MP Stewart's whirlwind winning Wednesday

Burnaby-Douglas NDP MP Kennedy Stewart -
Burnaby-Douglas NDP MP Kennedy Stewart
— image credit:

For a moment, Kennedy Stewart felt defeated.

The New Democrat MP for Burnaby-Douglas sat in his chair in the House of Commons and looked up at his wife, Jeanette Ashe, in the public gallery.

"I thought I'd lost."

Next thing he knew, the vote count was announced—142 to 140. Stewart's private member's motion calling for a system of online petitioning had passed by a narrow margin.

The NDP caucus erupted in cheers.

Last Wednesday, Stewart had accomplished the rare feat of getting a private member's motion passed, something that's difficult enough when it's not part of the government's agenda, but even more so when it's coming from an Opposition member.

He's been told it's only happened about three times in the past decade.

But when it did happen for him on Jan. 29 he didn't know it right away.

For the past two years, he'd worked to modify his motion based on suggestions from MPs from all parties—even getting the endorsements of former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent and Reform Party founder Preston Manning—and eventually won the support and votes of all MPs from the NDP, Liberals, Greens and Bloc Quebecois.

And while going into the vote he believed he'd secured the support of eight backbench Conservative MPs, two who said they would vote in favour didn't. But two who said they wouldn't did.

"There was a lot of confusion when the vote had occurred. There were two points of order where government members were saying they wanted to make clear they had voted against the motion. And I thought we'd lost … Then when they announced the total there was this huge cheer from our side," Stewart said from Ottawa Thursday.

"The prime minister was very upset, I can tell you. He was kind of yelling at the House Leader, 'how did that happen?'"

In gaining the support of the Conservative backbenchers, he agreed to support the private member's motions of two of them, both related to democratic reform.

"A lot of us think the House of Commons isn't working very well," he explained.

As for Stewart's electronic-petitions motion it calls on Parliament's procedure and house affairs committee to look into how such a system could best be implemented and report back within 12 months. Essentially, such a system would allow an online petition to trigger a debate in the House if it meets certain criteria.

Coincidentally, the vote came on the same day an online petition in the United States reached the 100,000-signature threshold requiring President Barack Obama to respond. It called for troubled Canadian pop star Justin Bieber to be deported from that country.

When asked if that case affected the vote on his motion, Stewart said it was actually discussed among MPs. But he noted he has suggested several safeguards be built in to prevent frivolous petitions, including a threshold of 50,000 or 100,000 signatures, requiring that at least five MPs sponsor such a petition, and that the subject matter not be hypothetical situations.

The American system lacks elements such as the sponsorship requirement, Stewart said, which is how the White House found itself recently having to reply to a petition demanding the U.S. government build an $850-quadrillion "Death Star" like the one in Star Wars.

Stewart credited the e-petitions idea to his wife, a political science instructor at Douglas College, and said it's based on the system used in the U.K. The idea is to get ordinary Canadians more engaged in the political system by giving them an outlet to have important issues discussed in Parliament.

It would not replace the current paper petition system in which Canadian residents submit printed petitions with 25 or more signatures to their MP, who then submits it to the House of Commons. If it meets certain criteria the government is required to respond within 45 days with a letter.

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