Getting involved - witnesses appearing before Senate or Joint committees

What is a Senate or Joint committee?

A Senate or Joint committee is a parliamentary committee. It involves a small number of Senators or Members of the House of Representatives (or both) appointed to conduct inquiries and report back to the Parliament. Committees provide an opportunity for organisations and individuals to have their views placed on the public record and considered as part of the process of considering proposed laws, or government policies and programs.

See: Senate Brief No.4: Senate Committees

What happens at a committee hearing?

A parliamentary committee holds a hearing so that it can take oral (spoken) evidence from people who have something to contribute to a committee's inquiry. Witnesses can appear as individuals or on behalf of an organisation. A hearing is generally divided into sessions of around 30 to 60 minutes per witness or group.

If you are a witness, when you arrive please introduce yourself to the committee secretariat staff, who are usually sitting at a side table. They can answer any questions you may have about the hearing.

When it is your turn to give evidence, the Chair of the committee will ask you to come to the witness table and state your full name and the capacity in which you appear. In other words, you should tell the committee whether you appear in a private capacity or are representing an organisation. The Chair will then give you the opportunity to make any changes or corrections to your written submission (if you have made one), before asking you to make a brief opening statement.

 Bear in mind that the committee already has your written submission so there is no need to summarise all of the points made in your submission. Instead, the opening statement gives you an opportunity to emphasise two or three key points or to respond to, or support, issues raised by other witnesses and submitters.

After your opening remarks, committee members will ask questions. 

A written transcript (called "Hansard") is made and, if the hearing is public, it will be published on the internet. When you have finished giving evidence, please stay for a few minutes in case the officer preparing the transcript needs to clarify any acronyms or technical terms you used in evidence.

Where will the hearing take place?

If the hearing is in Canberra, the venue will usually be a committee room in Parliament House. Hearings outside Canberra are usually in venues such as town halls, community centres, hotel conference rooms or the state parliament.

The committee secretariat will advise you of the date, time and venue for your appearance. It helps the committee if you can be contacted on the hearing day in case the schedule for the hearing changes.

Who will be called as a witness?

Committees generally choose witnesses from those who have made written submissions to the inquiry. Committees aim to hear from a variety of organisations or individuals representing different views or with different concerns.

Because time for hearings is limited, usually only a small proportion of submitters can be invited to give evidence. If you wish to be considered as a witness at a hearing, you should note this in your written submission to the inquiry.

Are committee hearings public or confidential?

Most hearings are held in public and committees usually allow live broadcasting and recording of public hearings. A transcript of the hearing is also made and, if the hearing is public, this is published on the committee's website.

However, you can ask to give evidence confidentially ('in camera'). If you think you should give confidential evidence, please let the committee secretariat know in advance.

Will media be present?

Maybe. If you have concerns about being recorded, photographed or filmed, you should raise this with the committee secretariat before you start to give evidence. The committee can decide whether to allow the media to record you or it can impose conditions on members of the media. It will balance principles of open proceedings, public interest, committee effectiveness and fairness to the witness.

Is there a dress code?

No. Most witnesses wear business or neat casual dress.

Why have I been asked to attend as part of a panel / round table of witnesses?

Committees sometimes do this to hear from as many witnesses as possible in the time available and to allow more interaction between witnesses.

What if I have been invited to appear at a hearing but I do not want to give evidence?

You should speak with the committee secretariat as soon as possible to discuss your concerns. Committees do not normally require people to give evidence but they do have the power to summons a witness if the circumstances warrant this.

I would like to give evidence but cannot attend in person. What other options do I have?

The committee may agree to you giving evidence by teleconference or video conference. Please contact the committee secretariat to discuss this.

Can I bring someone else along to appear with me as a witness?

The committee will probably agree to this but you should arrange it through the committee secretariat in advance. Witnesses appear at the invitation of the committee and the committee needs to know who will be appearing to give evidence.

Organisations often send more than one representative, usually no more than four.

Can I have legal counsel accompany me to a hearing?

If you wish to consult counsel during the hearing you will need the committee to agree to this. You should contact the committee secretariat to pass on this request to the committee.

See: Procedures to be observed by Senate committees for the protection of witnesses: Resolution 1(14).

Can a friend or family member accompany me to a public hearing?

Yes. At a public hearing anyone is welcome to attend and listen. The committee might also agree to someone sitting with you at the witness table as support (but not to give evidence). If you would like to have a support person at the witness table let the committee secretariat know prior to the hearing.

Can I listen to other people's evidence?

If the hearing is public you are welcome to listen to other people's evidence.

Can I make a presentation or show a video?

The committee might agree to this. However, it may prefer to simply receive a copy of the material that you want to present.

Can I give the committee additional information, for example documents, maps or photographs, to support my evidence?

Yes. If you send material in advance (preferably by email) the secretariat will give it to the committee before the hearing. If you bring material to the hearing, it is helpful to bring enough copies to circulate to the committee. Please make clear if you wish to request that any extra material you provide be kept confidential.

The committee might also accept a supplementary written submission after the hearing if you wish to clarify or add to your evidence. It is always a decision of the committee to accept or not accept any material.

What sort of questions will the committee ask me?

Questions are generally to clarify aspects of your written submission or to seek your views on other matters to do with the subject of the inquiry. Committees will often ask witnesses about evidence provided by other witnesses or submitters.

There are some special rules that apply to the questioning of public servants.

What if I can't answer a question?

If you do not understand the question you should ask for clarification.

If you cannot answer a question it is acceptable to say that it goes beyond your knowledge or expertise. If you need time to consider your answer, or to consult material you hold, you can offer to 'take the question on notice' (this means providing an answer in writing to the committee later).

