The Internet is forcing its way into the mother of parliaments with both sides in the UK proposing to require parliamentary debates on epetitions which gain more than a certain number of signatures.
Tory Leader David Cameron is promising that any epetition that gains one million signatures will allow members of the public to introduce a bill on which MPs are required to vote.
Any epetition that gains 100,000 signatures will be eligible to be formally debated in the House of Commons.
Labour’s promise is to introduce a trial where selected epetitions will be debated in the Common’s second chamber.
We’ve just completed work on an epetition system for a major local government authority in Queensland, and it will be interesting to see how the epetition system is used, although there is no hint that it will be used in the UK way. (But we’d be happy to hear from other legislatures with more radical ideas).
Our first system was built some years ago for Councillor Jane Prentice who had the innovative idea of allowing for signatures in favour and against the petition. She used her system as an effective tool to run local plebiscites on planning issues, amongst other things.
This petition system was then used to build a system for use by councils around Queensland.
Using a petition to gauge public opinion or force legislation onto the notice paper is a challenge to traditional theories of liberal democratic practice of checks and balances. While democracy is to be encouraged, “tyranny of the majority” is regarded as a real risk.
However, one million signatures in the UK is the equivalent of around 333,000 in Australia and would be a huge hurdle to jump. True, the online advocacy group GetUp boasts 343,206 members, but they’ve never got close to having that number participate in any one of their own campaigns.