The Rudd Government is big on accountability: KPIs. Progress reports. Deliverables. Evaluation frameworks. More boxes have been ticked under this government than probably any administration anywhere in the world, ever. There are probably boxes ticked for the amount of ink used ticking boxes.

One of the Government’s bright accountability ideas was to establish a House of Representatives petitions committee. Its raison d’être is to show how seriously the government takes petitions to Parliament.

Parliament gets hundreds of petitions every year, of varying sizes, and on varying subjects, many of which have nothing to do with the Federal Government. Traditionally they’re noted and binned. One hates to suggest the good citizens of this country are anything less than intelligent, perspicacious and well-informed, but that’s the most appropriate treatment for most of them.

Not any more. Now there’s a committee of six government and four non-government MPs who will find out what the government is doing about the issues raised in petitions. It has the power to call public servants to explain just what the government is doing in response.

So public servants, who already had enough on their plate handling Kevin Rudd’s incessant demands for briefing on pretty much everything, now have to spend mornings appearing before committees to explain themselves. One session a fortnight ago featured 20 SES officers — most of them Band 2 and above, and most of whom never spoke — sitting around for three hours answering questions about Medicare offices and the definition of “disabled”.

If the Opposition had their wits about them, they could use the committee as a sort of mini-Estimates process. Get up a petition (MPs aren’t allowed to sign petitions, but anyone else can) on a sensitive topic for the Government — say, the lack of progress in implementing its broadband commitment, or the confidentiality of phone calls between the Prime Minister and US President — and demand the appropriate officials front the committee to account for what has or hasn’t been happening. The possibilities for embarrassing the Government should, assuming the Opposition could get itself sufficiently organised to do something like that, be enormous.

More likely, the embarrassment will come from the other direction. The committee is — to its credit — considering whether Parliament should embrace online petitioning. Parliament is one of the least online institutions in the country (the unavailability of the Register of Members’ Interests online is appalling) and anything to improve this should be applauded. The inquiry attracted 14 submissions on the topic, including an enthusiastic one from the lefties at GetUp, who would love nothing more than to be able to bombard our elected representatives with online missives. Well, even more than they currently do.

Whether wasting senior public servants’ time on trivia is necessarily the best use of taxpayer resources, though, is all that clear. Neither public servants nor Ministers take the slightest notice of petitions, and never will.

Peter Fray

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