That the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs be instructed to recommend changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions so as to establish an electronic petitioning system that would enhance the current paper-based petitions system by allowing Canadians to sign petitions electronically, and to consider, among other things, (i) the possibility to trigger a debate in the House of Commons outside of current sitting hours when a certain threshold of signatures is reached, (ii) the necessity for no fewer than five Members of Parliament to sponsor the e-petition and to table it in the House once a time limit to collect signatures is reached, (iii) the study made in the 38th Parliament regarding e-petitions, and that the Committee report its findings to the House, with proposed changes to the Standing Orders and other conventions governing petitions, within 12 months of the adoption of this order.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to begin debate on my private member's Motion No. 428, a first critical step in bringing electronic petitioning to the House of Commons.
I would like to start with two very positive quotes from two important and outstanding Canadians who directly support my motion. The first may surprise my colleagues on the other side of the House. It is from former Reform party leader, Preston Manning, who, when asked to support my motion, agreed enthusiastically and provided the following quote. He said:
To be able to petition one's elected representatives, and to have such petitions addressed, is one of the oldest and most basic of democratic rights. Affirming and re-establishing this right in the 21st century through electronic petitioning is an idea well worth pursuing.
These are some words of wisdom from one of our leading democratic reformers who has pushed for democratic reform in our country for a very long time.
I would like to move to a second supporter of the motion. He is our former leader, NDP giant Ed Broadbent. He said:
Bringing electronic petitioning to the House of Commons is a 21st Century idea and one I fully endorse. Empowering Canadians to come together and help set the Parliamentary agenda will breathe fresh air into our democracy.
For Canadians who are watching at home and have been following this debate, and I have had much support on this, these two quotes really outline how Canada needs to change. Canadians, especially at this time, when we are so focused on perhaps changing the institutions here in Parliament, are thinking that we need not only giant changes here but also small ones. Perhaps the small ones are easier to accomplish, especially when we have cross-partisan support.
These quotes from these two prominent Canadians show that there is a real hunger out there for democratic reform. I hope I can persuade my colleagues on the other side of the House to support my motion.
We have done quite a lot of work on the e-petitioning motion. Recent polling by Angus Reid, who we commissioned on this, shows that a full 80% of Canadians support e-petitioning. When one thinks of the diversity of opinions in this country, that is a pretty astounding number that support moving from a paper petition process to e-petitioning. It needs to be recognized.
I have a unique chance here today to have a second first hour of debate on the motion due to the government's decision to prorogue earlier this year. I will take this opportunity to address some of the criticisms of my motion brought forward by the government side of the House in the original first hour of debate, held in June.
For those who were not present for the first hour of debate, I will start with a brief overview of my motion on e-petitioning and what I aim to accomplish with the motion. I would also refer people who are interested in this to my website, which has many more details and outlines support from many more prominent Canadians.
Motion No. 428 instructs the Standing Committee on Procedures and House Affairs, PROC, to undertake a study of the petitioning process and to develop recommendations for how we might improve the process with electronic petitions.
Currently, Canadians can only circulate, collect signatures on, and submit paper-based petitions. It is a popular thing in my riding to petition government by having an officially sanctioned petition signed and submitted by the member of Parliament to the House of Commons. In fact, it is a practice that stretches back centuries. In our current system, if citizens collect 25 names and find an MP to represent their written petitions to Parliament, the government has to respond in writing to the petitioner within 45 days. This is a common practice in the British parliamentary system and in many other systems around the world.
However, as we know, many civil society groups put online petitions on their websites and collect hundreds and even thousands of signatures from Canadians. It is much easier for people to access the system, considering the geographic scope of our country. It allows people in Newfoundland to sign petitions that are initiated in British Columbia and vice versa. These online petitions are currently unofficial. Even though there are thousands of signatures on these petitions, they cannot be submitted to the House of Commons. The cries of those who are asking for change go unanswered under the current system.
My motion calls on the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to report back to the House with recommendations as to how we could enhance our current petitioning system and bring it into the 21st century by allowing citizens to post and sign certified petitions online. It sounds like a simple endeavour. It is one that is used in many countries and even in jurisdictions within our own country, such as Quebec and the Northwest Territories.
This is a first critical step in moving toward online petitions. I have not put forward a private member's bill that would force us to vote on whether we want e-petitioning. In fact, what I am doing is a reasonable first step, which is asking PROC to look at this and come back within 12 months to tell us what we should do to implement electronic petitioning. It has had broad support on both sides of the House and through history in Parliament.
This study would allow us to hear not only from civil society groups and privacy experts but from those familiar with other jurisdictions that use e-petitions so that we can establish best practices for implementing an e-petition system that is fair, efficient, and responsive.
In addition to calling for a comprehensive study, my motion goes further. It suggests that we increase the impact of petitions by maintaining the current paper-based petitions, which are good for local issues, and then move to electronic petitions, which would allow many more Canadians to get involved and would lower the threshold for participation.
The motion proposes that petitioning should trigger a short debate in the House, similar to a take-note debate, if these petitions receive a certain number of signatures—50,000 or 100,000 signatures are used in other jurisdictions—and are sponsored by no fewer than five MPs. That would allow for an issue seen by people as important and worth debating to make it into the House. There would be no votes. There would be an hour of debate to raise the profile of the issue and to bring it out in public.
