Have you ever seen an online petition started by Bahamians on a pressing issue and thought, “What’s the point in signing this, it won’t go anywhere anyway”?
Well, what you may not know is a longstanding system already exists within the Bahamas Parliament and Commonwealth parliaments around the world wherein petitions by the citizenry can be brought to Parliament for action by government.
During our pre-independence years, petitions were important tools utilized by members of Parliament, particularly for Family Island representatives who used petitions by their constituents to apply for docks, roads and other projects.
The records of Parliament reflect that requests via these petitions typically received parliamentary approval.
Today, Bahamians who are passionate about an issue take to change.org or other web-based petition sites, but though these petitions might amass large numbers of signatures and even be mailed to a minister for his or her attention, they make it no further as far as the legislature is concerned.
Under the current rules and procedures of Parliament — which are in need of significant changes and enhancements — petitions created and signed by a minimum of 25 petitioners can be presented to the House and must be presented by a member of Parliament.
Rule 52(1)(j) says the petition must “relate to public affairs with which a minister is officially connected or for matters of public administration for which a minister is responsible”.
And Rule 52(10) says that upon presentation of the petition to the House, “there shall be no discussion” on the subject matter therein.
Where the rules of our Parliament fall woefully short is that they do not require a minister to respond to the petition, and there are otherwise no rules in place which mandate that the government takes a particular course of action on a petition.
And of course, a member of Parliament must be willing to present your petition to the House in the first place, which prior to the emergence of political parties would have been a less potentially controversial decision since all MPs were independent.
Parliaments throughout the Commonwealth have advanced their democracies by creating a newer avenue for petitions to make it to the floor of the House, and by mandating that government take various forms of action on the same.
Bahamians often question how their voices can make more of an impact outside of a general election.
If The Bahamas follows the path of more progressive parliaments in this regard, it would be a noteworthy step in advancing the participation of Bahamians in the legislative process and creating an historic vehicle for the country that can spur heightened civic involvement and education about the rights of citizens.
The UK, Canada and Australia
The British Parliament is the mother of parliaments in the Commonwealth and, in 2015, established a Petitions Committee consisting of 11 backbenchers from government and opposition parties that is charged with examining electronic petitions submitted via the UK parliament’s official web portal.
The establishment of an e-petition system meant citizens no longer needed to rely on their representative to bring a paper petition to the House of Commons on their behalf, though paper petitions can also still be presented.
The government is mandated to respond to an e-petition if it receives 10,000 signatures or more, and the Petitions Committee considers e-petitions for debate if they have 100,000 signatures or more.
During the last session of the UK Parliament, 456 petitions got a response from government and 76 petitions were debated in the House of Commons.
Public petitions debated since 2015 span topics from immigration, to healthcare and education, to the sale and production of cannabis.
Last year, MPs debated the UK Parliament’s most popular e-petition to date: a six-million signature petition calling for the UK to remain in the European Union (EU).
Canada also has an e-petition system, established in 2015, wherein approximately 200 petitions are open for signature each year, gathering over a half-million signatures annually, according to the Canadian Parliament’s website.
Unlike the UK and similarly to The Bahamas, a petition, whether electronic or paper, must be presented to the House through a member of Parliament and can be presented to the House of Commons once it has a minimum of 500 signatures.
From there, the government responds within 45 calendar days to every petition presented to the House of Commons, both paper and electronic.
In Australia, citizens can also present petitions to the legislature via an electronic portal which are then examined by the Parliament’s eight-member Petitions Committee, according to the Australian Parliament’s website.
The committee of the Australian Parliament presents petitions to the House which are then referred to the relevant government minister for a response.
Petitions may be received by the House on public or individual grievances provided that they relate to matters on which the House has the power to act, and hundreds of petitions are received by Australia’s House of Representatives every year on a variety of matters.
For our part, The Bahamas Parliament does not even have a website — a testament in part to the need for the Parliament to be given all the tools and resources necessary — chiefly but not limited to its independence from the executive — so that it can better equip itself to meet the needs of a modern Bahamas.
Modernizing the petitions system so as to birth an era of civic participation that gives Bahamians more of a say in the affairs of their Parliament is among the things forward-thinking politicians in our country should be focused on.