Q50. What is a petition? How do petitions work?

A petition is a call by citizens for action by the government; they rarely work

A50. A petition is a document calling on the government to take (or refrain from taking) a particular action. The distinguishing feature of a petition is that the call to action has attached to it a list of citizens’ names and signatures.

Petitions are an ancient method for citizens to seek redress of a grievance.

Petitions are frequently introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature. The opportunity for an MLA to introduce a petition is part of the routine business that opens each daily sitting.

A petition must be introduced in the House by an MLA. If you have a petition, you can ask any MLA to introduce it on your behalf. The fact that an MLA introduces a petition does not necessarily mean the MLA agrees with it, although they usually do.

An MLA is under no obligation to introduce a petition.

Petitions are popular with citizens because they are fairly easy to put together. You can go door-to-door on a street or neighbourhood, if it’s a local issue, or you can get members of an association to sign it, or you can leave it at the local convenience store or gas station where people will see it.

There are no rules about who can or can’t sign a petition. Obviously a petition to the Nova Scotia government is going to have more impact if it is signed by Nova Scotians, and a petition’s credibility can be hurt if there are obviously fake names on it (like cartoon characters, or the premier). But there are no “rules”. Remember that a petition has no official status anyway, so nobody can say “that’s a valid petition” or “that’s not a valid petition”.

Petitions can be effective to inform people about an issue, and for the organizers to get a sense of how much support they actually have. Unfortunately, petitions are not all that effective as a way to get the government to start or stop doing something.

I have seen a lot of petitions during my time in politics, and most are not very well written. The “call to action”—the specific thing the petitioners are asking the government to do— is often long-winded, vague, argumentative, lacking in balance, or simply impossible to do. It also may be something that it outside the jurisdiction of the province. If you’re going to start a petition to present to the House of Assembly, try to ensure the call to action is clear, doable, and within provincial jurisdiction.

The main reason that petitions in the House are not effective is that there is no vote, debate or other follow-up on a petition. There is no requirement that the government respond to a petition. The petition gets introduced, and that’s the end of it. It disappears.

In the internet age, electronic petitions (e-petitions) on sites like change.org are popular ways for citizens to express themselves. Despite the fact that we’re in the 21st century, the Nova Scotia legislature still does not accept e-petitions. The reason has something to do with the difficulty of verifying signatures on e-petitions. I don’t agree with the reason, and never really understood it. The petitions all disappear without trace anyway, so why does it matter if they are electronic or on paper? But that’s the rule. To be introduced in the Nova Scotia legislature, a petition must be on paper with original signatures.

The petition process does not work very well, but citizens have many other ways for their voices to be heard. For example, a letter-writing campaign to a Cabinet minister serves the same purpose as a petition. An e-petition can be presented to a Cabinet minister directly, rather than to the House of Assembly—it’s only the House itself that will not accept an e-petition. A public demonstration at Province House also communicates public support.

 

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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