terms, save that each petition was created in an individual electorate. Each petition began with ‘this petition of XXXXX in the electorate of XXXX’.
Six petitions from the same principal petitioner in identical terms, relating to the practice of Falun Gong.
74 petitions relating to ‘synthetic lottery operators’, in identical terms but each submitted by individual owners/managers of newsagencies and pharmacies around Australia.
Figure 3.2: Sample of climate change campaign petitions
This image displays two petitions with similar terms that were presented in the House as part of a campaign on climate change.
Figure 3.3: Sample of synthetic lottery operator campaign petitions
This image displays four petitions with identical terms that were presented in the House as a part of a campaign about synthetic lottery operators.
The New Zealand House of Representatives stated that it does not accept combined petitions, and has received a number of queries about combining petitions.
The ACT Legislative Assembly submitted that a recent review of standing orders has recommended changes to the treatment of duplicate petitions. For a petition to be referred to a committee it requires 500 signatures. The review acknowledged that occasionally duplicate petitions can be presented on the same day; however, as they do not meet the threshold individually they do not get referred. The recommended changes to standing orders would allow the signatures to be combined when a paper and e-petition in the same terms are presented on the same day. This could result in the petitions meeting the threshold requirements for referral.
The Scottish Parliament does not allow a petition to be submitted in the same terms or substantially similar terms to a petition brought during the same session of the Parliament and which was closed less than a year earlier.
Likewise, the New Zealand Parliament does not allow petitions on the same matter as an earlier petition that was dealt with by the House during the same Parliamentary term. However, it will consider the petition if substantial and material new evidence is available that was not available when the earlier petition was considered. Moreover, the online petition form includes a stage that searches for similar petitions. If pre-existing petitions match, the page encourages the petitioner to ‘add their support’ to open petitions.
The UK House of Commons does not accept petitions on similar issues and provides advice to petitioners upon rejection of such a petition, as demonstrated below.
Figure 3.4: Advice from UK Parliament regarding duplicate petitions
This image displays the advice that is provided to petitioners when a petition to the UK House of Commons is rejected for being in similar terms to a previous petition.
The Committee notes that other parliaments have requirements that prevent petitioners being able to submit more than one petition in identical or similar terms in the same parliamentary session.
The Committee sees merit in such an approach. However, if such a rule was implemented in the House, the ‘campaign’ petitions that featured prominently in the 45th Parliament would not have been allowed.
The Committee sees value in continuing to accept petition ‘campaigns’ in the House. Without assessing the merit of the requests contained in these petitions, the Committee can see the benefits of such campaigns in assisting local communities to engage with their local Member, and assisting communities and groups to voice their concerns directly to the Parliament. The petitions have led to greater public engagement with petitioning, including encouraging Members outside of the Committee to present petitions to the House.
The Committee notes the proposed changes to ACT Legislative Assembly standing orders to combine signature counts of petitions presented in the same terms on the same day. As the Assembly requires petitions to meet thresholds prior to referral, the proposed changes will assist this process. As the Committee does not currently require petitions to meet particular thresholds, the Committee does not see value in implementing similar changes. However, this could be revisited in the future if thresholds are implemented.
The Committee considers that maintaining the discretion to refer (or not to refer) a petition for response is an effective way of ensuring that the petitions process is not used improperly, and that Ministers are (where possible) not required to respond to numerous petitions in identical terms.
Citizenship and residency requirements
There is currently no requirement for a person creating or signing a petition to be an Australian citizen or resident.
Both paper and e-petitions require the full name, address and ‘signature’ of a principal petitioner. However, there is no requirement that the principal petitioner provide an address in Australia, or that the principal petitioner otherwise make a declaration regarding their residency or citizenship.
Some petitioners lodge petitions referring to the signatories as residents of a particular region, town or electorate. However, signatories to a paper petition are not required to provide their residential address. A person signing an e-petition is required to provide their full name and e-mail address, not a residential address.
Other parliaments in Australia and overseas require that a person creating or signing a petition must be a resident/citizen of that jurisdiction. For example, the UK House of Commons requires that a petitioner must be a British citizen or a UK resident.
Similarly, the Canadian House of Commons requires that both principal petitioners and signatories are either a Canadian citizen or a resident of Canada. In 2003, amendments to the Canadian standing orders allowed for persons with no fixed address to sign a petition. As demonstrated below, signatories are prompted to provide the country and province that they currently reside in. A box then prompts them to declare that they are a Canadian citizen or resident of Canada.
Figure 3.5: Signing a petition to the House of Commons Canada
This image displays the fields that a user must fill in when signing a petition to the House of Commons Canada. The image also includes a box that the user must tick to declare that they are a Canadian citizen or resident of Canada.
The Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly requires that when lodging an e-petition, a petitioner declares:
By electing to join an e-Petition, the petitioner acknowledges that they meet the conditions detailed below.
The petitioner is a resident/citizen of the Australian Capital Territory.
The petitioner has not already joined the e-Petition
The petitioner must provide their correct name, address (including postcode) and email address.
If a petitioner is unable to join an e-Petition due to incapacity from sickness, they are able to have another join on their behalf.
The ACT Legislative Assembly also requires that a petition can only contain the signatures of residents or citizens of the ACT.
On the other hand, the New Zealand Parliament does not require that a petitioner be a New Zealand citizen.
The Committee notes that the introductory text of a petition to the House often includes the words, ‘this petition of certain citizens of Australia’. The Committee is of the view that both principal petitioners and people signing petitions to the House should be either a resident of Australia, or an Australian citizen.
The standing orders should be updated to require that principal petitioners and people signing petitions are either residents or citizens of Australia. This requirement should be built into the online platform for creating a petition. The Committee favours a model similar to the ACT Legislative Assembly or the Canadian House of Commons, whereby petitioners must make a declaration or agree to certain terms and conditions, confirming they are a resident or citizen of the relevant jurisdiction.
Paper petitions currently require that a principal petitioner must provide an address on the front page of their petition. This is used for contact purposes, rather than to verify where a person lives. The committee notes that many petitioners prefer to be contacted by e-mail. Further, requiring that an address to be provided on paper petitions creates a difference to the process of creating an e-petition. If the processes are to be streamlined and people are encouraged to use the online form, the requirement to provide an address should be removed from standing orders. Some additional consideration may need to be given to how to manage petitioners who do not wish to complete an online form.
The Committee recommends that standing orders be amended to require that a person creating or signing a petition must either be a resident or citizen of Australia.
Threshold of signatures required
There is no requirement for a petition to obtain a certain number of signatures to be valid. Further, there is no requirement that a petition must reach a certain number of signatures before the Committee will consider referring a petition for response by a Minister. The issue of meeting a certain threshold of signatures before taking a certain action on a petition is discussed in chapter 4.
The table below shows the range of signature thresholds met in relation to petitions approved during the 45th Parliament.
Table 3.1: Signatures - all petitions presented*
Source: Standing Committee on Petitions *includes petitions approved and awaiting presentation as at 22 January 2019
Some jurisdictions in other state and territory parliaments do not require a minimum number of signatures to be obtained before a petition will be considered. However, they do require that a Member sponsor the petition.
The Scottish Parliament does not require a minimum number of signatures for consideration. However, petitioners must provide evidence that they have already taken some action to raise the issue. This can include contacting one of their Members or the Scottish Government directly.
In contrast, the UK House of Commons requires an e-petition to reach a minimum of six signatures (the principal petitioner and five supporters) before it can be assessed by the UK Committee. If it is found to meet the requirements it will then be opened for wider signature.
The Canadian House of Commons have a number of steps that a petition must complete prior to presentation by the Clerk of petitions. For e-petitions these are:
a petitioner must identify at least five potential supporters, but no more than 10, who agree with the petition
have a Member accept to sponsor the petition
the Clerk will examine the petition for form and content
the petition will be translated and published on the e-petition website for signature for 120 days
reach 500 signatures from citizens or residents of Canada
certified by the Clerk of Petitions for presentation in the House.
The process for paper petitions is:
collect a minimum of 25 valid signatures with addresses
have a Member accept to sponsor the petition
the Member sends the petition to the Clerk for review and certification.
The Committee recognises that in some ways, the requirement to allow petitions that acquire only one signature (that of the principal petitioner) means that some petitions are more like a letter to the House, rather than a petition.
As at 22 January 2019, 26 petitions have been or are due to be presented to the House in the 45th Parliament, where only one signature has been obtained. This equates to about four per cent of all petitions received during the Parliament.
Noting the relatively small number of petitions received with only one signature, the Committee must balance the potential drawbacks to allowing petitions with only one signature, with the need to ensure that petitioning the Parliament remains a fundamental right for all Australians. In this way, individuals should retain the opportunity to place their concerns before the Parliament, regardless of how many people support their cause.
With a view to continuing to encourage petitioning in the House, the Committee does not support introducing a requirement that a person obtain a set number of signatures before their petition may be considered by the Committee.
In considering the future role of petitioning in the House, the Committee has examined the experience of other parliaments where a certain threshold of signatures be met to trigger a particular cause of action on a petition. These actions and the threshold attached will be discussed in further detail in Chapter 4.
