Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Changing the world from your armchair

Petition organiser Jessie Hume said "My message to Mr Key is.... it's time to deliver on your promise - fund sexual violence services properly". Photo / Mark Mitchell
Petition organiser Jessie Hume said "My message to Mr Key is.... it's time to deliver on your promise - fund sexual violence services properly". Photo / Mark Mitchell

Until now, if the "mob" wanted change, it had to hit the streets. March, picket, doorknock, paint banners, wear out shoe leather. You had to work for change. It's the sort of thing the promoters of the current referendum against asset sales went through to collect the 400,000-odd signatures needed to trigger the poll.

These days you can do it all from the comfort of your armchair. Join and you can gorge on a smorgasbord of causes with a mere click of your mouse.

Want to fire the Brisbane Airport cleaning contractor asking sexual favours of his female employees? Want a Sydney department store to stop giving away a free turkey with a new fridge? Want the Russian Ambassador to the US to let Natasha Willcox's Greenpeace protester dad "out of Jail!"? Then sign away.

Closer to home, you can join the 12 signatories - one from Johannesburg, South Africa - who are backing Julie Kerr's petition calling for the sacking of the Auckland Transport board because of the Hop card "shambles". There's a cause for all seasons and then some.

The US-based online petition platform claims 52,343,670 signed-up members worldwide as of yesterday, including 263,000 New Zealanders.

The 110,000-signature Roast Busters petition that was delivered to Parliament last week with much publicity erupted out of this website. Petition organiser Jessie Hume issued a statement through the publicity machine declaring, "My message to Mr Key is that more than 110,000 New Zealanders say it's time to deliver on your promise - fund sexual violence services properly".

Without wanting to detract from her message, it has to be said that Ms Hume is vastly exaggerating her local support.

Only 54,866 of the signatures on her petition came from New Zealand. Change tells me almost as many came from Australians (42,902), 15,000 or so from the US, 2500 from Britain and 1700 from Canada.

The previous biggest New Zealand-related petition on the site was one opposing a tunnel through Fiordland National Park, and it, too, had a united nations of backers.

Its 31,000 signatories included supporters from, among other places, Timor-Leste, Bristol UK, Calgary in Canada and Tucson, Arizona.

Kiwi Karen Skinner, the Sydney-based campaign director for this part of the world, says online activism is now the norm. The White House has its own online petition platform, as does the Queensland Parliament. In Queensland, you get an MP to sponsor your petition, then load it onsite.

While encouraging people's participation in community affairs can only be commended, surely making petitioning and protesting as easy, and as sedentary, as this risks devaluing the whole process. The Change website makes protesting a bit like buying ebooks or DVDs from Buy a few and you're typecast, quickly courted with pop-ups and personalised lists of products on offer, similar to those you've already bought or browsed.

With the petition website, big organisations such as Greenpeace can pay - and thus help fund the site - to be put in contact with likely supporters. Petition organisers, likewise, get links to their supporters so they can lobby them to do more. The site itself alerts you to other sites you might like to support.

Having just posted back my asset change referendum voting paper, which must have been the most pointless exercise in democracy in which I've ever engaged, it is hardly fair to point to shortcomings in this new way of sampling the public mood.

At least it's not costing taxpayers $9 million, which is the price of a referendum, to tell the politicians what opinion polls have been telling them for ages. That is, that public opposition to asset sales remains overwhelming, even after they've sold most of the family silver.

Not that I'm a fan of binding referendums. Like mass petitions, they're a one-sided megaphone that is no substitute for the checks and balances built into the parliamentary process.

The angry mob that rose up in protest against the Roast Busters a few weeks back revived memories of the misnamed March for Democracy this time four years ago. Backed with a $500,000 donation from Prime Minister John Key's new best buddy, Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, they paraded up Queen St demanding that their right to beat babies' bottoms be restored.

To the parliamentarians' credit, they resisted the clamour. I suspect the dial-a-petition website will be equally resistible. Democracies can always do with more well-informed debate and the internet is a perfect tool for this. But you won't find it at this new Tower of Babel.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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