A parliamentary committee is a small group of members appointed by Parliament to investigate and report on matters of public importance within their area of responsibility. The Legislative Council also operates its own committees, and much of the information contained in this FAQ is also applicable to those committees.
Committees carry out a great deal of the detailed work of each of the Houses. Committees are one of the tools to assist the Houses of Parliament in their functions to legislate; monitor and review legislation; review government administration and expenditure; gather information; and publicise issues.
Committees can address, in an appropriate level of detail, matters that are the business of Parliament but are not suitable to be dealt with in the environment of a House. Committee proceedings are more intimate and less likely to be adversarial than proceedings in a House. Party politics are often less prominent in a committee than in a House. It can be useful for a committee to review a complex or contentious matter, and to assist parliamentary debate by clarifying issues and establishing common ground between members of different parties.
The Legislative Assembly is responsible for seven committees:
- The Public Accounts Committee
- The Community Development and Justice Standing Committee
- The Economics and Industry Standing Committee
- The Education and Health Standing Committee
- The Procedure and Privileges Committee
- The Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People
- The Joint Standing Committee on the Corruption and Crime Commission
In addition to these standing committees, occasionally the Parliament will authorise the creation of select committees. Select committees are created by Parliament to investigate specific matters and they cease to exist once they have reported on the outcome of the specific matter. Recent examples of select committees include:
- The Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Constitutional Recognition
- The Joint Select Committee on End of Life Choices
Usually, there are five members on a committee. Joint committees typically have an even number of members drawn from both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council.
The actual membership of each committee is determined by the Legislative Assembly, meaning that the nature and composition of each committee changes from time to time, usually following an election.
Terms of Reference provide the boundaries within which a committee’s inquiry operates. They set out the issues which the committee will consider. For most inquiries, committees will develop their own Terms of Reference and then inform the Assembly of the new inquiry. Sometimes, the Assembly might direct a committee to complete an inquiry with specific Terms of Reference. These are known as “House directed inquiries” and they take precedence over any other work that the committee is completing.
Committees generally have two options for receiving evidence from interested people
- During the early stages of an inquiry, committees will advertise a ‘call for submissions’ where individuals and organisations are asked to respond to the inquiry’s Terms of Reference. Committees will usually advertise in The West Australian and, if appropriate, regional newspapers. Announcements will also be made on the Assembly’s Twitter account (find us @AssemblyWA), and the committee’s individual website will also be kept up-to-date with media releases, transcripts and other submissions.
- During later stages of an inquiry – usually once the committee has had time to consider written submissions – the committee may ask individuals and organisations to give evidence at a hearing. Hearings give committee members the opportunity to directly talk to those who have contributed to an inquiry. Members can ask questions, clarify issues and generally explore in more detail the issues that have been raised as part of an inquiry.
Submissions are one of the primary sources of information for committees when they undertake inquiries. Anybody can make a submission to an inquiry – including individuals, private organisations and government agencies. Submissions should respond to the inquiry’s Terms of Reference, but there is no requirement that a submission respond to all of the issues raised in the Terms of Reference. You might have experience or knowledge relating to only one of the issues under consideration by the committee, in which case a submission on that one particular topic would still be valid.
There is no set format for what a submission must look like, but it’s important that you keep a few things in mind:
- Committees can receive several hundred submissions, so keep your submission brief and make sure you are clear about what you think the committee needs to know.
- Make sure that you include your full name and up-to-date contact information. Anonymous submissions will not be accepted.
- If you wish to include documentation separate to your submission, and which has not been created for the specific purpose of submission to the inquiry, it is suggested that you attach the documentation as separate appendices.
Once your submission is received, it will be provided to committee members who will then review it before deciding whether to accept it. You will be advised if your submission is not accepted.
Once the committee receives your submission, it becomes a committee document and is subject to parliamentary privilege. This means that you cannot give your submission to anyone else once you have given it to the committee, as only the committee can decide to release it or make it public. However, this does not apply to information in your submission that has already been published elsewhere or was in the public domain before you sent it to the committee.
To protect the privacy of submitters, the secretariat will remove signatures and personal contact details before publishing submissions.
Submissions are usually published on the Parliament’s website. If you do not want your submission published, see the section “Can I ask that my submission be treated confidentially?” below.
Committees hold ultimate discretion in relation to items that they will accept as submissions. This means that the committee may reject your submission. This may occur if the committee concludes that a submission does not address the terms of reference, or that it is abusive, disrespectful or frivolous.
Parliamentary privilege protects you from being taken to court and questioned about what you write to the committee in your submission. This is important so that you are able to be honest and direct in your submission to a committee, without fear of being sued for defamation or fear of harassment, intimidation or improper influence by anyone. In return, the committee expects you will provide evidence that is directly relevant to its inquiry and the questions asked, and not abuse the protection you have.
