Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Petty Petitions

Sometimes there is a policy that is all up and no down.

The Coalition policy on petitions was one of this.

A debate in parliament was promised whenever a petition with more than 10 000 signatures was tendered.

In a climate where the Labor government was (among its many faults) seen as horribly out of touch and contemptuous of public opinion, this was a clear point of differentiation - "We will let YOU dictate the agenda."

It was genius, and I have no doubt it swung a significant number of undecideds.

Of course the cynic's response would be "Well yes - but what does "debate" mean?"

I had a look at the Hansard today to see what I could find.

The first place I ended was the Standing Orders (which can be found here). Suffice to say they proved to be instructive reading, especially given that I had not had the opportunity to have a look at them before.

The NSW Parliament website also provides a significant amount of information relating to the form and lodgement of the petitions.

On the second day of the new Parliament (4 May 2011), Brad Hazzard (MInister for Planning and Infrastructure) moved that the Standing Order be amended to insert the 10 000 person petition standing orders.  They are as follows:

As the new Standing Order 124 says, the debate upon the presentation of a petition will run for a maximum of 24 minutes.

The interesting part of the Hansard on the day the Orders were amended was this rather astute comment by Michael Daley (ALP) as he declared that Labor would not oppose the amendment:

On the face of it, he is right.  What these petitions do is bring about a chat - but that is all.  Of course, if anyone in the parliament supports the substance of the petition then it is within their power to bring a notice of motion.

That said, there is no "call to action", as it were.  If the parliament was forced to actually cast votes against the substance of the petition, that may well cause the members to consider their position on the issue rather than tweeting or doing whatever it is members of the house do when they are not hurling abuse at the other side.

In any event, the next day (5 May 2011) Clover Moore presented, on behalf of her constituents, a "Petition requesting an inquiry into development processes on the Barangaroo site and the creation of a dedicated Bays Renewal Committee to coordinate redevelopment around Sydney Harbour"

As per the standing orders, debate was set down for the third sitting day of the following week, that being 11 May 2011.

Ms Moore spoke in support of the petition, outlining the cogent reasons she opposes the development. She went on to say "While I understand that the Government has indicated that it does not endorse the petition's proposed special commission of inquiry, I ask that it at least undertake an expert review of the project."

Brad Hazzard (Lib) then spoke and doesn't seem to say anything much on point, as did Linda Burney (ALP) and Craig Baumann (Lib).

And that was where it ended. I don't now how long it took to gather those 10 000+ signatures, but I suspect that some may see the time taken as being time wasted.

Sure, the issue got discussed.  I don't know if there was much media attention, but I've not been able to find anything.  Certainly there was no change in policy, and the Coalition made it clear that they didn't plan to accede to the petitioner's demands.

It is also worth noting that before these changes were made, the relevant minister was, as per Standing Order 125, obliged to provide a "response" within 35 calender days to any petition signed by more than 500 people.  This obligation remains, and many petitions signed by 500+ people have been tabled before this Parliament.

Such petitions are tabled as a matter of course, the most recent being a petition seeking the "upgrade and retention of hospital facilities, including the development of a level 5 hospital for the northern beaches" tabled yesterday (8 August 2011)

The full list of Petitions signed by more than 500 people can be seen here.

The responses have been tabled, and are available on the NSW Parliament website through the above link.  Whether anyone has bothered to read them is another question entirely.

Part of one of the recent responses
Only 6 petitions have been tabled this session that had 10,000 signatures:

  • Requesting increased funding for Northern Sydney Palliative Care Community Services and for Palliative Care Community Services in all areas of NSW
  • Requesting that a community health centre be built in Yamba during this parliamentary term
  • Requesting the funding and construction of a new Wagga Wagga Base Hospital within four years
  • Opposing the proposed Industrial Relations Amendments (Public Sector Conditions of Employment) Bill 2011 and requesting for public sector workers to have access to: pay rises relative to cost of living increases; the Industrial Relations Commission; and good faith bargaining
  • Opposing the planned sale of land at Royal North Shore Hospital and requesting that the Government preserve the land for future expansion of the campus and as open space for use by patients and the community, and
  • Requesting a major review of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979; the repeal of Part 3A of the Act and the appointment of a Special Commission of Inquiry into the Barangaroo site development processes

All of the above have been debated as per the standing orders. 

Now, I follow NSW politics pretty closely.  I think it fair to say that if the petitioners hoped that the petition would get them some state-wide attention, then they have failed.

I had no idea that people wanted a community health centre in Yamba, and I doubt many people not directly involved did either.

Does that mean the time was wasted?  No.  There has been a debate in the parliament, and no doubt members may have turned their mind the issue and considered their position.  It may well be that the local member or the relevant minister has taken some action behind the scenes to bring about the action sought,

Further, it may well be that the local papers have covered the debate, and additional pressure may not be placed upon the local member.

But I think someone who voted for O'Farrell believing that a petition would provoke some real debate would have to be disappointed by the way the system is operating.

Returning to the politics of allowing a debate to be forced, it appears that the petition idea is not going to adversely affect the legislative agenda of the O'Farrell government in any way.

No doubt there are people and lobby groups across the state thrilled out of their minds about the chance to get their cause debated in parliament.

And yet, it seems, no one in Parliament will actually have their view challenged in any way.  But would anyone who doesn't actively peruse Hansard have any clue about this? I doubt it.

All up and no down.  Smart politics

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