PETITIONS

House of Representatives Factsheet No. 11

Revised April 1996


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.

What is a petition?

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.

Drawing up the petition

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.

Collecting signatures

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.

Getting the petition presented

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.

What happens in the House?

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.

What happens after a petition has been presented?

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.

Some statistics

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.

RULES

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:

Form
The text of petitions must be clearly written, typed, printed or reproduced by mechanical process, such as photocopying. They should not have any additions or alterations and they should be on paper.

A petition must:
be addressed to the Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives assembled in Parliament;

state the facts which the petititoners wish to bring to the notice of the House; and

conclude with a request (traditionally called a 'prayer') that the House take, or not take, some course of action. Petitions stating that the petitioners 'ask', 'request', or 'respectfully urge', that certain action be taken, or not taken, by the House are acceptable. It is not necessary to use the traditional form of words 'humbly pray'.

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.

Language and content
No reference may be made in a petition to any debate in Parliament; however, petitions relating to matters currently on the Notice Paper (that is, the agenda paper of the House), bills before the Senate and the repeal or amendment of Acts are generally acceptable.

The standing orders require petitions to be respectful and temperate in their language. The practice of the House is that petitions must not be critical of the Queen, members of the Royal Family, the Governor-General, members of the judiciary, or Members and Senators. Petitions must not contain irrelevant statements.

Signatures
A petition must contain the signature and address of at least one person on the sheet on which it is written.

A petition must be signed by the persons whose names and addresses appear, in their own handwriting. A person who is unable to write must put his or her mark in the presence of a witness, who must sign as the witness.

A petition must have the signatures and addresses written on the same page as the petition or on sheets containing the 'prayer' of the petition. Signatures which appear on an otherwise blank page or on the reverse side of a valid page are not recognised. Signatures must not be pasted on or transferred, for example, by photocopying.

A petition of a corporation must be made under its common seal. If it is not, but is otherwise in order, it may be presented simply as the petition of the individual(s) who signed it.

Presentation to the House
The Member lodging a petition must endorse it with:
  • his or her signature;
  • his or her electoral division; and
  • the number of signatories to the petition.

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.

An historical note

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 effect of these resolutions was inherited by the Australian Parliament and the right of petitioning thus became the right of every Australian.

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 RECOMMENDED FORM OF A PETITION TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES


PETITION

TO THE HONOURABLE THE SPEAKER AND MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES ASSEMBLED IN PARLIAMENT:

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

1

2

3

4

5

and so on



Suggestions for further reading

House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 745753.


Last updated: 5 July 1996