Appearing as a witness at a Committee public hearing

This advice is for witnesses at parliamentary committee hearings.

When parliamentary committees conduct inquiries they may decide to hold hearings at which individuals and representatives of organisations are invited to answer questions. These hearings may 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.  In certain circumstances the committee may take evidence in private (see in camera hearings).

Information about committee inquiries can be found on the Committee home page.

Who can participate?

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. 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.

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.

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?

When you arrive

When you arrive at the hearing venue, 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.

Arriving early

If the public hearing is in progress, witnesses are welcome to observe proceedings before being called to give evidence. It is helpful if you arrive at least 15 minutes before your scheduled time in case the day is running ahead of time.

Calling of participants

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

Participants are usually given an opportunity to make a short opening statement (preferably no more 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 participants are unable to answer a question or provide information at the hearing, they may seek permission 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 the secretariat will advise if any further information is required. Responses to questions on notice are generally treated by committees in the same way as written submissions.

Recording what is said

Public hearings are recorded in their entirety by parliamentary reporting staff (Hansard). As soon as possible after the hearing, the committee secretariat will send participants a proof transcript for correction of errors of transcription (but not 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 House website www.aph.gov.au.

Do you have other documents for the committee?

If participants 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 either be accepted as a submission to the inquiry (see pamphlet Making a Submission) 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 practice that has developed is that staff of Commonwealth or State departments are not required to answer questions which seek 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 to a 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 participants’ 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 participants 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.

In camera (private) hearings

While committee proceedings 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 participants. 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.

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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

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Further information

Further information can be sought from the secretary of the committee conducting the particular inquiry or from:

Clerk Assistant (Committees)
House of Representatives
PO Box 6021
Parliament House
CANBERRA ACT 2600

Phone: +61 2 6277 4397

Fax: +61 2 6277 4034

email: committee.reps@aph.gov.au