So, you have lodged your submission to an inquiry you are interested in contributing to (informed no doubt by last week’s post on how to write an effective submission) and then you get THE call – an invitation to appear before the committee at a public hearing to give evidence.
What do you do? How do you prepare? What should you say?
This week’s post has you covered as we discuss how to be an effective witness.
Who, what, why and where?
First thing first. Hearings allow committee members to engage directly with stakeholders about the matters being examined in an inquiry and to question witnesses about issues raised in submissions. Gathering evidence in this way helps the committee to canvass expert knowledge and stakeholder opinion, and to understand the impact of policy decisions and systems.
For this reason, committees generally invite a broad range of stakeholders to give oral evidence so as to provide a balanced viewpoint on an issue – from government officials and public officials to representatives of key organisations, academics and community members. Witnesses are invited because the committee recognises their perspective as particularly important to the inquiry.
Being a witness is therefore a valuable opportunity to not only contribute directly to the committee’s report but to help shape members’ views and inform the inquiry’s findings and recommendations.
Hearings can take place at Parliament House, either in the Macquarie Room or the Jubilee Room, or at regional locations across the state. They are usually held in public as this facilitates public participation and ensures transparency. Where possible, hearings are also live streamed on Parliament’s website. Committees can decide to conduct a hearing in private when sensitive matters are to be discussed or to protect a person’s privacy.
Heeding the call
If you are called to be a witness, committee staff will brief you about your appearance, including what to expect on the day and any logistical or access requirements. The room is set up the same way for every hearing, with witnesses on one side of a square and members and Hansard on the remaining sides.
Of course, preparation is key. But how do you prepare for the unexpected? Some handy hints include:
- Read over your submission and expect to be asked to elaborate on it. Be prepared to defend your statements if necessary or to be challenged about your views.
- Be prepared to comment on the views of other stakeholders. Reading other submissions and the transcripts of previous hearings on the inquiry webpage will be helpful.
- Think about the key messages you want to convey to the committee. Describe the problem but offer solutions – recommendations and suggestions for change are particularly valued by committee members.
On the day, you will be sworn in before giving your evidence – that is, you will be asked to state your name and the capacity in which you are appearing, and to take an oath or affirmation to tell the truth.
You will then be invited to make an opening statement. While this is not compulsory, this is your opportunity to emphasise the key points of your message to the committee or what you would like to see result from the inquiry. Keep your opening statement brief and to the point, and aim to speak confidently – remember, the committee want to hear what you have to say!
When it comes to answering questions, answer them on your own terms. Be concise, well-prepared and genuine. If you don’t know the answer to a question because it is outside your knowledge or expertise, then you can say so. If you need more time to answer it correctly or cannot recall the specifics, you can ask to take the question ‘on notice’. Questions on notice will be noted by the committee staff and sent to you after the hearing along with any additional questions the committee may have.
Depending on the nature of the inquiry, there may be a robust exchange of ideas during a hearing. Don’t be deterred! The chair is responsible for maintaining order and ruling on the admissibility of questions. As a witness, it is also important to note that the Legislative Council has procedures to provide proper process and fair treatment for all inquiry participants, known as the Procedural fairness resolution. You can read the resolution here.
Speaking of inquiries…
The Legislative Council resumed sitting last week and our new committees commenced seven new inquiries, so stay tuned for next week’s post for all the details. Then, during the winter recess in late June, we’ll pick up these posts discussing what happens next in the inquiry process.