Petitions are a way for people to seek action and can ask for an apology, for a change to the law or government policy, or for an inquiry into an issue.
Once a petition has closed for signatures it has to be presented by an MP to the rest of their colleagues in the House of Representatives.
It’s then referred to a select committee: a smaller group of MPs from different parties who meet to work on specific subjects like health, finance or the environment.
Those committees can ask the petitioner to appear before them in person, over the phone or video conference to give more information about their request.
Remove the right to silence
In 2006 twin brothers, Chris and Cru Kahui, died of severe head injuries from blunt force trauma.
They were 11 weeks old.
The twins’ father was eventually charged with murder. He was acquitted after a six-week trial and no other charges have been laid.
The family initially did not cooperate with police investigations and petitioner Scott Guthrie from Transforming Justice Foundation said the incident is an example of why a law change is needed to ensure witnesses give evidence.
Only one person can front a petition which often means a single person speaks on behalf of an organisation or group.
This petition from Transforming Justice Foundation is asking The House of Representatives to:
“amend the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 to remove the right to refrain from making any statement for persons who are arrested or detained on charges relating to child abuse.”
Select Committee hearings start with the petitioner giving a summary of their petition.
Guthrie told the Justice Select Committee that refraining from making a statement, or the right to silence, allows people to keep quiet when questioned by police.
“Twenty-four adults were interviewed during the criminal investigation into the Kahui twins’ deaths,” he said.
“We believe the right to silence prevented justice for those precious vulnerable babies all the while, the whole country was stunned but nothing could be done because of what we believe is an outdated draconian law.”
Guthrie said a defendant cannot be compelled to be a witness in the prosecution of any criminal law and these two rights shouldn’t be allowed to remain for any witness to cases that involve child abuse, violence, or death.
“Every child who has been murdered, assaulted, neglected, violated, did not have a choice nor did they have a voice,” Guthrie said.
“Their rights were stolen the moment an adult made the choice to intentionally harm them. A child does not have a voice, an adult does and we the adults, and you as politicians can change that in the future.”
Each submitter to a committee is given a specific amount of time and if there’s enough left over after their summary then the chair of the committee will allow MPs to ask questions.
National MP Simon Bridges said there is definitely a problem but questioned how it would be put into practice.
“If he or she won’t talk, they won’t talk,” said Bridges. “And what you can do is what they do in the United Kingdom under the PACE legislation which allows juries, and I support this personally, to draw inferences from that silence but I don’t know you can physically do a lot more than that, is that what you’re after?”
Guthrie said that’s good for the UK but he believes the focus should be on New Zealand.
“My argument has been in relation to serious fraud. If we can remove the right to silence in some cases of serious fraud, surely we can look at that and sustain that in this country for child abuse.”
ACT MP Nicole McKee also acknowledged more can be done to protect children but asked how it could be proven that someone was choosing to withhold information.
“What burden of proof would need to be used to ensure the witnesses could be efficiently charged?” she asked. “How would you prove that if a person says, ‘yes I was there but I didn’t see anything?’”
Guthrie said the police would need to determine a person was there and was a witness to any alleged offending.
“With the Kahui twins they [adults] came forward and said they were in the house and the police investigated them, interviewed them and then they went silent,” he said.
The petition was signed by 4548 and presented to the House of Representatives in October 2020.
Review protections for religious freedoms
New Zealand has become more secular, according to data from the 2018 census which showed the number of New Zealanders with ‘no religion’ had overtaken the number of people who identify as Christian.
The chief executive of Barnabas Fund, Steph Johnston, said her organisation advocates on behalf of persecuted Christians and the protection of religious freedoms needs to be reviewed as New Zealand becomes more secular.
“People who have chosen a form of religion must not be marginalised or disadvantaged,” she said.
“We’d like to ask for a formal government review of how well the seven fundamental aspects of freedom of religion are being protected in New Zealand today and whether any group, for example, Christians, maybe falling through the cracks and their rights being neglected, sidelined or undermined.”
