FOCUS: What Is A Petition?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and the Embassy of Japan.. Welcome
25 May 2015 11:16
FOCUS: What Is A Petition?
SODELPA MP Aseri Radrodro

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and the Embassy of Japan..

Welcome back to Parliament 101.

Last week we looked back into the earliest history of the Parliament with the origins of the Mace.

This week Parliament 101 continues the history theme by looking at how a modern democratic liberty came to us from an ancient right when we ask, “What is a petition?”

Have you ever had to ask someone for help? If your request is to a friend or family member, it probably is not very difficult to do since you will know how to do this tactfully.

But, what if you need the help of an important and powerful person? Could you ask them and, if you did, would they listen to you?

The Constitution of Fiji actually answers “yes” to both questions.   It says you have a right to ask for help from, and be heard by, the most important institution in the land – the Parliament.

The Bill of Rights in the Constitution states that, “Every person has the right . . . to present petitions.”

So, what is a petition and why is it a protected right?

A petition is a formal appeal to Parliament by a person or group of people asking the Parliament to address a concern or redress a grievance.

The petition is one of oldest forms of public participation and it existed even before the Parliament itself.

Originally, petitions were addressed to the Monarch because the King had the power to grant mercy or undo an injustice.

One of the earliest and most important acts recognising the right to petition occurred in 1215 when King John of England was forced to sign a pledge called the Magna Carta to respect some important legal rights limiting his power.

[Parliament 101 will explain the significance of the Magna Carta in a few weeks to help celebrate the 800th anniversary of this important document.]

When Parliament was created, the people also began petitioning the Parliament.

Sometimes they asked the Parliament to use its influence on the King and sometimes they requested the Parliament to use its own powers to solve their problems.

Some authorities believe that it was this right to petition the King that became the basis for the Parliament’s modern power to make laws.

The people’s right to appeal directly to the Parliament has been regarded as so important that it has been constitutionally protected at many times and in many ways since 1215.

The Westminster Parliament included the right to petition in the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Americans made it a fundamental entitlement in their Bill of Rights a century later.

And, as we have shown, your right to petition the Parliament of Fiji has been incorporated into the 2013 Constitution to help safeguard your democratic liberties and freedom.

If you wanted to use this ancient democratic right, how would you go about it?

The user’s manual for this is not in the Constitution but in another document – the Standing Orders of the Parliament.

Regular readers will know that Standing Orders are the rules of procedure that regulate the operation of Parliament.

The Standing Orders set out some very clear rules that must be observed in addressing a petition to Parliament.

Because petitions are important, the Parliament must know what you want and that your request is genuine.

The basic rules are fairly simple, however.

You must address your petition to the Parliament.   And, since you want it to take some action for you, you can only ask the Parliament to consider a request that it has the power to grant.

For example, you could ask the Parliament to fix a serious traffic hazard in your village but you could not ask it to demand that roads in New Zealand be repaired to protect Fijian tourists in that country.

Your petition must be respectful of the dignity of the Parliament and therefore has to be written in courteous language and this language must be English.

The petition must show regard also for the nation by avoiding biased language or trying to promote unfairness through the action requested from Parliament.

You must sign the petition yourself so that the Parliament can know who is really seeking its help and to whom its answer should be given.

The Parliament treats the first name on the petition as the author of the petition and, normally, that is to whom the Parliament will send an answer if one is to be given.

The author of the petition is responsible for advising any other signatories of the petition’s outcome; not the Parliament.

Once a petition is drafted and signed, it has to be formally presented to the Parliament for its consideration.

You will need a Member of Parliament to present your petition and the member must follow certain procedures in presenting it.

The member will have to give two day’s notice of the intention to present a petition so the Speaker will have time to ensure the petition conforms to the requirements of the Standing Orders noted above.

Before the member lays your petition on the table, he or she is entitled to say a few words about the petition, the persons who signed it and how many signatures it had.

The Speaker will then refer your petition to the appropriate committee for its consideration of the matter you have raised.

The committee is obligated to investigate the concerns expressed in the petition and report back to Parliament.

This report will not only convey its findings but also make a recommendation on what action, if any, should be taken.

This procedure tells you that a petition to Parliament is taken seriously and that petitions can be an important way of participating directly in helping the Parliament to represent the community more effectively.

To work properly, however, petitions have to be about important matters that deserve the Parliament’s attention. Trivial matters and complaints will not be considered.

Also the Parliament will not consider something it has already addressed in its term. Such a petition will be refused unless it gives significant and relevant new information.

A petition from one person is as important as one signed by many people, at least potentially. However, a petition signed by a large number is likely to attract more attention.

Numbers always count in politics!

This raises another important point about petitions in Fiji. The Constitution does not limit the right to petition Parliament just to voters.

The Constitution says “persons” so even if you cannot vote to bring in new laws or change old ones, you are able to petition Parliament on matters than concern you.

If you need help in writing a petition it is always a good idea to ask the staff of the Secretariat at Parliament House to help. They can make sure that you understand the Standing Orders properly.

Finally, it is important to remember that, even if the parliamentary committee does not support your petition, it will not be a waste of anyone’s time including yours.

Petitions are about making an input into Parliament; about having your concerns heard.

You have achieved more than many just by having your concerns noted and made part of the Parliament’s permanent record.

Response to reader’s question

Vinaka to Kuliniasi of Suva who wanted to know, “When does a Bill come into force as a law?” Your prize is at the Fiji Sun office.

Parliament 101 addressed the question of “what is a Bill?” two months ago but Kuliniasi’s question raised some interesting issues as to when the Bill actually becomes an enforceable law.

Parliament 101 readers know that a Bill becomes a law some time after the Bill has been passed by the Parliament and received the President’s assent.

This time is specified in the Constitution.

The President must give his assent within seven days after he receives the Bill from the Speaker.

However, the Constitution says that, if the President does not give his assent, “the Bill will be taken to have been assented to” at the end of the seven days anyway.

So, is the bill now a law as an Act of Parliament?

The answer is, “No, not quite yet”.

The Constitution refers to the Bill as a “Bill” until the Attorney-General has published it in the Gazette, which he must do within seven days of the assent.

Even then the Act of Parliament, as the Bill is called now, may not come into force until either the seventh day after it appears in the Gazette or on another date as specified by the Act.

As a result of Kuliniasi’s question, you now know that you might have to check to see if a new law is in force!


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