Direct democracy arrives at the House of Commons

Ottawa’s e-petition site offers Canadians a new way to control the agenda in the House

Republican Presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump exits his plane during his trip to the border on July 23, 2015 in Laredo, Texas. Trump's recent comments, calling some immigrants from Mexico as drug traffickers and rapists, have stirred up reactions on both sides of the aisle. Although fellow Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry has denounced Trump's comments and his campaign in general, U.S. Senator from Texas Ted-Cruz has so far refused to bash his fellow Republican nominee. (Matthew Busch/Getty Images)

Republican Presidential candidate and business mogul Donald Trump exits his plane during his trip to the border on July 23, 2015 in Laredo, Texas. (Matthew Busch/Getty Images)

It will surely come as a blow to Donald Trump’s ego that fewer than 2,000 people want to see him barred from entering Canada. For a man who is used to “huge,” “tremendous” and “amazing” responses to his every pronouncement and provocation, e-54 (Inadmissibility to Canada) hardly moves the needle. The e-petition—one of the seven currently open for signatures on Parliament’s new foray into web democracy—might even be too polite for his taste. (The proposed travel ban ends as soon as the would-be Republican presidential candidate “withdraws and apologizes” for his remarks about keeping Muslims out of the United States.) But The Donald can take solace in one thing, the enormous potential such click-and-sign protests have to make Canadian politics more like him: blunt, shambolic and unafraid.

“As an MP you see people’s frustration and cynicism first-hand. They’re moving away from politics in droves,” says Kennedy Stewart, the NDP member for Burnaby South, who spearheaded the drive for federal e-petitions. “And this gives them a chance—in a limited way—to control the agenda in the House of Commons.”

Stewart, a professor of public policy in his former life, used some old-fashioned political tactics to help bring web democracy to Ottawa. After investigating sites that allow voters to petition the U.K. Parliament and Barack Obama’s White House, he sought support from across the spectrum, lobbying MPs from all parties, and recruiting Ed Broadbent and Preston Manning to the cause, as well as unlikely bedfellows the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Then last January, he tabled a motion, rather than a bill in the House, ensuring there would be only vote instead of three. Despite the Harper government’s opposition, eight backbench Tories sided with the NDP and Liberals, and the measure squeaked by 142-140.

A provision that would have seen all petitions that reached 100,000 signatures given a hour’s debate in the House was dropped in committee. “That’s the price I had to pay to get it through,” says Stewart. The rules and regulations were hammered out last spring, and the web site went live on Dec. 4.

Canadians have always been able to petition their government the old-fashioned way, by pounding the pavement, collecting a minimum of 25 signatures “on paper of usual size” (8.5 x 11, or 8.5 x 14-inches, the rules specify, with no attachments) and convincing an MP to table it for them.

But the new system should make it considerably easier. A petitioner drafts a short—250 words max.—and direct plea for action or change in an area of federal jurisdiction, and provides the names and contact information of five to 10 supporters. Then they find an MP to “sponsor” the petition. The Clerk of Petitions vets the language and validates the initial signatures, and then the petition goes up on the site, where any Canadian resident, regardless of age, can signal their support by providing a name, email address and phone number. (That information stays confidential, with only the name of the originator appearing on the web.) The e-petition is kept open for 120 days, and if it gains 500 or more supporters, is certified and presented to the House. As with the paper versions, the government then has 45-days to provide a formal response.

Stewart sponsored the first e-petition, e-1 (Cruelty to Animals), a proposal brought forward by two of his constituents to ban electric shock training collars for cats and dogs. He has since agreed to help two others, the Trump entry ban, and a call for an official inquiry into how Canada’s Armed Forces dealt with battlefield detainees in Afghanistan. A prominent disclaimer on the petitions site warns that MP sponsorship is not an endorsement, but Stewart says he is comfortable with all the views he is promising to bring forward. “I wouldn’t have signed on if I didn’t agree,” he says. “And really, it’s just to spur the debate. I don’t think any topic should be off-limits unless it’s deliberately hurtful.”

To date, the most popular e-petition, with just over 3,500 signatures, opposes the Trudeau Liberals’ plan to roll-back contribution limits on Tax-Free Savings Accounts, originated by a lobby group called Working Canadians, which promises to “fight back against union bosses.” When it is eventually presented to Parliament, it will be a first for its sponsor, Conservative MP Peter Kent, who never had the opportunity to table a paper petition was he was part of the government. “I like this process,” he says. “Sometimes when people signed a paper petition it seemed to go into the void. It wasn’t transparent and couldn’t be monitored in the same way.”

When the e-petition regulations come up for review in two years, Stewart hopes to convince the Liberals to revisit his bid for a guaranteed debate at the 100,000-signature threshold. The U.K. Parliament has so far discussed the merits of more than 30 web proposals, including pleas to stop a badger cull, enact regulations on the sale of puppies and kittens, and strip convicted London rioters of all government benefits.

(When the White House We the People petition site debuted in late 2011, the threshold for an official response was just 25,000 signatures. It was later increased to 100,000 after the administration was obliged to deny a request to start building a Death Star.)

So far, Canada’s e-petitions are far tamer, and eliciting less support than those in other countries. But that will almost certainly change. The most popular petition in the UK at the moment, with 564,000 signatures, seeks to ban Donald J. Trump from entering the country, forever. And running right behind, with 454,000 supporters, is one to stop all immigration and close the borders “until ISIS is defeated.” Very direct democracy.

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