What if I don't want to answer a question?

The committee will consider your reasons for objecting. If the committee insists on an answer, it will allow you to answer confidentially unless the committee considers that it is essential for an answer to be provided in public session.

Can I give evidence confidentially?

Before or during the hearing you may ask the committee to hear your evidence, or part of it, confidentially ('in camera'). If the committee agrees, other witnesses, journalists and members of the public must leave the room. Only the committee, secretariat staff and recording technicians will be present.

A transcript will still be made but it will be given only to you, committee members and secretariat staff.

However, the committee or the Senate may, at a later date, order the production and publication of evidence that was taken confidentially. This occurs only rarely and the committee would consult the witness before disclosing confidential evidence.

See: Procedures to be observed by Senate committees for the protection of witnesses.

If I make a mistake, can I correct it later?

Yes. You can correct yourself at any suitable time during your evidence or you can write to the committee with a correction after the hearing.

How do I address committee members?

You may call the chairperson of the committee 'Chair'.

You may address other committee members as 'Senator' or 'Senator [Surname]', (for example 'Senator Smith') or if he or she is a member of the House of Representatives, 'Mr [Surname]' or 'Ms [Surname]'.

The members of the committee will be identified by nameplates.

Who is on the committee?

You can check the membership of the committee at: Membership of Committees

Which committee members will be present?

You can contact the committee secretariat close to the hearing date for this information. Usually, there will be two to six committee members present. There are almost always government and opposition members and there may also be minor party or independent members. Some committee members may join the hearing by teleconference or video conference. The committee members will be identified by nameplates.

Who else will be present at the hearing?

Public hearings are open for anybody to attend. In addition to the committee members, committee secretariat staff and staff of the parliamentary broadcasting and Hansard are present. Members of the public and journalists may also be there as well as other witnesses who may not share the same views as you.

I have a disability. Will that be accommodated at the hearing?

Yes. Please notify the committee secretariat of your disability as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made.

English is not my first language. Can I use an interpreter?

Yes. The committee will take reasonable steps to provide an interpreter; or you can bring your own.

What is parliamentary privilege?

Giving evidence is protected by parliamentary privilege. This means that it is an offence for anyone to try to stop you from giving evidence by threats or intimidation. It is an offence for anyone to harass you or discriminate against you because you have given evidence. What you say in evidence to a committee cannot be used in court against you or anyone else.

See: Senate Brief No. 11: Parliamentary Privilege, and the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987

If I criticise somebody, can I be sued for defamation?

No. You are protected by parliamentary privilege. However, if your evidence comments adversely on another person, the committee will send the comment to the other person so they can reply.

'Adverse comment' is usually considered to be comments which, if they were not protected by parliamentary privilege, might justify suing for defamation: for example, allegations of professional incompetence, negligence, corruption or deception. Merely criticising another person's views is not adverse comment.

The committee may choose to take evidence that contains adverse comment confidentially.

I want to attend as a witness but somebody is trying to stop me doing so. What should I do?

You should contact the committee secretary. Interference with witnesses is a contempt of the Senate and a criminal offence. The Senate and its committees take very seriously any attempt to interfere with witnesses.

Will I have to make an oath or affirmation?

Committees can require witnesses to swear an oath or make an affirmation, but they rarely do. In any case, witnesses are obliged to give truthful answers: a witness who gives false or misleading evidence may be guilty of a contempt regardless of whether the witness swore an oath.

Is there any extra guidance for public servants appearing as witnesses?

The Senate has made some special rules in relation to public servants appearing as witnesses. In particular, officers of a department of the Commonwealth or of a State or Territory are not required to answer questions which seek their opinions on the merits of government policy. However, they may be asked to describe past and present policy and the effects of changes in policy, and discuss matters which public service advisers take into account when advising on policy. Officers must also be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions to a superior officer or to a minister.

If a Commonwealth officer believes that it may not be in the public interest to answer a question or provide information to a committee, the officer must state the ground on which the officer believes this and specify the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure. The committee, or an individual senator, may then ask that the question be referred to the responsible minister: Procedural Order of Continuing Effect No. 8.

The Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters set out the principles the government requires public officials to follow when providing evidence to parliamentary committees.

How do I get into Parliament House (Canberra)?

Between 9.00 am and 5.00 pm, entry to Parliament House is through the main entrance at the front of the building. You will have to go through security, which includes a metal detector and x-ray scanning of bags.

Once you are inside Parliament House, please approach the security desk (to the right inside the front doors) and let them know you are appearing as a witness before a Senate Committee. Security will give you directions to the committee room.

Before 9.00 am and after 5.00 pm, entry to Parliament House is via Security Point One in the underground public car park. Security Point One is located to the left of the stairs leading from the public car park to the forecourt. If you have any difficulties entering Parliament House, please contact the committee secretariat.

Where do I park my car at Parliament House (Canberra)?

Information on parking at Parliament House, including maps, is at: http://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/Planning_a_visit

What happens after the hearing?

The committee will send you a draft transcript of your evidence (known as a 'proof') so you can correct any transcription errors before it is finalised.

When hearings are finished, the committee prepares a report which is tabled in the Senate and becomes a public document. Reports are published on the committee's website and copies are available from the committee secretariat or the Senate Table Office (02 6277 3009 or 02 6277 3010).

Who should I talk to if I have a question?

Please contact the relevant committee secretariat for further information. Inquiries from hearing and speech impaired people should be directed to the Parliament House TTY number 02 6277 7799.

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