Citizen Action Monitor

Canada’s Green Party’s petition against Harper’s “Environmental Devastation Act” raises the question: How effective are petitions?

No 486 Posted by fw, May 23, 2012

Today, just after posting this piece In Quebec, massive counterpower movement of students and citizens in showdown against government, I checked my email and found this message from Canada’s Green Party —

Dear —

Bill-C38 will be voted on in less than two weeks. If passed, this “Budget Implementation Bill” will devastate Canada’s environmental laws.

This bill is intentionally long and difficult to understand. Elizabeth May clarifies the deliberately confusing Bill C-38, showing how the budget bill is packed with non-budget items in order to hide them from the public.

Take a minute to get involved and spread the word. Your engagement will tell the Harper Conservatives that you refuse to accept their anti-nature stealth attack budget bill that will have long-term impacts for all Canadians, and our future generations.

Sign and share the online petition today, or complete a print petition for Elizabeth to table in the House of Commons.

Sincerely,

Becky Smit
Interim Executive Director
Green Party of Canada

So I signed the online petition. It was the very least I could do.

But this passage from the Green’s website’s petition page caught my attention –

“We must immediately abandon Bill C-38, and ensure that any future legislation on the environment receives adequate study and debate before the appropriate committees without the use of time allocation.”

In my opinion, it’s very unlikely that a petition, by itself, no matter how many Canadians sign it, is going to impel Harper to “immediately abandon Bill C-38”. Not Harper. Not now. Not ever.

In contrast, I couldn’t help reflect on the effectiveness of the massive student street demonstrations in Quebec: the education minister resigned; no one was arrested in the big march even though the protest was in violation of the new law, and the new education minister is sending signals that the government wants to negotiate.

Government power, meet people demonstration counterpower.

Half an hour ago, Googling around on the web, I found this interesting blog post by Lauren: Petitions: effective? Lauren reviews the evidence from her online research and concludes –

That’s all that I’ve come up with for the moment in terms of evidence.  It’s hard to generalize from this to non-governmental petitions in other countries.  But so far the evidence does seem to point to most petitions being nearly useless except in terms of raising awareness and bringing communities together (which can certainly be good things, but are not usually the stated goals of petitions).  However, I’m guessing that how a petition is written, targeted, and publicized, and which organization(s) are backing it can make a difference as to how it is received.  If someone like the ACLU gathers hundreds of thousands of signatures and then goes to the media with these numbers, that publicity might help effect change.  Certainly I have more hope for such a petition than for one that a random person starts online and sends to their friends.  Still, I’ll be on the lookout for more facts and figures on this front.

For the moment, I’d say go ahead and sign a petition if you feel like it — it certainly doesn’t take much effort.  But don’t think that that means you’ve had any effect on the problem.  It’s very unlikely that you’ve made a difference just by signing your name.

Okay, Lauren may not be a scholarly researcher. But I presume she is a citizen activist trying to make a difference, and has something worthwhile to contribute. And I happen to agree with her concluding remarks.

Based on my own reading and research, I like what Van Jones and Tim Gee have to say in their books about making change happen. In a sentence, both appear to agree that effective change campaigns tend to employ a multifaceted strategy – an integration of counterpower components, including — information/ideas, economic, direct action, legal, moral/ethical, and creative arts. Campaigns that rely solely on one or two tactical components are rarely successful in achieving their goals.

As Jones says in his new book, Rebuild the Dream: “Maybe we [progressives] are the ignorant ones. Maybe we lack some important insights into the way change actually works…”

Tim Gee’s Counterpower: Making Change Happen is also worth a look. For an overview, see my post, “Counterpower” by Tim Gee – Pt 10: One-stop link to previous posts in this series, and more.

Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing.

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