Is Digital Democracy Just A Buzzword?

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Our economy may be the envy of world, but when it comes to digital democracy, the Australian Government is lagging behind.

As a former electorate officer, I can tell you that even back in 2010, the most common form of correspondence to an MP was email, followed by telephone and then by hand written letters, typically in illegible cursive.

Since then, our political bodies, including elected representatives, chambers, departments, authorities and even agencies, have increased their uptake of digital communications. Twitter and Facebook are growing as means of distributing and receiving communications to and from constituents.

But as a citizen, what happens when change sought through these outlets fails to deliver? Well, there is always that humble tool known as a petition.

The petition can be a very powerful mechanism for democratic empowerment, often acting as the catalyst for large-scale social change. A notable example of this is the Women’s Suffrage Petition, which in 1891 gave the women of Victoria equal voting rights to men. Almost 30,000 signatures were collected.

Interestingly, the original Women’s Suffrage Petition has now been digitised into an online, searchable database. Examples such as this and the acceptance of petitions by democratic governments the world over is evidence of their success and capacity to change policy.

But the traditional petition has its own limitations, especially geography and time, which in our increasingly interconnected society should no longer be issues.

Enter the online petition. In 2012, in Australia alone, Change.org hosted more than 6000 online petitions. Since 2007, there have been over 500,000 petitions on Change.org worldwide, and that is just from one online provider.

That being said, in Australia, the online petition has yet to achieve its biggest milestone; acceptance by the House of Representatives as a legitimate form of petitioning.

A recent article by CPR’s sister agency, 33 Digital, served to remind us of this, by addressing the e-petition tool established by the UK Government in 2011. Additional countries utilising e-petitions include the Scottish Parliament, German Parliament and more famously, the US Government.

But in Australia, we trail, with Queensland being the only state utilising an e-petition system. In 2008 the House Standing Committee inquired into electronic petitioning, and in 2009 tabled its report, Electronic Petitioning to the House of Representatives. 

The report recommended the government implement an e-petition system, providing the public modern means to petition the House of Representatives. The recommendations are extensive, including how to avoid incidents like the US “Death Star” petition.

When the US first implemented its system, any petition which received 5000 signatures garnered a direct response from the President.

Well, “we the people” managed 25,000 signatures petitioning the US government to build the Death Star from Star Wars. Obviously the US Government did not agree to proceed with construction, although its response was humorous:

"The Administration does not support blowing up planets … why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?"

This is an example of a poorly implemented system which was resolved by increasing the required number of signatures. Hardly a long-term solution.

Aside from this, there are two major concerns with e-petitions.

First, they present another means for special interest groups to lobby the government. Second, there are obvious problems with verifying the legitimacy of a petition's signatories. As it currently stands, any member of the public or organisation can establish a petition, but before the petition is presented to the Parliament for a response, it must be approved by the Petitions Committee.

If it is decided that the petition conforms to all requirements of the Standing Orders, it can be presented to the Parliament and the responsible minister must respond within 90 days. The minister can respond how they wish.

The introduction of an e-petition would not change this. There will be still be standing orders to abide by, it will still go to the committee for review, and the minister will still ultimately have they final say on the response.

Special interest groups can still launch petitions today under the existing system. If anything, those with larger finances have a greater capacity to seek out signatories than a member of the general public.

E-petitioning removes the geographical, financial and time challenges of sourcing signatures from different states.

As for the means of verifying signatories, recommendations 7 and 9 of the report address this, by stating that all petitions must be forwarded to the “Committee for review and certification” and that the Parliament would use Queensland’s verification model and update this as the technology improves.

It is important to remember that the Australian report was released back in 2009 – two years before the UK Parliament established its e-petition system. Four years on, can we expect Labor or the Coalition to respond to these changes?

Although this may not appear to be on the agenda, this simple reform, in my mind, does have the potential to win votes by showing a commitment to citizen participation. The challenge is presenting a convincing argument to cut through the noise.

The hard work is already done – there is an extensive report based on a comprehensive inquiry recommending this change. The cost and resourcing required for implementation would be minimal compared to most national reforms. Perhaps most importantly, a thriving democracy requires citizen engagement, which e-petitions could help to build.

Even the Pope is tweeting. Digital is here and helping expand the applications of democracy. It’s time we caught up.

Maybe we should start a petition, petitioning the House of Representatives to address the findings of the e-petition report. But then again, who has time to chase down physical signatures anymore.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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