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As An MP, I Know We Can Improve Democracy With E-Petitions

E-petitioning draws in people who don't usually participate in politics, strengthening their commitment to our democracy.

02/06/2018 12:10 EST | Updated 02/06/2018 12:27 EST

Canadians have embraced our new national electronic petitioning system since it went online in December 2015, with over 1.26 million people signing an official e-petition. The website is incredibly popular, and accounts for one third of House of Commons website traffic, attracting 2.5 million visitors from over 3,000 communities. This exciting early success suggests we should enhance our system by allowing popular e-petitions to trigger committee studies or Parliamentary debates, as they do in the United Kingdom.

E-petitioning is widely used around the world and is an easy way for citizens and residents to take part in their own governance. The Canadian system allows registered users to submit a petition using the House website, which goes live for 120 days. An official government response is emailed to all signatories if the petition secures 500 or more signatures.

E-petitioning draws in people who don't usually participate in politics, strengthening both their commitment to our democracy as well as the overall legitimacy of our political system. It's often a gateway into politics for the uninitiated and disengaged.

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I had very little hope my original private member's motion to bring electronic petitioning to the House would pass when I drafted it back in 2012. I was a rookie backbench Member of Parliament (MP) sitting in opposition to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had ordered his majority to vote against e-petitions.

But on Jan. 29, 2014, my motion passed after I recruited eight Conservative MPs to split with Harper and vote with me and all other members sitting on the opposition benches, including now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We defeated Harper 142-140 in the only vote he lost in the 41st Parliament. The subsequent report on e-petitions produced by the Procedures and House Affairs Committee (PROC) eventually received unanimous support, demonstrating it's possible to work across party lines and get things done.

In addition to outlining the details of the new e-petitioning system, the PROC report required a review after two years of operation. At a November 2017 PROC meeting I proposed strengthening e-petitioning by adopting rules similar to those used in the UK House of Commons, where the most popular e-petitions trigger actions such as committee studies and Parliamentary debates. The response was very positive, and PROC has agreed to soon meet again and consider this proposal.

The changes might also encourage MPs to explore issues they want to avoid, but which the public are keen to discuss.

Our Standing Orders should be changed to send e-petitions garnering over 50,000 signatures to PROC, where it decides to either direct the issue to a committee for study or send it to the House for a "take note"-style debate with up to four hours of speeches, but no required voting.

These bigger payoffs would further incentivize Canadians to initiate and sign e-petitions, and encourage even more democratic participation. The changes might also encourage MPs to explore issues they want to avoid, but which the public are keen to discuss. No need to fear that too much valuable House time would be taken up by these new measures. Scrolling through existing topics shows the rule requiring one MP to sponsor an e-petition has eliminated frivolous issues, and just three e-petitions have gained over 50,000 signatures to date.

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There is plenty of evidence democracy is on the decline around the world. Now that electoral reform is off the agenda in Canada, enhancing e-petitioning might be the single most important improvement we can make to our national political system during the life of this Parliament. My experience tells me cross-party cooperation on good projects is possible, and I hope it again can prevail in this case.

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