Democracy needs to go high-tech

Gerry Phelan
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We’ve become a portable people. BlackBerrys and iPhones, iPads and laptops are everywhere, and we’re told it will soon be even more so.

I read recently that in the not too distant future, there will be a tablet computer in just about every home, and in many cases more than one. Schools are using the technology in the classroom, so we’re not peering into a crystal ball — we are already there.

I think it’s time to bring some of our political dealings to the same level. The days of knocking on doors to gather names of support for a cause or to demand action are over; our legislatures should accept electronic petitions.

Wait. You mean they don’t? Well, not in most of this country. The rules in our House of Assembly were written long before photocopiers and fax machines, not to mention emails and electronic documents. The requirements establish the need for original inked signatures — no photocopies, faxes or .pdf attachments.

Speaker Ross Wiseman admits the standing orders respecting petitions have serious shortcomings. They were developed in 1951 and are essentially unchanged from the 1920 standing orders of the House of Assembly. That will remain the way things are done until the standing orders committee suggests changes and they are adopted by the legislature.

Wiseman sees petitions as “an important element of the democratic process,” and says “their use and integrity will be safeguarded.”  When I spoke with him several weeks ago, Wiseman said he was preparing a discussion document which will address, among other matters, petitions and an analysis of best practices. He indicated that may also consider evolving technology. He certainly seemed up on what is happening elsewhere.  

Online petitions are accepted in Quebec, and the United Kingdom has taken things to another level altogether. Any member of the public can initiate an online petition on the Crown website. If it gets enough support, the matter can actually be debated in Parliament.

In our province, petitions are presented and forwarded to the appropriate department, but there is no debate. The U.K. site says e-petitions are an easy, personal way for “you to influence government and Parliament.” If an issue gets at least 100,000 signatures, it will be considered for debate in the House of Commons. One of the petitions online now involves saving a search and rescue helicopter base. Sound familiar?

British Columbia New Democrat MP Kennedy Stewart has been pushing for e-petitions in Ottawa. He has suggested 50,000 “signatures” on an electronic petition should trigger an hour of debate in Parliament. The concept would see a resident able to request a petition, with the support of an elected MP. It would be posted on a parliamentary website for an active submissions period of six months. There would have to be a process of signature verification, and ways to get around privacy matters.

For example, names and email addresses would not be shown online, only the number of signatures. Stewart’s motion has now gone to a committee and the clerk’s office is apparently doing more research. He says it’s about getting citizens engaged in the issues of the day, and in one small way, telling people they matter.

I agree. With low election turnouts, every effort must be made to bring people back into the fold. We’re doing more business online, including with the government — everything from filing for employment insurance to tax payments to motor vehicle registration. Service NL Minister Paul Davis was quoted in a news release in January as saying, “With more and more demands on people’s time, the convenience of online services is becoming increasingly important.”  Let’s take that logic to the next level.

Smartphones, tablets and online activity are now the pen and paper. It’s time for our legislators to make the jump. Electronic petitions are one step. Online voting is next.

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: House of Commons

Geographic location: United Kingdom, Quebec, Ottawa

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Recent comments

  • Sober Thought
    August 31, 2012 - 17:29

    Sounds good. But what about the radical left? A friend is on a number of pro-choice, pro-homosexual, pro-athesit, pro-NDP type mailing lists. He tells me of how is gets these petitions and polls online and signs or votes many times in each. If fact, his mailing lists encourage him to do this. He deltes cookeies and renters info, uses multiiple computers, uses multiple names, uses multiple email addresses. Something needs to be done to discourage these types of left-wing lies. Maybe other places have the complicated answer.