Just when many had given up hope Barry O’Farrell has at long last released a policy, that of a People’s Petition which will allow citizens to initiate debates in Parliament.

It might not seem like much, it’s not a railway line or a commitment to hospital funding and at first glance some might think it a political stunt with no real impact but residents involved in grassroots struggles will be be jumping for joy over this news. What seems like such a simple thing to do, a right and just thing to do in a democracy, is actually something quite radical in NSW politics, a politician brave enough to want to hand some power back to the people.

Barry O’Farrell is today, is actually making some progress to walking the talk on open, transparent and participatory democracy. This is a break from the past for the Liberals (and Labor) and a step towards a new kind of politics where citizens are brought into the process, not shut out.

Barry O’Farrell claims it will ‘restore power to the people’, a big claim but he’s probably not far off the mark.

In allowing citizens to initiate debates in the NSW Parliament by tabling 10-20,000 signatures, the Liberal National Party has given a real incentive for the community to organise and rally behind a cause. Afterall what better prize can there be for a disaffected community to be get their issue on the agenda in the NSW Parliament and for an ‘urgent debate’ to take place on topics that have significant community support. Farrell, has just lit the fire under grass roots activism, something that well may change the course of NSW politics and usher in a new era of genuine engagement and people power. No doubt a number of developers and interest group lobbyists will be hoping the people of NSW are not alive to the potential of what the Opposition Leader has just announced.

“I want to put people back at the centre of decision-making in NSW and allow them to directly contribute to the agenda for Parliament,” Barry O’Farrell said today.

“People increasingly feel locked out of decision making and that, after 16 years of Labor, the community’s views aren’t being heard in Parliament,” Mr O’Farrell said pointing out that petitions tabled in the NSW Parliament are now tabled without even the issue they relate to being read out in Parliament because of changes introduced by Labor.

O’Farrel says the ‘it’s an idea designed to ensure the Parliament does what it is meant to do: listen to the people’ and argues that his People’s Petition will ‘ restore accountability and re-empower local communities’.

As to when the People’s Petition would come into effect, O’Farrell unfortunately let the People’s Petition fall into an of his ‘review’ categories saying it would ‘be added to the work of the constitutional panel the NSW Liberals & Nationals have already pledged to examine the application of ‘recall’ provisions to the State’s Constitution.’ So one can only hope that this doesn’t delay it’s implementation.

“An on-going people’s Parliament should address issues that citizens believe are important, rather than those that are convenient for the government,” Mr O’Farrell said.

Quite right Mr O’Farrell. Who would have thought that an idea as simple as giving the people a say in a democracy could in 2011 sound like such a radical and progressive idea. This one is a true win for the people, it’s a simple change that could be implemented quickly and the only policy thus far where Barry is truely walking the talk on a new style of government, founded on values of accountability and transparency. On this one, the people really will be able to hold politicans to account.

Let’s just hope the devil is not in the detail and the Liberal / National Party bans on-line petitions. Now that would be a wicked twist. Barry maybe you can confirm for us now that the NSW Government will like the UK Councils actually accept the reality of the digital age and allow secure and vertifable on-line petitions to be submitted. No young person is going to stand on a streetcorner with a clip board to gather signatures. To deny on-line peitions would be to shun the preferred means of citizen engagement on state and local issues, the internet.

What do you think of the Liberal / Nationals commitment to a People’s Petition? Could this make a difference to the way politics works in NSW? Should on-line petitions be allowed to be submitted?