Out of order petitions
As at 22 January 2019, 351 petitions out of 1178 petitions received during the 45th Parliament have been considered out of order. This equates to almost 30 per cent of petitions received. For a breakdown of out of order petitions by type, refer to Table 3.2 and Appendix F.
In contrast, of the 351 petitions received during the 44th Parliament, 96 were considered out of order. This equates to 27 per cent of all petitions received. It should be noted that the number of petitions received in the 45th Parliament includes e-petitions that were submitted, but not verified within 24 hours, and petitions that were withdrawn by principal petitioners prior to consideration.
Table 3.2: Out of order petitions - 45th Parliament as at 22 January 2019
Out of order
*this includes petitions that were not verified within 24 hours as well as ones that were withdrawn by the principal petitioner prior to Committee consideration.
Source: Standing Committee on Petitions
In the UK, Professor Leston-Bandeira submitted that 20,781 petitions were rejected in the 2015-17 UK Parliament (or approximately 65 per cent of petitions submitted). In comparison, in 2017 the EU Committee on Petitions did not accept 495 (39 per cent) of the 1,271 petitions received.
As noted earlier in this chapter, the introduction of e-petitioning in the House has led to an increase in the number of petitions received. This increase is likely to be a significant factor in the corresponding increase in out of order petitions. However, noting the number of out of order paper petitions, it is not the sole reason.
To reduce the likelihood of out of order petitions, the House petitions webpages provide information on the requirements for a valid petition. As noted earlier, petitioners are encouraged to contact the secretariat for advice on the requirements for petitions. There is however no formal process requiring petitioners to seek this advice prior to submitting a petition. In general, advice does not extend to spelling, grammar or accuracy of information provided.
Both the Scottish Public Petitions Committee and the Legislative Council of Victoria submitted that they have mechanisms in place to provide petitioners with advice on how to petition.
The Legislative Council of Victoria told the Committee that any Victorian resident can submit an e-petition for review by the Table Office on any issue. The Table Office staff members check requests for ‘conformity with Standing Orders and edit for content, syntax, grammar and flow’.
The Scottish Parliament submitted:
Initially, a high percentage of petitions submitted do not meet the requirements … However, where possible, the clerks will work with a petitioner to make a petition admissible or will signpost the petitioner to another route to try and resolve the issue.
In the New Zealand House of Representatives, each e-petition lodged is checked by the Office of the Clerk to make sure it follows the rules of Parliament. A staff member contacts the petitioner if any changes are suggested, prior to the petition being published. Reflecting on this process, the Clerk of the House, Mr David Wilson, submitted that a lack of understanding of the petitions process has resulted in a large workload on staff:
Staff have had to engage quite closely with petitioners, seeking clarification on various points or authentication of various asserted facts. At times, staff have undertaken their own research to assess the accuracy of elements of the petition or to determine the most appropriate way to frame a petition. Petitions frequently have to be rewritten completely, with staff often debating the nuances of different phrasing to find wording that reflects the petitioner’s intent while also satisfying the House’s requirements.
Mr Wilson stated that the time it took to moderate a petition affected the timeliness of the petition’s presentation. It was noted that since the introduction of e-petitioning, six petitions had been waiting for over a month for further information to be provided from the petitioner prior to moderation, and 17 petitions had been waiting for over a month for the petitioner to approve the changes made by staff.
Mr Wilson reflected on the experience:
We have not yet determined how to deal with petitions where the petitioner has failed to take the necessary action to progress the petition. It may be that imposing a time limit for responding to message from staff … could be desirable, to introduce some urgency for petitioners to take action with their petition …
Over the 45th Parliament and since the introduction of e-petitioning, the number of petitions received by the Committee has significantly increased. Simultaneously, the number of out of order petitions has risen.
The Committee is encouraged by the increased interest in petitioning. However, the number of out of order petitions it has received is a cause for concern. Any out of order petition received represents disappointment and frustration for the principal petitioner and prevents them from having their concerns voiced to the House.
Currently, petitioners are encouraged to contact the secretariat for advice on drafting their petition. The secretariat is able to provide feedback on draft terms in relation to the standing orders. In practice, only a small number of petitioners contact the secretariat prior to submitting their petitions to the Committee. Moreover, advice has not extended to editing for spelling or grammar.
The Committee considers that more work is required to educate petitioners and provide clear simple information to reduce the number of out of order petitions. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, the Committee is dedicated to providing clearer information and is currently working to improve this through redevelopment of the petitions webpages and the creation of video tutorials.
Once these changes are made public, the Committee will monitor the number of out of order petitions that are received. If the new information does not lead to significant reductions in out of order petitions, the Committee will consider whether a more formal moderation stage prior to committee consideration is required. This could be modelled on the New Zealand moderation process.