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Canada’s e-petition initiative can learn from Europe

NDP MP Kennedy Stewart stands during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, December 14, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press Images

Canada's new e-petition initiative must rise above political obstacles to thrive, if experience from Europe – where politicians have impeded campaigners from using their own new online participatory right – can teach us anything.

This March, members of Parliament agreed on recommendations to create an e-petition tool, aimed at spurring more public participation in Canadian politics. The original motion – spearheaded by NDP MP for Burnaby Douglas Kennedy Stewart – passed by a razor-thin vote of 142 to 140, backed by the improbable support of eight Conservative backbench MPs, in January, 2014.

Commons administration is now designing a website to be ready for after the federal election.

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New rules will allow citizens to propose an initiative on anything from federal funding for a new bridge, to support for First Nations' rights or to more controversial issues such as capital punishment, according to Mr. Stewart.

An e-petition must be sponsored by an MP and obtain 500 signatures – paper-based initiatives require 25 – in 120 days before it can be read in Parliament. The minister in charge of the issue in question must respond to a successful initiative within 45 days.

While not binding – unlike referendums in B.C. or Switzerland – e-petitions could help reverse troubling political trends.

Political participation is an endangered species in Canada – voter turnout dropped to 61 per cent on average for elections since 2000 from 73 per cent for elections in the 1980s.

And excessive partisanship in the House leaves MPs little freedom to vote on their own convictions or, often, on the wishes of their constituents.

Meanwhile, Europeans have been experimenting with their own online petition right since April, 2012 – called the European Citizens' Initiative – which allow citizens to propose legislation for the European Union.

If one million citizens – with minimum thresholds required from at least seven EU member states – sign an initiative within a year, the European Commission must hold a public hearing with initiators and respond with proposed actions or inactions.

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Campaigns have included an initiative to legalize cannabis, one to end roaming fees and another related to phasing out the use of animal experiments in research.

But European campaigners say authorities have lacked the necessary political will to match the wave of enthusiasm at the launch of the new right.

The first successful initiative – which amassed 1.7 million signatures – called on the EU to adopt legislation declaring water and sanitation as human rights. The Commission replied positively by excluding water services from the awarding of public contracts in the EU.

But initiators continue to demand specific legislation get passed.

"If the Commission doesn't do something meaningful, no one will do [an initiative] again," said Pablo Sanchez, a campaign organizer and officer at the European Federation of Public Service Unions in Brussels. "You win and you get [a] medal. Otherwise, what's the point of running the race?"

In Canada, Mr. Stewart believes massive public support for a petition should compel government to act: "[They] may have to back off legislation or … initiate legislation. … It's informal pressure that's … more difficult for the government to deal with," he said.

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But to the frustration of many European organizers, close to half of the 46 initiatives submitted to the Commission were not even allowed to start collecting signatures because the Commission said they were outside its jurisdiction. This led to a drop in initiatives being proposed, with only three currently open for signature collection.

One rejected initiative, calling for a repeal of the mandate of EU-U.S. trade negotiations and for the EU-Canada trade agreement, known as CETA, not to be ratified, tapped into public sentiment against controversial issues such as investor-state dispute settlement.

"[The Commission] used everything to interpret the law in a way not to allow our [initiative]," said Michael Efler, a campaign spokesman and democracy activist in Berlin. "They just don't want their policy to be questioned."

Mr. Efler's team launched an unofficial initiative anyway and have gathered 1.7 million signatures across Europe since last October.

Facing pressure from citizens and several member states, the Commission has made legal texts on its negotiations with the U.S. publicly available and put talks on the EU-U.S. investment chapter on hold following a public consultation.

Mr. Stewart said such public inclusiveness and dialogue is just what an e-petition can bring for Canada: "We're elected and we get paid a lot of money, we're supposed to … have fulsome debates on the issues most important to our public."

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