OTTAWA — A digital petition once famously forced the White House to provide official comment on an oddball suggestion for stimulating the U.S. economy: building a heavily armed intergalactic space station.
And while it won’t mean Canadians will be able to easily solicit the federal government’s thoughts on a made-in-Canada Death Star, the House of Commons will also soon acknowledge grassroots entreaties in electronic form.
The Commons hopes to be accepting digital petitions after the next federal election, part of an effort to update the archaic paper-only petition system that’s been in place since Confederation.
“I think we’ll look back 10 years from now and say, ‘You know, that was wise, that was one of the good things we did,'” said Conservative MP Joe Preston, who heads up the committee recommending the change, which was originally proposed by NDP MP Kennedy Stewart.
Currently, petitions have to be presented by MPs — an eye-glazing bit of procedure that occasionally raises eyebrows, such as when Green party Leader Elizabeth May introduced one last year from conspiracy theorists seeking the “truth” behind the 9/11 attacks.
May said she didn’t support the cause, but believed in the organization’s right to have their voices heard.
Under the new system, a person would have to find an MP to back their petition even before they began gathering signatures.
Members of Parliament will have to decide whether they’ll follow May’s lead and support petitions on principle, or only back the causes they support, said digital public affairs strategist Mark Blevis of the proposed rules.
“They are trying to avoid noise and they want to make sure people are doing things, providing productive input,” Blevis said.
“Unfortunately, you lose out on things like the Death Star, which gives the opportunity to engage with the public in a fun way.”
To get an answer — it turned out to be no — on building a Death Star, the petition to the White House had to amass 25,000 signatures. Since then, the requirement has been increased to 100,000.
Were a Canadian MP to follow that lead, 500 signatures collected on the petition within 120 days would be required to get a response within 45 days. For paper petitions, only 25 signatures are necessary for a response.
Digital petitions bring with them one major change, however: responses will have to be posted online.
That will make a difference in the power of petitions, suggested Jamie Biggar, campaigns director for LeadNow, which helps run online advocacy campaigns.
“Petitions are often a good way to ask a government questions that it might find uncomfortable to answer and to have a lot of people adding their voice in asking that question,” Biggar said.
“With the new (system) requiring that responses be posted online, I think that will definitely help petitions as a tool for daylighting and bringing attention to questions that a government might not otherwise want to answer.”
One option the House of Commons committee turned down was setting a threshold of signatures that would force an actual debate on an issue in the Commons.
In the U.K., if a petition amasses 100,000 signatures, the issue could end up being debated in Parliament. Only 25 debates have been held, despite more than 30,000 petitions having hit the threshold.
Topics that have been debated include immigration measures, health research, the rising cost of beer and a proposal to cull badgers.
In the case of digital campaigns, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether or not there’s an official debate in Parliament, said Pascal Zamprelli, the director of Canadian operations for Change.org, an online petition service.
“It is in the interests of elected officials and politicians to pay attention when large groups of people are telling them to pay attention to something so these online tools are what allow people to do that more than they ever have before,” Zamprelli said.
“And this particular channel is another step in the right direction.”