A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

Petitions are in vogue, but do they make a difference?

The humble petition, one of the oldest and most enduring forms of political activism, is experiencing a resurgence. The revival comes amid concerns that formal petitions barely get traction and despite deep community scepticism about politics more generally.

Words by Henry Belot
 

Almost 400 petitions, bearing the signatures of more than 186,000 Victorians, have been tabled in the Victorian parliament since the beginning of 2012 — nearly double the number tabled over the same period 10 years earlier.

Despite this apparent rising political engagement, analysis by The Citizen suggests that little, if any, action is taken on individual petitions other than a ceremonial reading followed by the placement of a printed copy on the relevant minister’s desk.

Who’s petitioning; about what?

• 186,258 signatures attached to 373 petitions (Jan 2012 – June 2013) 

• 289 presented by ALP members, Liberals (54), Nationals (21), Greens (8), Independent (1) 

• On average, 499 signatures per petition

• Most supported petition – tabled by Daniel Andrews (ALP, Mulgrave) opposing TAFE funding cuts

• 24 petitions with fewer than 10 signatures

• 3 petitions with just 1 signature

• 36 per cent of all petitions education-related

• Most number of petitions presented by Danielle Green (ALP, Yan Yean), followed by Jane Garrett (ALP, Brunswick) and Andrew Katos (Lib, Sth Barwon)

At best, a petition is put forward by a member of parliament to be discussed during the following day’s proceedings. Online records suggest, however, that the majority of these petitions are swept under the table, or simply forgotten. 

“The way that the State Parliament is dealing with petitions at the moment is doing a disservice to those people who have engaged on the matter and are expecting that the petition will feed into a broader protest,” said Nick Allardice, the Asia Pacific Managing Director of Change.org, an online petition forum.

Parliamentary petitions have generally reflected common concerns throughout the community, although their content has tended to be less varied than those created solely online.

Political scientist Aaron Martin, who specialises in youth involvement in Australian politics, believes that analysing petitions can increase understanding of a political climate by complementing more routine forms of polling and sampling.

“Traditional polls ask the public to respond to issues perceived to be important, but the polls may be asking about the wrong issues,” Dr Martin said. “Petitions show the range of issues a constituency really cares about.”

Reflecting the public debate around the Gonski education reforms, more than one-in-three petitions tabled in State Parliament in the past 18 months focused on education, with 75 petitions addressing issues to do with primary or secondary schools and a further 58 petitions related to tertiary educational institutions.

Concerns about roads accounted for 40 petitions, with a further 42 targeting public transport and 51 focusing on urban or environmental planning.

Surprisingly, just 15 petitions took on the hotbed topic of health and hospitals, despite the long-running industrial campaign led by the Australian Nurses Federation. 

A search of online petition forums such as GetUp!, Change.org and GoPetition Australia, reveals a wider range of concerns, many focused on national issues that fall outside state jurisdiction, which is necessary for a petition to be accepted by parliament. Issues ranged from asylum seekers to same-sex marriage, gambling advertising to credit card surcharges and grievances with major retailers.

The vast number of petitions and signatures constructed online reveal the Internet as an influential and growing conduit for ‘people power’.

Ease and convenience are obvious drivers. But also, according to Melbourne University’s Dr Martin, “young people are more likely to sign online petitions than printed petitions, partly because young Australians have become disillusioned with the political system as a whole”.  

The trend of declining political party membership would appear to lend support for the notion. GetUp! is estimated to have more than 500,000 members, while ALP membership was reportedly 44,022 at the end of 2012, down from a peak of 400,000 in the 1940s.

But the popularity of online petitions does not appear to have come at the expense of the more formal activism of petitions tabled in parliament. Petitions, whether online or in writing, are definitely in vogue.

Petitioning Parliament: rules of engagement 

• Petitions must be signed by at least one person

• Signatures must be accompanied by a name and street address

• Petition can only be lodged by a state MP

• Any MP can lodge a petition, regardless of electorate

• An MP need not agree with the contents of the petition

• Subject of petitions must fall within state purview 

The number of petitions tabled since the beginning of 2012 is almost double the 207 petitions presented between January 2002 and June 2003 – a time when the internet was still nascent. A decade earlier, between January 1992 and June 1993, 195 petitions were tabled in the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council.

“We’re told that people have lost faith in the institutions of democracy, but we turn back to them when we have a grievance or something specific to address,” said Paul Strangio, an associate professor with Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry. 

Yet despite this newfound popularity, many within advocacy circles continue to question the influence of parliamentary petitions amid charges that they remain subject to tokenism and at the mercy of political expediency.

“Parliamentary petitions can be an important way for MPs to demonstrate to their constituents that their concerns have been acted upon,” said Mr Allardice, of Change.org. “Too often though, presenting a petition is used as a way to close off an issue without actually following through.”

However, for politicians such as Brunswick Labor MP Jane Garrett, who has tabled 22 petitions bearing 6972 signatures in the past 18 months, parliamentary petitions still play an important role in Victorian democracy, serving as a catalyst for change within communities.

“Petitions give a clear indication of concerns within a community and are an important way for community members to express their views,” she told The Citizen. 

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This, after all, was the original purpose of the petition. Dr Martin agrees — at least in theory — that petitions continue to serve this function as they become more popular both online and in writing before parliament.

“Petitions have the potential to increase the quality of our democracy. They’re a low-cost form of political activism that can theoretically make politicians aware of issues that concern citizens.”

Ms Garrett said that many MPs felt compelled to table petitions to increase support for particular causes or to generate ongoing discussions around issues of concern within their electorates, such as the expansion of the Brunswick terminal power station.

A long-standing campaign had garnered significant attention through petitions. “We’re hoping that the government will heed the call for an independent panel,” she said.

But with petitions finding a supplementary home online, those tabled in Parliament in future are not destined to remain confined to print. Already, there are signs that the parliamentary process is itself bending to accommodate new technology.

Queensland’s parliament now provides e-petitions, allowing Queenslanders to engage online, while continuing the tradition of paper petitions tabled in parliament.

Meanwhile, online initiatives such as OurSay continue to present new alternatives for political engagement beyond the traditional signature-bearing plea. 

“We’re living in an unprecedented time of people-driven change facilitated by technology,” said Change.org’s Mr Allardice. “The State Parliament has an opportunity to be far more engaged with people who are expressing opinions and trying to be more involved in our democracy.”

For now, the resurgence in parliamentary petitions provides insight into the concerns of the Victorian community, as well as the attitudes of elected representatives. It’s likely that their influence and construct will continue to evolve as Victorians seek more effective ways to influence political outcomes.

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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