Victorians stuck on paper petitions

The size of a paper petition with 5,000 signatures. PhotoJoshua Resnick
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Victorian can’t submit electronic petitions to the lower house of parliament because MPs have failed to implement an e-petition system. Joshua Resnick reports.

Victorian MPs have failed to implement an e-petition system for the lower house of parliament, despite recommendations by several of their own committees over the last 12 years.

Parliament built all the necessary software in 2009 after a committee explored the issue in-depth. Some MPs were given demonstrations of the software and returned positive feedback, but no MP introduced legislation that would allow its use.

“To actually give effect to any of their (committees’) recommendations, somebody needs to move a motion in the house,” says Robert McDonald, who is responsible for petitions in the Legislative Assembly. “It’s not like the house actually considered it and voted against it. It just never got around to considering the issue and it’s never been brought back on to the agenda since.”

Fiona Patten, Leader of the Australian Sex Party, says e-petitons are a means to remedy Australia’s political apathy, “I think they are absolutely crucial, people are more familiar these days with an e-petition than they are with a paper petition.

“Victoria has been incredibly slow in coming up to speed with e-petitions.”

Fiona Patten, Founder and Leader of the Australian Sex Party.
Photo Joshua Resnick

Victoria’s upper house introduced a trial e-petition system earlier this year, after Ms Patten put forward a motion to the Legislative Council in 2016.

Both houses share the same website, so the system can be adopted by the Legislative Assembly, according to Ms Patten.

“The motion is that we change our standing orders to allow e-petitions in-line with the standing orders of the Legislative Council, all those in favour say I –  and it’s done, and they can go to lunch,” she says. “I’m making it sound simple, but it is that simple.”

Changes of standing orders, the procedural rules for parliament, generally occur after a government wins an election, so they can devote the remaining time in parliament to legislating their agenda, but they can be altered anytime, says LA Assistant Clerk Robert McDonald.

“The government has the right to just introduce a proposal that is then voted on by the house,” he says.

McDonald and his assistant are responsible for physically examining every paper petition submitted to the Assembly, making sure only legitimate Victorian residents are signing, he receives 100-200 petitions a year, some with upwards of 30,000 signatures.

“One of the advantages of an electronic petitioning system is the counting and verification are done automatically,” he says.

A parliamentary committee report, Victorian Electronic Democracy recommended e-petitions be introduced in 2005. It received positive feedback from MPs, but the 55th parliament ended before any changes could be made, according to the parliament’s website.

A 2008 report, Strengthening Government and Parliament Accountability in Victoria, also recommended parliament consider e-petitions.

This was followed by a 2009 report tabled in parliament by the Standing Orders Committee, with the sole recommendation that the Assembly implement e-petitions on a trial basis.

The report noted that e-petitions have been permitted in Queensland since 2002.

The trial system adopted by the Legislative Council is rudimentary and designed to mimic the process for paper petitions as closely as possible says MLC Patten, who aspires to an entire overhaul of the petition system.

“You’ve got 10,000 people saying we want to legalise medicinal marijuana for chronic pain, the government can go, right, thanks. And that is the end of the petition process. They should further question, how can we enhance this process?”

The Premier’s office and the office of Colin Brooks, Chair of the Legislative Assembly’s Standing Orders Committee, did not respond to several requests for comment.