The petition asks Parliament to look at whether legislative change is needed to better protect religious freedoms including the freedom to preach and try to convince others of the truth of one’s beliefs, the freedom to read the Bible in public, and the freedom to interpret the Bible without government interference.
National MP Simon Bridges said the problem might be deciding whether religious freedoms are a legal or cultural issue.
“Christianity is now treated differently to other religions in New Zealand and I don’t know what the exact deep sociological reason for this is other than to say, well Christianity was of course the big mainstream religion but as we become more secular it is somehow ok to mock Christians in a way that we wouldn’t in relation to many other religions that are much newer in their provenance in New Zealand.”
Johnston said this is why it is so important for these freedoms to be reviewed.
“Because this is a nation founded on Christian principles and morals, I think people look at us and say ‘they’ve got so many rights as it is’,” she said.
“But because we are a minority now and the number of Christians is declining, there is a fear that we will get overlooked and sidelined simply because we are Christians and then other groups will be given more freedoms and our freedoms will be taken away.”
The petition was signed by 4872 and presented to the House of Representatives in September 2019.
Simplify the adoption process for same-sex couples
Not all petitioners speak on behalf of organisations.
Christian Newman and his partner tried for more than three years to conceive and adopt their son – a process which cost them more than $60,000.
His petition is calling for the House of Representatives to “amend the Adoption Act 1955 to simplify and speed up the process for adoption”.
The petition has 32,239 signatures and was presented to Parliament in October 2019.
There are several areas that Christian Newman outlined as needing change including the eligibility for IVF treatment funding.
“Public funding for IVF isn’t explicitly covered for male same-sex couples. However, same-sex female couples and even non-resident heterosexual couples, even those on a working visa for more than two years are eligible for public funding IVF if they meet the criteria,” he said.
“As it stands we see these criteria as discriminatory, and [we] need to allow the same rights for same-sex male couples to be eligible for publicly funded IVF treatments.”
Newman’s petition is also asking:
For the intending parents’ legal rights to be automatically updated at the point the child is born.
For the ability to enforce a surrogacy agreement to ensure transfer of the child to intending parents.
To enforce the legal obligations of intending parents if they change their minds and refuse to take custody of the child making them liable for child support even if they do not have custody of the child.
To include a child’s right from birth to know their parents, birth and biological, and to recognise the rights of children to know their genetic origins.
To allow agreed consideration to be paid to the surrogate.
To allow public advertisement and services for the arrangement of surrogacy
A review of the formal adoption process outside of surrogacy
To reduce the cost and complexity associated with adoption in New Zealand including upskilling court staff, providing clarity, access to information around the adoption application processes and forms
and to create international adoption agreements with other countries to allow same-sex adoptions to take place.
review Section 17 of the Adoption Act to allow citizens living abroad to adopt domestically within the country they’re living and give rights to the children they adopt within New Zealand as would happen with any other child who is a citizen
remove the need for Oranga Tamariki to be involved in the adoption process as it’s “discriminatory and a compliance double up”.
Unlike the other petitioners, there wasn’t enough time for questions and the chair Ginny Andersen had to end the session there.
“That’s one of the most thorough and well-presented petitions,” said Andersen.
“The submission you’ve given us is full enough that now the committee can go into private session and have a good fulsome discussion about what our next steps will be off the back of the submission and the information you’ve provided today.”
Committees report back to the House once they’ve considered a petition and may include recommendations for changes, however, there’s no requirement for parliament to do anything in response.
Likewise, the government doesn’t have to do anything but if there are specific recommendations to it then it has to respond within 60 working days on what action, if any, it has taken to put those in place.
This doesn’t mean petitions aren’t worth the effort. Kate Sheppard’s 1893 petition calling for women’s suffrage was successful and made New Zealand the first self-governing country to give women the right to vote.
In more recent times Wiremu Demchick’s petition in 2016 called for the records of those criminally convicted for consensual homosexual acts prior to the Homosexual Law Reform Act 1986, to be cleared. Legislation was passed in 2018 allowing for people to apply to have these convictions wiped.