Speech in support of NDP motion M-428 to establish an electronic petitioning system in Canada

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted to be participating in this debate.

I want to congratulate my friend and colleague from Burnaby—Douglas for this initiative. In a former life he was a professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, where he studied the very issues that are before us today. I commend him for bringing them to the House of Commons.

If ever there were a non-partisan issue, I would have thought it would be this one. It is trying to improve our democracy, trying to enhance the participation by people from all walks of life in Canada, and in particular the young people. I will come to that in a moment.

What I would like to do first today is to describe what I understand this motion to be, and what it is not, despite some people characterizing it as such, and to talk about, if I may, the objections that might be raised to an initiative like this. I hope we can persuade all colleagues to agree that this is an initiative that is long past due in our country.

The clear intent is to modernize our long-standing tradition of citizen petitioning of their government. That has been done to date only in paper form. What we have is a transformative technology called the Internet that has changed so many aspects of our lives. Young people come to me in my riding of Victoria and say “Well, why do you not use the Internet? Why do you have to sign the petitions? Why can I not just send an email?”

Young people basically cannot understand why this is not already in place. They particularly cannot understand when I advise them that it has been the case in other modern democracies, like Great Britain, where it is working well, and in Quebec, the Northwest Territories and other places. They look at me and ask, “What is wrong with you? Why do you not harness this communication tool that has been made available?”

Canadians are among the most plugged in people on the planet, and it is getting to be more and more the case that Canadians utilize the Internet. Why can we not use electronic petitions?

This motion does not do much more than say that we should get the relevant committee, the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to examine this, not to replace paper petitions but to enhance the ability of citizens to participate by way of electronic petitions, and to consider a number of things as well, which I will come to.

This initiative comes within a broader context of parliamentary reform initiatives, such as the private member's bill introduced by the member of Parliament for Wellington—Halton Hills. His proposed reform act of 2013 was designed to reinforce the principles of responsible government by which the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch of the government. This is just one manifestation of the hunger in our democracy for parliamentary reform and for bringing our institutions, of which Canadians should be very proud, into the 21st century to enhance and make our democracy more vibrant.

We hear people talking about other reform initiatives. The NDP has proudly been in favour of proportional representation for many years. I believe that will go some distance, along with the reform initiatives of the hon. member for Wellington—Halton Hills. This electronic petitions initiative must be understood in the broader context of that reality. People want this.

The recommendation in this motion is that the procedures committee consider the possibility of triggering a debate in the House, something like a take note debate, once a certain number of signatures, such as the proposed 50,000 that we have heard, have been obtained. What is a take note debate? For those watching, it may not be clear. Historically a minister moves a motion which includes the words “that the House take note” of something. It is designed to solicit the views of members on some aspects of government policy. It does not usually come to a vote. We have used it very effectively on issues such as peacekeeping commitments, NORAD, missile testings, and the war in Kosovo. These are all examples where this has been used.

A take note debate is all that would be triggered under this motion. It is not a direct democracy initiative. It enhances our parliamentary procedures.

The problem is that such online petitions cannot be tabled in the House of Commons under our rules. That is why we are debating this. The United Kingdom has a threshold of 100,000 signatures before a take note debate may be triggered.

Based on the population differential between Canada and the United Kingdom, 50,000 signatures has been proposed. That may well be the right number, but the committee should examine that and give us its response.

Many from every side of the political spectrum have validated this, ranging from Mr. Preston Manning to Mr. Ed Broadbent. We have heard from many equality-seeking groups, such as Egale Canada, which have strongly supported this, all the way to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a group that I often do not have a meeting of minds with at the finance committee. However, the federation is completely behind this as well, as are so many other groups.

In an effort to persuade all members to get onside with this reform initiative, I want to talk about what the objections to such an initiative might be.

The kind of objections that have been brought forward, and for which I am indebted to the member for Burnaby—Douglas, are as follows. Maybe the initiative will be costly. What is the experience in other countries? Will frivolous issues be generated as a consequence of these electronic petitions? Perhaps the wording of the motion is problematic.

I will examine those in the time available because we need to disabuse members of those concerns.

First, on the cost side, the member for Burnaby—Douglas has talked to a number of members of political science departments and has used the Library of Parliament, and there have been no cost concerns. In Quebec and the Northwest Territories existing resources are mostly used. There has been no concern of that kind.

Second, the experience in other countries has been uniformly positive. The Library of Parliament reported back that no jurisdiction has ever put an e-petition in place and then taken it out. Once enacted, it seems to have gone well. Indeed, a recent House of Commons committee in the U.K. studied it and reported back the following:

The system introduced by the Government has proven to be very popular and has already provided the subjects for a number of lively and illuminating debates.

That does not sound as if the U.K. government wants to get rid of it.

As for frivolous matters being a concern, the point is that five members of Parliament would have to look at the petition. It would also require a certain threshold of signatures. That should be an effective check of any abuse.

With respect to the question of the wording being too prescriptive, as some say, that does not seem to be the case if we examine similar motions.

Therefore, by way of conclusion, I would urge all members of the House to reform our parliamentary institutions to allow a more vibrant, participatory democracy and to take advantage of the technology of the Internet to enhance all of our parliamentary traditions.