Digital democracy: Canadians can now sway public policy through e-petitions

Canadians can now help sway public policy with a quick click at the computer. The parliamentary petition process has gone digital, allowing people with special interests to sign their support electronically.

Groups seeking ban on pet shock collars and higher cap on tax-free savings file 1st online petitions

B.C. NDP MP Kennedy Stewart discusses the introduction of online petitions for the House of Commons 6:39

Canadians can now help sway public policy with a quick click at the computer.

The parliamentary petition process has gone digital, allowing people with a special interest in federal policy to sign their support electronically.

The move to improve grassroots democracy was initiated by British Columbia NDP MP Kennedy Stewart. His motion passed in the House last year, and formally came into effect Friday.

Under the new system, e-petitions that garner at least 500 signatures and are sponsored by an MP can be tabled in Parliament. That would require the government to provide a written response, posted online, within 45 days.

Previously, only paper petitions were accepted.

Burnaby couple Alfie and Gwendy Williams were the first to table a virtual petition, pushing for a ban on shock collars to train dogs and cats.

Alfie Williams called it a "simple" and effective process to draw attention and build momentum for the cause right across the country.

Shine a brighter light on issues

"We hope we'll reach a lot more people and shine a much brighter light on the issue," he told CBC News.

The couple have tried to lobby for change through four paper petitions in the last seven years, with limited success.

A second online petition, calling on the government to leave the Tax Free Savings Account limit at $10,000 annually, has been sponsored by Ontario Conservative MP Peter Kent. The Liberal government intends to roll back the cap to $5,500 for 2016 and then index the contribution limit to inflation.

Stewart told CBC News Network's Power & Politics he hopes the e-petition process will engage Canadians and get them "hooked" on political advocacy.

"It's like a gateway drug," he told host Rosemary Barton. "People that are not engaged, they might not ever vote, but they might have something that really bothers them and they'll say, 'I want to do something about this.' Traditional petitions have done that, but this makes it even easier."

He said safeguards are in place to verify signatures to weed out fraudulent support.

The new process will be reviewed in two years. At that time, Stewart hopes to include a requirement for one hour of parliamentary debate if a petition receives 100,000 signatures.

He also hopes the public engagement will change the perception of parliamentarians.

"People hate politicians. I went from professor to politician and became scum of the earth. We have to do something to fix our democracy and this is one small way to engage citizens," Stewart said.

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