The right of petitioning Parliament is a long-established fundamental right of the citizen. It allows any individual or group of individuals to place grievances directly before the Parliament. It is the only direct means of communication between the people and the Parliament.
A petition is basically a request for action. Any citizen or resident, or group of citizens or residents, may petition the House of Representatives to take action. For example, petitions may ask the House to introduce legislation, or to repeal or change existing legislation, or to take action for a certain purpose or for the benefit of particular persons. Less commonly a petition from an individual citizen may seek the redress of a personal grievance, for example, the correction of an administrative error.
The subject of a petition must be a matter on which the House has the power to act, that is, it must be a Federal rather than a State matter and one involving legislation or government administration.
Care must be taken in the wording of petitions as the House imposes certain rules on their form and content. These are covered in detail later in this Factsheet. A recommended form of a petition to the House of Representatives is given at the end of this Factsheet.
Although a petition only needs to have one signature to be accepted, it will obviously appear more representative of public feeling if it is signed by as many people as possible. Some of the rules set out below relate to signatures and it is important to be familiar with these before beginning to gather signatures.
A petition can only be presented to the House by a Member of the House. This can be any Member, including a Minister, and does not have to be the petitioners' local Member. It is the practice of the House that the Speaker does not present petitions but rather arranges for another Member to do so on his or her behalf.
Although a Member is not bound to present a petition sent for presentation, it is traditionally accepted that he or she will present it, irrespective of personal views. Presentation of a petition by a Member does not mean that the Member necessarily agrees with its content.
Petitions are announced in the House by the Clerk of the House following question time every sitting Monday. With each petition the Clerk announces the name of the Member who has presented it, who the petition is from, the number of signatures and a short summary of the action requested by the petition.
At the time of presentation no discussion of the subject matter of a petition takes place, although a Member may move one of the following motions: That the petition be not received; That the petition be printed, or That the petition be referred to a committee. The moving of any of these motions is very rare.
After a petition has been announced in the House its presentation is recorded in the official minutes of the House, the Votes and Proceedings, and the full text of the petition is printed in the Hansard for that day.
Every petition presented is referred by the Clerk to the Minister responsible for the matter which is the subject of the petition. Sessional orders permit the Minister to respond to a petition by lodging a response with the Clerk for announcement at the end of the petitions announcement. Ministers may also use less formal methods of responding to petitions, for example, by writing personally to petitioners. In some cases a Minister may order administrative action to be taken in response to a particular grievance.
On occasion the House has taken action itself by referring the issues raised in a petition to a committee. Each of the recently established general purpose standing committees has the power to consider and report on petitions referred to it by the House, however to date none have been referred. In earlier years there have been cases of petitions being referred to select committees specifically formed for the purpose.
Even though petitions may seem to produce no immediate or obvious result, they inform Members and the Government, in a public way, of the views of sections of the population and they serve as one means of placing community concerns on the parliamentary agenda.
In recent years an average of about 750 petitions have been presented to the House each year. The number of signatures to a petition has only been recorded since 1988. Since then the petition with the most signatures has been one presented on 13 May 1993, signed by 513,445 persons.
The standing orders of the House set out a number of rules governing the format and presentation of petitions. These are designed to ensure the authenticity of petitions and protect the intentions of petitioners and the House. The standing orders do not impose any particular style of expression but certain other requirements must be met. It is important that those involved in drawing up petitions familiarise themselves with the rules before taking steps to collect signatures. This will avoid the possibility of the petition being ruled out of order and not being presented to the House. The main requirements are:
No letters, affidavits or other documents may be attached to a petition.
Any petition not in English must be accompanied by a translation certified to be correct, with the name and address of the certifying person shown on the translation.
Petitions must be free of any indication that they may have been sponsored or distributed by a Member of the House; petitions which include a Member's photograph or name or address on the page on which the petition is written are not in order.
A Member who has received a petition for presentation must lodge it with the Clerk of the House by 12 noon on Friday for it to be presented on the following sitting Monday.
In the United Kingdom the right of petitioning the Crown and Parliament for redress of grievances dates back to the reign of King Edward I in the 13th century. The origins of Parliament itself can be traced back to those meetings of the King's Council which considered petitions. The terms 'bill' and 'petition' originally had the same meaning. Some of the earliest legislation was in fact in form no more than a petition which had been agreed to by the King.
The present form of petitions developed in the late 17th century. The House of Commons passed the following resolutions in 1669:
The practice of petitioning Parliament has declined in relative importance in modern times because there are now other, and usually more effective, means of dealing with individual grievances, for example, by direct representation by a Member of Parliament, by the Commonwealth Ombudsman or by bodies like the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Public grievances may nowadays be very effectively publicised through the media, and with the growth of parliamentary committees, brought to the attention of the Parliament by means of submissions to committees and subsequently in reports by those committees.
The petition of certain . . .
Here identify, in general terms, who the petitioners are; for example:
draws to the attention of the House, (or points out to the House)
Here give the circumstances of the case
Your petitioners therefore:
pray that the House, (or request the House to,) (or ask the House to)
Here outline the action that the House should, or should not, take
NAME SIGNATURE ADDRESS
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 745–753.