Monday, 22 February 2010
Tonight I speak as Chair of the Standing Committee on Petitions. Members may know that the committee has begun a new inquiry into the work of the committee. This is a review of the arrangements for petitions that have been put in place in this, the 42nd Parliament. I will speak further about the inquiry shortly, but first I wish to refer to the recent significant changes to petitioning the House of Representatives. Prominent among these has been the creation of the Standing Committee on Petitions to consider all petitions to the House.
This has led to other changes. Among the most important is the high rate of ministerial responses to petitions. In former parliaments, responses were rare—and I should say they were very rare. For the years 1997-2007 it was common for there to be no responses in any given year or, at best, one per year. Now the overwhelming majority of petitions receive a response and they are also received within the current 90-day convention. I thank ministers for their quick responses. In addition, the committee also conducts hearings from time to time on the progress of concerns raised in some of the petitions, both with petitioners and the departments of ministers who respond to petitions. We are getting some follow-through after presentations through responses and public hearings. In the committee’s view this makes a difference to petitioners. They care about the fact that their petitions are posted on the committee’s website and they are most concerned that their petitions attract ministerial responses.
It is clear, then, that the creation of the committee has had an impact on the way that petitions figure in the life of the House. With this in mind, as the current parliament moves toward the end of its term, the Petitions Committee has resolved to conduct an inquiry into arrangements for petitions. Terms of reference for the inquiry require the committee to investigate the role and operations of the committee, and the standing and sessional orders which affect petitions, some of which were put in place to underwrite the new arrangements. Among other things, the inquiry may consider whether the standing and sessional orders that support present arrangements should be amended and, if so, in what form.
There are a number of other areas that may be considered. A key question running throughout is the degree to which present arrangements allow petitions to be an effective means for the public to express its concerns to the House and for proper regard and respect for freedom of speech to be maintained. Considering this question will allow the committee to arrive at an accurate assessment of current arrangements and to consider an advantageous, sustainable balance between openness on the one hand and due care on the other.
Such issues are also engaged by the committee’s recently completed inquiry into electronic petitions. If at a future point the House chooses to accept electronic petitions as the committee recommends, this could result in more business for the Petitions Committee. Considering these developments, we can say that arrangements for petitions to the House of Representatives are undergoing renewal and possibly expansion, and that there is potential for petitions to become an increasingly important part of the relationship between the House and the public.
So it is especially important that members of the public and members of the House contribute to the present inquiry. The committee is interested to hear about the impact of the current arrangements for petitions and ideas for ways in which it could be better done in the future. Because this year is likely to be a very busy one, we have set a due date for submissions of 11 March. This will give the committee a chance to make a thorough inquiry and report to the House before other things—or, I should say, more pressing things—consume our attention. In the committee’s view, this is an important opportunity to review arrangements and, if necessary, recommend what needs to be put in place for the commencement of the next parliament.