Many people were surprised when New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart’s motion on e-petitions passed last week. With an incredibly close margin of victory (142-140), the vote was decided by eight Conservative backbenchers who crossed party lines.
The motion (from Stewart’s website):
M-428 — February 13, 2013 —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; and (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 twelve months of the adoption of this order.
If and when a plan is implemented, Canada will join the governments of other nations that have already accepted the e-petition as a form of citizen engagement and a way to gauge public opinion and concern.
For example, in 2011 the US government created We the People, an online petition platform that allows people to address problems or issues, bringing them to the attention of the White House and other citizens. Under the current rules, the White House must reply to a petition that has 100,000 signatures. (This means acknowledgement only – the government is not required to take any further action.)
Governments in the UK, Australia, and Europe have similar e-petition programs. Within Canada, the governments of Quebec and the Northwest Territories have started recognizing e-petitions.
There continue to be criticisms of e-petitions, although the increasing use of social media in our daily lives as well as for political activism are lessening these objections. Main arguments against them include that they are too easy to create, require minimal effort to contribute to (slacktivism), and can be padded with fake names/email accounts. However, there have been improvements to e-petitions, with host platforms creating identification checks and ensuring that people can only sign once. Furthermore, the ease with which people can discover, access, and add to e-petitions allows more people to hear about issues, get engaged in politics (and other causes), and make their voices heard.
There is also a tendency to have fun with these platforms. For example, a recent We the People petition to deport Justin Bieber and revoke his green card has reached over 250,000 signatures. While some believe these types of petitions distract from more serious issues, others see it as good advertising, drawing attention to the platform which can then be used for weightier topics.
And the e-petition is certainly gaining in popularity. “We the People” had more than 5,400,000 users as of January 14, 2013. It appears to be a form of activism that is here to stay, as governments increasingly recognize them as legitimate ways of hearing citizens’ opinions and concerns. It will be interesting to see how the Government of Canada incorporates e-petitions in the future.