Speech - Statement on Petitions

13 November 2023

Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (10:05): I rise to take note of the Petitions Committee report and the contribution that has just been made by the committee chair. I would like to associate myself with the comments that the chair has just made and for her leadership in dealing with the matter which she has summarised.

Petitioning has been described as the oldest of all parliamentary forms, and is the only direct means by which an individual or group can ask the parliament to take action. I, like many in this place, am of the view that the House of Representatives should provide an open and accessible petitioning process that allows people to readily exercise their right to petition. As a member of the Petitions Committee, charged with overseeing this process, as a parliamentarian and as a member of the Illawarra community, I was shocked when I read in the Illawarra Mercury that individuals were seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the petitions process in this place and the genuine concerns and questions from my community. As the chair has outlined, the committee is aware that a small number of signatures on petition EN5444 may have been collected through unethical means—namely, by seeking to offer prizes and inducements to petition this parliament against the proposed Illawarra offshore wind zone, which the government currently has out for community consultation.

There are many parts of this situation which I find concerning, including the serious risk to the integrity of the petition system that this action poses. What I find most concerning is that this approach was not made in error or from a lack of knowledge about the petitions process, but done with the full intention to distort the scale of this particular petition.

The Illawarra Mercury article by Connor Pearce on 10 October states:

Her post acknowledged the unethical nature of the competition. "I realise this is blackmail I don't care at this stage," she said.

When contacted by the Mercury, the woman said the inducements were "not really blackmail" but were driven by her response to the offshore wind farm proposal. "I offered discounted services for people to vote," she said.

As the chair has pointed out, and as the Minister for Climate Change and Energy has said publicly, there is evidence and further allegations of people sending multiple responses under fake email addresses or aliases to subvert the legitimacy both of this petition and the community consultation process, which the minister is undertaking on the proposed offshore wind zone. One such allegation has been provided to me in the form of a statutory declaration from a constituent, Martin Cubby. Mr Cubby put to me that at a community meeting on 28 September this year, members of the Coalition against Offshore Wind, 'Encouraged community members to submit multiple submissions to the REZ through the federal government website using alternative or fake email addresses.' I would put to this chamber that the actions we saw taken on petition EN5444 are not an isolated incident but a coordinated effort to undermine and inflate representations of community options to this parliament and to the government. I would like to thank the secretariat for their work in investigating this matter and note that the committee has agreed to look further into the security of petitions.

The proposed offshore wind zone in the Illawarra has raised a lot of questions and concerns, and these are justified. There is a lot to learn and consider with renewable energy generation for Australia. I have been listening to my community's questions and concerns, relaying them to the minister and seeking to provide the community with accurate and reliable information. However, just like the secretariat, my office has been waylaid in having to sort through the countless fake emails, fake profiles and pseudonyms.

This is a coordinated action by a select few whose clear intention is to hinder and hamper my ability to engage and answer questions from genuine members of the community. I do acknowledge that a great majority of people who engage with the House petitions process do so in good faith and in accordance with the rules.