NSW voters have been allowed a secret ballot since 1858 – but what happens when someone wants to make a submission or give evidence to a parliamentary committee inquiry anonymously?
Making a submission to a committee inquiry is an important way members of the public can participate in their democracy in the years between elections. Doing so allows people to share their expertise, experiences and viewpoints directly with parliamentary committees, contributing to the evidence and, ultimately, recommendations developed by an inquiry. And there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. In 2021, the Legislative Council commenced more than 35 new inquiries involving public submissions and surveys. To see all Upper House inquiries currently accepting submissions, filter for ‘open’ submissions on our inquiry listings page here.
PUBLISHED vs PRIVATE SUBMISSIONS
Often the people and organisations who engage with committee inquiries through the submission process want their participation to be known publicly, and some use this as an opportunity to urge others to make submissions, too. But just like when voting, there are various reasons why someone might want anonymity when taking part in a committee inquiry – the experience and evidence they’re sharing might be particularly sensitive or personal, for example, or it could be they just don’t want to be searchable online.
By inference from legislation, submissions and other types of evidence provided to committees are confidential by default. Section 4(2) of the Parliamentary Papers (Supplementary Provisions) Act 1975 states that a “committee may authorise the publication of a document received by it or evidence given before it”. This provision is reaffirmed in the Legislative Council’s Standing Order 223, which states that “a committee has power to authorise publication… of submissions received and evidence taken”.
In practice, things work a little differently. In order to streamline the submission processing and publishing process, as well as to promote transparency, the default publication status of submissions has now been flipped to ‘public’. This is allowed for via a clause to that effect in each resolution establishing a Legislative Council committee. For example, the resolution establishing the current portfolio committees states that “unless the committee decides otherwise… submissions to inquiries are to be published”.
LEVELS OF ANONYMITY
Authors who make their submissions online (now by far the most common way of submitting) are asked whether they would like the committee to publish their submission under their name, publish their submission but withhold their name, or keep both confidential. If an author asks that their name be suppressed, staff in the Legislative Council’s Committees office remove all potentially identifying details from their submission prior to publication. If an author requests confidential status, their submission will be withheld from publication, unless the committee specifically resolves otherwise.
Still, even submissions an author has asked be public aren’t published automatically. Staff review all submissions to remove signatures, personal contact details, and any other particularly sensitive identifiers before publication. Staff may also withhold publication of a submission if they identify procedural issues, such as ‘adverse mention’ (for example, where a submission makes allegations or adverse reflections on a particular person). In this case, steps must be taken to ensure procedural fairness for all parties before the submission can be made public.
STRIKING THE BALANCE
Though names or entire submissions can be kept from the public, completely anonymous submissions aren’t accepted for processing. A submission author must provide at least their name and a valid email or postal address. For example, a submission may be left unprocessed if an author provides an intentionally false email address, such as ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’, with no other way to contact them. Absolute anonymity makes it impossible for submissions to be verified and prevents staff from contacting an author, which may be necessary for reasons ranging from clarifying details to discussing the author’s rights under parliamentary privilege.
The current settings for anonymous submissions therefore strike the balance between providing privacy and protection for authors, transparency for the public, and workability for committees and their staff.