Having your say
Well this week we will explain to you the importance of public participation in the committee system.
Evidence is key
Committees take Parliament to the people. They provide a forum for the public to have their say on important policy issues. They allow members to examine issues in detail and with greater public participation and debate than if the matter were only considered by either House.
Committee inquiries would not be effective without your participation, so we really do need you!
You can engage with committees either as an individual or an organisation – by making a submission or giving evidence at a hearing.
Calling for written submissions is one of the most important ways that parliamentary committees gather evidence.Submissions inform committee members on matters relevant to an inquiry, and show how you, your organisation, or your community feel about an issue. Any person or organisation can make a submission to a committee.
There is no set format for submissions. A submission can take almost any form such as a letter, a research paper, a handwritten note or a video or audio recording. The majority of submissions are in written form.
Most submissions are made public during the course of an inquiry, but it can depend on the nature of the inquiry. It is common for at least some of the submissions received to be kept confidential, in whole or in part. Publishing submissions during an inquiry can generate public comment and discussion and encourage others to provide relevant information to the committee. It can also help to promote transparency of the inquiry process.
Committee reports will usually refer to and quote from the information and arguments presented in submissions. Submissions may also help members decide who should be invited to give evidence at committee hearings. They are also used by members as a basis for asking questions during hearings.
Hearings are a key element of most committee inquiries and are usually the next stage of the inquiry process after submissions are received. Hearings allow committees to seek expert knowledge from people and ask questions about an issue. They allow committees to find out more about how you, your organisation, or your community feel about an issue.
Any person or representative of an organisation can be invited to be a witness, including members of the public, public servants, academics and government ministers. Most witnesses are selected from amongst those who made submissions.
Hearings are quite a formal process. They all start with the Chair of the committee making an opening statement and then the witnesses are sworn in and get to make an opening statement. After this, committee members ask the witnesses questions and what they say is recorded by Hansard.
Hearings are usually held in public and the transcript of evidence is published on the committee’s website. Sometimes hearings are held in private (in camera) and in such cases the public and the media cannot attend.
If you want to attend a public hearing either at Parliament House or at other locations, you can find details of upcoming hearings on each inquiry page.
Members of Portfolio Committee No. 1 – Premier and Finance questioning the Premier, the Hon Gladys Berejiklian MP, at a public hearing for the Budget Estimates inquiry 2018-2019.
Sometimes it is also very helpful for a committee to conduct site visits to gather evidence for an inquiry. This is where a committee will visit a location usually to see something relevant to the inquiry such as a factory, office, farm, school or piece of infrastructure.
During these visits members generally meet privately with certain stakeholders who can brief them on issues relating to the inquiry. Site visits also provide an opportunity for the committee to hold public hearings outside of Parliament House to enable community members, particularly in regional locations, to participate in the parliamentary process and put their views forward.
Members at the Snowy Hydro’s Tumut 3 Power Station for the Select Committee inquiry on Electricity supply, demand and prices in New South Wales.
Inquiry into water
There was an inquiry into water supply for rural and regional New South Wales that commenced in 2016. The committee utilised a range of methods to obtain evidence – it even visited Menindee Lakes and other regional communities deeply affected by water supply issues. The committee conducted its inquiry over a two year period, received 118 submissions and held 11 public hearings. Four hearings were held at Parliament House in Sydney and one each in Broken Hill, Deniliquin, Griffith, Moree, Tamworth, Orange and Lismore. The committee also conducted site visits while in Deniliquin, Moree and Orange.
As you can see the committee traveled extensively during this inquiry and the evidence received was then documented in the committees report, which in the end was quite substantial – a total of 296 pages!
Members of Portfolio Committee No. 5 – Industry and Transport on a site visit to Broken Hill for the inquiry into Augmentation of water supply for rural and regional New South Wales.
How do you find out about an inquiry?
Details of committee inquiries can be found on the Legislative Council website. We also advertise for written submissions and publicise committee hearings through our Twitter and Facebook accounts and we will provide updates on committee activities on this blog. So subscribe and you will be the first to know what is happening.
In the coming weeks we will be spilling the beans on how to write an effective submission and be an effective witness – so stay tuned!