Ms Patten (Northern Metropolitan) — I move:
That this house —
(1) notes that the Victorian Parliament has failed to keep up to speed with technology and electronic petitions (e-petitions), which are common throughout Australia and in everyday use in the Queensland, ACT and federal parliaments, and should be an accepted practice in Victoria;
(2) notes that in 2009 the Legislative Assembly Standing Orders Committee recommended that the Assembly adopt such a practice, but as yet neither house of Parliament has done so;
(3) notes that provision for e-petitions would allow more Victorians to have their say in the democratic process of the Victorian Parliament and will, therefore, improve the community’s political engagement;
(4) requires e-petitions to be permitted in the Legislative Council in addition to paper petitions;
(5) introduces the necessary sessional orders and/or standing orders to provide for e-petitions, including appropriate procedures;
(6) refers the required amendments to standing orders to the Procedure Committee to report to the house by 25 October 2016; and
(7) implements e-petitions in the Legislative Council no later than 31 January 2017.
I have put this motion because sometime last year I realised we did not have e-petitions. I looked into the issue, and honestly I was quite taken aback that Victoria, one of the progressive states of Australia, did not have e-petitions. Little old Queensland has e-petitions, the ACT has e-petitions, Tasmania has e-petitions and even the commonwealth — the federal Parliament — has e-petitions, but not Victoria. I was somewhat surprised.
In fact I was speaking to a young constituent yesterday, and they asked, ‘What are you doing in Parliament this week?’. I said that I am putting up a motion on e-petitions. He looked at me really blankly, as if to say, ‘What’s an e-petition?’. I said that it is a petition that you can do online. He said, ‘What other petitions are there?’. I said that if you want to petition the Victorian Parliament, you have to write it by hand on a piece of paper. He still looked at me blankly, going, ‘What?’, almost like, ‘What is paper?’. This is the state we are in. We are representing constituents who are born with the internet. For them the whole notion of life without the internet is completely alien, so the notion that something as simple as petitioning the Parliament could not be done online and must be done through a parchment-and-pen process is really anathema to many of the constituents we represent.
We want our constituents to communicate with this house. We want to get their feedback, we want to hear about what is important in the community and we want to make that process as easy as possible. Implementing an e-petition process would engage and enable more people to get involved with Parliament. I do not think anyone should be under any illusion about what the population thinks of us in here and how disaffected and disengaged they have become from the political process. I think that introducing something as simple as e-petitions can further engage our constituents, particularly our younger constituents.
I have also spoken to the crossbenchers about this motion specifically. In remote and regional areas gathering signatures for a paper petition is not an easy process. For example, getting out to the far-flung districts of Mr Purcell’s region with a paper-and-pen petition is not easy, which means that a lot of people miss out on sharing their thoughts and getting involved in petitioning this Parliament. E-petitions will certainly make that considerably easier.
When I was preparing this motion I started to look at where we had gone with petitions. I found that we have not gone very far. I did not read the Magna Carta; however, I did read a document that made note that petitions were expressly noted in the Magna Carta, and then petitions got their own act in 1406 — this was in England — and not much has changed. In 1842 the House of Commons in the UK introduced a whole bunch of standing orders around petitions. Can I tell you that not much has changed between the 1842 House of Commons standing orders on petitions and the Legislative Council of Victoria’s standing orders on petitions. The one thing that is different is that the House of Commons gets a hell of a lot more petitions than we do. They were averaging 10 000 petitions for every session of Parliament, whereas I think to date in this 58th Parliament we have received just 122, so I do not think we are going to meet anywhere near that 10 000 mark.
I note that in 2009 the Legislative Assembly asked the Standing Orders Committee to look specifically at introducing e-petitions for the Legislative Assembly. The committee strongly recommended that e-petitions be permitted. They were not looking at changing things enormously. We are not looking at citizen-initiated referendums or that kind of thing. We are looking at an e-petition that largely mirrors what we do with paper petitions, but just enables us to do it online. As I say, Queensland has done this and has had remarkable success with it. Queensland conducted a trial in 2003 and then reviewed the issue. They spoke to the community, and the community had engaged with it. A lot more people were enacting petitions, and a hell of a lot more people were signing petitions and becoming involved in that process. I think that is a very good thing.
It is not going to be difficult. In 2005, 11 years ago, a recommendation was made to this Parliament by the Scrutiny of Acts and Regulations Committee (SARC) in its report on Victorian electronic democracy. In its report SARC recommended that this Parliament adopt e-petitions. SARC also recommended some really radical stuff: that parliamentarians should be allowed to use their electorate budget to build a website for their office; that we might not only put up documents in PDF but actually use Word documents as well; and that we might even look at webcasting both chambers of Parliament. Almost all of the recommendations from the SARC report of 2005 were enacted, except, oddly enough, e-petitions.
As I mentioned, the 2009 committee members made some very simple recommendations and outlined how they thought the system would work. I do not think we need to reinvent anything here. They really did outline it very well. As we know, technology has changed enormously since 2009, so the types of cloud platforms are far simpler. When we look at the plethora of petition websites that all of our constituents use these days, we can see that we will not need to reinvent the wheel. We will be able to set checks and balances on these websites fairly simply through a login registration process, as they use in Queensland and as they use in Scotland. We will be doing a verification process, like we do with paper submissions — we check to see if those people are actual people. We occasionally do some random checks on them, and we can do the same with an e-petition. In fact it is probably going to be a lot easier to verify the names of people on an e-petition than it currently is on a paper petition.
The way it was recommended in 2009 — and I think this is a good recommendation, and it is the one area where we probably move away from a paper petition — is that the person wanting to put up the petition notifies a member of Parliament about putting up a petition. In effect they will get a sponsor at the beginning of the petition rather than just at the end. This is a very simple thing. It enables us to know that that person is an actual person and to facilitate them getting online to use the e-petition platform. This is the system that, as I said, has been used in Scotland and in Queensland.
We enable people to register to vote — and I know that with the coming federal election we have all been aware of people registering to vote — and they can do that online. The notion that you could sign a petition for Parliament online I do not think is a terribly dangerous or risky step for this Parliament. There are many checks and balances that could easily be put in place. We will see the benefits of it, particularly as I mentioned, in remote and regional areas. It also enables some of those smaller organisations or disability organisations or aged-care organisations that may not have the mobility to hang out on train stations or down at shopping centres over the weekend to collect signatures. This will enable them to use electronic means to get their message out and engage with their communities in a much better way.
I note that in 2005, when it was first recommended by SARC in its report on electronic democracy, that there was some resistance in Victoria to this. The author of the report, Karen Ellingford, stated — politely, I thought — that, as she put it, there may have been some ‘generational resistance’ among MPs to this newfangled internet thing. MPs were also expressing concerns that this would make it ‘too easy’ to petition the Parliament. I think we should make it as simple and open as possible for members of the public to petition us on issues that they think are important to them.
I do hope that we can agree today that we will have e-petitions and that then the Procedure Committee can spend a short period of time enacting the e-petition procedure. I do not expect it to be terribly difficult. It did not look terribly difficult in 2009, and I think in 2016 we have had some huge changes to technology.
Going back to my young constituent who thought it was all terribly hilarious that there was no such thing as e-petitions, I must say that I have noticed, I am sure like other members, that my handwriting is getting worse and worse, so before it becomes completely illegible — and that would make the written petition fairly useless — I think it is time for us to move to e-petitions. I hope members will support the motion. It is a motion that has been brought on with the support of the crossbench in this instance. It is a simple motion that we agree to e-petitions and then we allow the Procedure Committee to get on with developing the infrastructure for it.