Not only would citizens be able to post and sign official petitions online but their views and concerns would be debated at the highest level by their elected representatives. That is what we are here to do. We are here to debate, talk about, and deliberate upon important issues in society. Sometimes this House does not often do that. This e-petitioning idea would give citizens more direct access to their governments. That is one of the main reasons I am bringing it forward.
As I mentioned in my first speech on this topic, I have broad support for this motion from my colleagues on this side of the House, those at the end of this side of the House, independents, and even some members on that side of the House, who jointly seconded my motion. I thank them for that, especially the members for Saskatoon—Humboldt and Edmonton—St. Albert.
In addition to the support of Mr. Manning and Mr. Broadbent, the following have said that they fully endorse my motion for supplementing our e-petitioning process. Another name that might surprise members is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. It is on board with this as are Samara, Leadnow, and OpenMedia, which are leading social media and online-based groups. It may not surprise members that the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is on board with it, as is Egale. Hundreds of Canadians have signed a paper-based petition supporting this motion.
There is a lot of support for this and no reason it should not go forward. It is not a bill that prescribes what an e-petitioning system would look like. It is a motion for a study on what e-petitioning would look like. It would have to be reported back to the House in 12 months, before the next election.
I will now move to objections from previous debates. I feel lucky to have been able to hear what my opponents' objections were to this and to be able to address them in this short speech.
The concerns relate to first, costs. Second was experiences in other countries. Members on the other side of the House were interested in that. Third was a concern about frivolous issues being debated in the House. Fourth was the technical matter of the exact wording of the motion.
Let us turn to cost concerns, and we have really done our homework on this. We have talked with top political scientists around the country who helped us design the motion, and in fact we have made great use of the Library of Parliament. Library officials have told us the costs in various jurisdictions, including Quebec and the Northwest Territories, are minimal and mostly rely on existing resources to get the job done.
That many jurisdictions outside of Canada use e-petitioning, such as the U.S. and Britain, shows that this is a reasonable endeavour, and in some cases it lowers costs, because we are going from petitioning by paper to using electronic means.
I am happy to submit any of the costing information to the committee if it is interested, and of course, if we could save money, that would be a great step forward.
Speaking of experience in other countries, there was some concern raised on the other side that other countries have looked at this and not gone ahead with the idea. In fact, after these objections were heard, we went back to the Library of Parliament and asked officials to examine a wide range of democratic countries to see if any jurisdiction had ever terminated a system after putting it in place. The Library of Parliament reported back that no jurisdiction has ever put e-petitioning in place and then taken it out.
The British House of Commons has recently reviewed its petitioning system. It is much like what I have designed here. In fact a lot of the wording has been lifted straight from the British House of Commons system. A committee reported back:
The system introduced by the Government has proved very popular and has already provided the subjects for a number of lively and illuminating debates.
That is hardly a government report that says it wants to get rid of this.
In terms of frivolous issues, the concern is that, with 50,000 or 100,000 signatures, we would have frivolous issues directly debated here in the House. I remind the other side that it is not voted on, just debated. That is why I have put the clause in, the suggestion to the committee that it look at having five MPs sign on to any petition that was received with a certain threshold of signatures. This would be an effective check against any frivolous matters. I doubt any of my hon. colleagues in the House would attach their names to silly ideas that would waste the House's time, and even if one would, five certainly would not. I think that is an effective check.
The last question regarding the motion is on the wording of the motion, which some on the other side of the House said perhaps is a little too prescriptive. Recently we have had motions raised in the House, voted upon and passed unanimously that are much prescriptive than this. The motion is asking for PROC to conduct a study and then report back within 12 months. If we cannot be any more prescriptive than that, I doubt we would get anything done here at all.
I do not think the objections raised by the other side of the House should at all be a death knell for the motion. I would think they are so scant that it would encourage members on the other side of the House to support the motion and come forward.
What do we have to lose? We have a system that a lot of people are saying is in crisis. We cannot open a newspaper or turn on a TV without hearing about the current problems in the Senate and a hankering for reform. Here we are in a democratic age and also an electronic age where people are using smart phones and tablets and are so hooked in worldwide and together, which is a good thing, bringing Canadians together, but we have not kept up with that here in the House of Commons.
When I go to high schools to talk about the motion, they cannot believe we still use paper-based petitions. They ask how we have not kept up, especially when they are so prominently featured in the United States and Britain? We really have to get with the times and move.
I close with a quote from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which perhaps may not always be an NDP ally on a lot of issues, but is very supportive here:
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation applauds this worthy initiative...to kick-start Parliament on accepting electronic signatures on petitions. When taxpayers get the opportunity to go online and sign an official petition to Parliament, they'll be able to get the attention of Ottawa politicians in a hurry. We also support...[the] suggestion that 50,000 Canadians signing a petition and 5 MPs should be able to force a debate in Parliament. This would help restore...grassroots democracy and accountability on Parliament Hill.
I will leave the House with that quote, and I look forward to questions from the other side and debate in the House on this issue.