TORONTO — Ontario lawmakers still aren't quite sure, in the year 2017 and after years of study, whether it's time to "open the floodgates" to petitions submitted via the Internet.
Electronic petitions have been discussed at a government committee at various points over five years, and one year ago it recommended they be adopted — but first, it wanted more study.
It asked the legislature's clerk to determine the best e-petition model, examine either designing a system or purchasing existing software, and lay out costs. The clerk obliged and recently reported that the legislature could use the House of Commons' e-petition system by the end of the year.
So, the committee voted this month — to have a subcommittee study it some more.
"We have to remember that once we open the floodgates to e-petitions, it's not just here for one term only, right?" said Liberal committee member Soo Wong, who proposed the subcommittee. "It's for life."
The opposition members were puzzled.
"We've got all the costs, all of the information is available to us," said New Democrat Mike Mantha. "I'm not sure why we're spinning our wheels in the mud."
Progressive Conservative Laurie Scott, who is new to the committee, said she assumed that all of the necessary discussions had already taken place in the past several years.
"I just don't know why the brakes all of a sudden came on and we're back to a subcommittee," Scott said.
Clerk Todd Decker reported that the House of Commons IT staff could develop a customized version of their e-petition system for $222,000, plus $57,200 for support and maintenance in the first year and $3,000 a month for hosting fees.
People could go onto the legislative assembly's website and create a petition, and with the support of five other Ontarians — IP addresses are used to verify location — it would be available for 120 days for other people to add their names to, Decker said. Once it receives 500 "signatures," it would go to the government for a response, which is what happens with paper petitions now.
Wong wondered how to prevent people from adding someone else's name or their dog's name to an e-petition.
"People do all kinds of crafty stuff online," she said in committee. "Right now, we're struggling, all of us as MPPs, with online bullying among young people. I can only speak for me, but I know other colleagues are saying the same thing."
It would essentially be an honour system through a terms-of-use agreement, Decker said. E-petitions would also be moderated, as paper ones are now, so offensive subjects or ones that don't pertain to provincial jurisdiction wouldn't end up on the website, Decker said.
As soon as the committee approves e-petitions, the department responsible for legislature spending would be asked to green-light the cost, then House rules known as standing orders would be changed and the site could be up within six to nine months, he said.
The clerk's report contained new draft standing orders, but Wong said it should first be discussed with the parties' house leaders, hence the subcommittee.
"It's not like I don't want to do it," she said. "Trust me. I want to do it, like, yesterday."
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press