Further information

This information is for parliamentary committees in general. Some committees have different, very specific, legislated requirements. Further information can be sought from the secretary of the committee conducting the particular inquiry or from the:

Office of the Clerk Assistant (Committees)
House of Representatives
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6277 4397
email: committee.reps@aph.gov.au

See also House of Representatives ‘Procedures for dealing with witnesses’ and related pamphlets on parliamentary committees:

Making a Submission

Notes to help those intending to make a submission to a parliamentary committee inquiry.

Dealing with Parliamentary Committees

Notes to help those dealing with parliamentary committees. This pamphlet also lists contact details for each committee secretariat.

Stay Informed

Keep up with the work of parliamentary committees on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Media alert service. You can also use the Track Committee facility by creating a login account at www.aph.gov.au/MyParliament, and this will provide you with a personal My Parliament profile to track committees.

Appearing as a witness at a Committee public hearing

Those appearing before a parliamentary committee hearing are commonly referred to as a witness. If you have been invited to appear as a witness at a committee hearing, these notes will help you prepare and know what to expect on the day.

When parliamentary committees conduct inquiries they may decide to hold hearings at which individuals and representatives of organisations are invited to appear before the committee and answer questions the committee may have. These hearings enable witnesses to clarify and expand on their written submissions and allow the committee to seek additional information.

As committee hearings are an extension of the proceedings of the Parliament, they must be treated with the same respect those proceedings command.

Generally, committee hearings are conducted in public, proceedings are recorded and may be broadcast, and media may be present. A transcript of proceedings will subsequently be available on the Australian Parliament website. Witnesses are given reasonable opportunity, before appearing, to object to the broadcasting of proceedings. If witnesses do not wish the hearing to be broadcast, they should notify the committee secretariat and set out the grounds for their objection prior to the hearing. The committee can then make a decision on this matter and inform witnesses before they appear at the hearing.
In certain circumstances the committee may take evidence in private (see in camera hearings).

Information about committee inquiries can be found at: www.aph.gov.au/house/committee

Who can participate?

When a witness appears and speaks at a public hearing this is commonly referred to as ‘giving evidence’. The committee decides who will be invited to give evidence at a hearing. The committee secretariat will contact witnesses to discuss the date, time and place of a hearing. Audio visual or audio links (ie, video or tele conferencing) may be used to hear evidence, but this is at the discretion of a committee. Depending on the topic, a committee may occasionally have a ‘community statements’ segment as part of the official program, at which members of the public can make brief statements to the committee. Hearings may also take the form of roundtables and workshops.

An organisation invited to give evidence will usually determine who will represent it at the hearing, although a committee may request specific office holders or individuals to attend. Organisations should ensure that they send to the hearing witnesses who have appropriate knowledge of the issues before the committee. Unless requested, witnesses should not rely on power point presentations as part of their evidence.

It is helpful if organisations advise the committee secretariat as soon as possible after being contacted of the names of the people who will attend.

A committee has the power to summon people to appear if they have declined such an invitation, if the committee considers this warranted.

What happens at a public hearing?

Arriving at the hearing venue 

Unless otherwise specified by the committee secretariat, please arrive at the hearing venue at least 15 minutes before your scheduled time. When you arrive, please introduce yourself to committee staff. In order to assist the parliamentary reporting staff (Hansard) you will have been asked to complete a witness details form. If you have not completed this form, please ask the committee staff for help. If the public hearing is already in progress, you are welcome to observe proceedings before being called to give evidence.

Calling of witnesses

When the committee is ready, the chair will call participants to the table to give their evidence. The chair will ask each person to state their full name and the capacity in which they are appearing before the committee (e.g. are they representing an organisation, or appearing as a private citizen).

Before taking evidence, the chair may ask witnesses to take an oath or make an affirmation. Regardless of whether this is done, any false testimony or related attempt to mislead the committee is a very serious matter and may potentially constitute a contempt of Parliament; that is, an attempt to impede the Parliament in the performance of its functions. Any such action may have legal ramifications.

Giving evidence

Witnesses are usually given an opportunity to make a short opening statement (preferably less than five minutes). This can be used to clarify, amend or expand on points made in written submissions.

Questions will then be directed to witnesses through the chair. The questions offer committee members a chance to seek views and information on the inquiry topic and to clarify aspects of any written submissions.

What happens if you don’t know the answer?

If you are unable to answer a question or provide information at the hearing, you may seek to provide a written answer to the committee at a later date. This is known as ‘taking the question on notice’. It is important to provide this information to the secretariat as quickly as possible after the hearing.

Sometimes a committee may seek additional information on specific issues from a witness after the hearing, and thesecretariat will advise if any further information is required. Responses to questions taken on notice and questions in writing may be treated by committees in the same way as written submissions; that is, accepted as evidence to the inquiry and published on the inquiry web page.

Recording what is said

Public hearings are recorded in their entirety by parliamentary recording and reporting staff. After you have given evidence, parliamentary staff may approach you to check the spelling of any acronyms or technical language used. As soon as possible after the hearing, the committee secretariat will send you a proof transcript (Hansard). You will have the opportunity to request changes to correct any transcription errors, but not the content or style. Corrected transcripts should be returned to the secretariat within the time period specified. Both proof and final transcripts for public hearings are published on the Australian Parliament website www.aph.gov.au.

Do you have other documents for the committee?

If you wish to present additional documents relevant to the inquiry, these should be provided in time for the committee secretariat to distribute to committee members prior to the hearing. Alternatively, sufficient copies should be brought to the hearing for all committee members. Depending on the nature of the documents, they may be accepted either as a submission to the inquiry or as an exhibit to the inquiry. Please get advice from the committee secretariat if you are unsure of how your additional documents might be treated

Government officials

The House of Representatives has resolved that departmental officers shall not be asked to give their opinions on policy, reasons for policy decisions or advice which staff may have tendered in policy formulation. Officers will be given reasonable opportunity to refer questions to their department or the appropriate Minister (see also the document Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters available from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet website)..

How are your rights and privacy protected?

Parliamentary privilege

Giving evidence to a parliamentary committee is privileged under the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987. This means that no legal action can be taken against witnesses in relation to the evidence given during a hearing. This immunity does not apply if, after the hearing, the person repeats statements made in evidence. Anyone who attempts to intimidate or threaten a witness may be liable to prosecution. Further, as discussed above, any false testimony or related attempt to mislead the committee may potentially constitute a contempt of Parliament..

In camera (private) hearings

While committee hearings are generally conducted in public, in some cases a committee may decide to take evidence in camera (ie in private or confidentially).

It is up to the committee to decide if evidence can be taken in camera, although it is sometimes requested by witnesses. It is important to raise any concerns you might have about your evidence with the secretariat beforehand so that the committee is aware of your concerns. However, matters may arise during your appearance and you can request to give evidence confidentially at that time. If the request is granted by the committee, the public and media will be excluded from the hearing. The chair or any member of the committee also may request that the hearing be in camera, particularly if the evidence adversely reflects on a third person or is subject to legal proceedings.

While in camera evidence is treated as confidential when it is heard, the committee has the power to publish the evidence at a later date if the circumstances warrant such action. If the committee gives an undertaking to the witness that in camera evidence will not be disclosed, such evidence would only be released by the committee following consultation with the witness.

This information is for parliamentary committees in general. Some committees have different, very specific, legislated requirements. Further information can be sought from the secretary of the committee conducting the particular inquiry, or from the:

Office of the Clerk Assistant (Committees)
House of Representatives
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6277 4397
Email: committee.reps@aph.gov.au