If you repeat any of the statements you make in your submission (where they are not already in the public domain), or publish your submission elsewhere, you are not protected by parliamentary privilege for those subsequent statements. If you are found to have deliberately abused the protection given to you, for example, by making reckless statements about other people, you may be found to be in contempt of Parliament.
If you are concerned about the confidential nature of the information you wish to give to the committee, you can request that all or part of your submission is accepted as either a closed or an in camera submission.
- Closed submissions are confidential, and no one may publish or disclose any part of the submission received by the committee unless the committee itself resolves to do so. If the committee does not table or publish a closed submission, the submission will not be disclosed for at least ten years.
- In camera submissions are also confidential and may only be published or disclosed by the committee with your written approval. If you do not authorise the disclosure of your in camera submission, it remains confidential and only may be made public after 30 years.
If you have private or confidential information to present to the committee, you should ask the committee’s Principal Research Officer for advice well before sending in your submission as there are restrictions on the handling, use and publication of closed and in camera submissions.
Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions do not apply to committee documents, including your submission to the committee, by virtue of Schedule 1, s.12(c) of the Freedom of Information Act 1992. This means that no one will be able to obtain your submission through FOI procedures.
A submission received by a committee cannot be withdrawn. However, in exceptional circumstances the committee may accept a substitute submission and/or keep the original as closed evidence.
Parliamentary committees have the power to send for persons, papers and records, and may order or summons a person to attend a hearing or provide documents to a committee.
There are two ways by which people can appear before a committee at a hearing. First, you may receive an invitation from the committee, as committees invite individuals and organisations who have a particular relevance to their inquiry to appear before them. Second, if you have information to present to a committee, you can request the opportunity to appear before that committee. The committee’s Principal Research Officer will advise you if the committee wishes to have you appear at a hearing to give oral evidence.
On the day of the hearing, the general procedure will be as follows:
- when you arrive, go to the reception desk and give your name. The staff will ask you to complete a Details of Witness form;
- you will also be provided with an Information for Witnesses briefing sheet. It is important that you read this sheet as the committee will ask if you have read this and if you have any questions;
- you will be taken into the hearing room and shown to your seat;
- you will be advised that the proceedings are formal proceedings of the Parliament and warrant the same respect that proceedings of the Legislative Assembly itself demand;
- you will be reminded that although the committee has not required you to give evidence on oath, you should be aware that it does not alter the importance of the occasion and the deliberate misleading of the committee may be regarded as a contempt of Parliament;
- the member chairing the committee will ask you to state your full name and capacity in which you appear before the committee;
- although procedures may vary between committees, the member chairing the committee normally leads by asking a series of questions, followed in turn by the other committee members;
- committee members may ask you any questions that are relevant to the committee’s terms of reference;
- if at any time throughout the hearing you are unsure as to what is required, you can ask the member chairing the committee to explain;
- if the committee needs to discuss a point in private during the hearing, you will be asked to leave the room until they have finished; and
- when the hearing is over, you can leave the room.
Committees tend to adopt a flexible approach to accommodating requests to change attendance dates. Keep in mind, however, that committees are often on tight deadlines, so it is important to provide early notice if you are unable to attend on the date nominated by the committee.
Committee hearings are normally open to the public and the media. Committees also have the capacity to broadcast committee proceedings within Parliament House, to various government agencies and via the Parliament’s website. This includes any documentation provided by a witness to assist the committee in its investigations. A written record or transcript of evidence you give at a public hearing is placed on the internet.
If you are concerned about the confidential nature of the evidence you are providing, you can ask that the evidence you give be heard in closed session, or in camera.
- Evidence taken in a closed hearing is confidential, and no one may publish or disclose any part of the evidence received by the committee unless the committee itself resolves to do so. If the transcript from a closed hearing is not tabled or published by the committee at the completion of its inquiry, that transcript may not be disclosed for at least ten years.
- Evidence taken in camera is also confidential and may only be published or disclosed by the committee with your written approval. If you do not authorise the disclosure of your in camera evidence, it remains confidential and only may be made public after 30 years.
If you have private or confidential information to present to the committee, you should ask the committee’s Principal Research Officer for advice well before you attend the hearing as there are restrictions on the handling, use and publication of closed and in camera evidence.
The Legislative Assembly does not require witnesses providing evidence to do so under oath or affirmation, but it is important to remember that committee proceedings (including hearings) are proceedings of parliament. This means that any attempt to mislead the committee, or to interfere with the work of the committee, may be a contempt of parliament.
It is possible to have a lawyer with you when you give evidence to a committee, but you must ask the committee before the hearing for permission to do this. The rules about having a lawyer with you are strict and a lawyer who attends the hearing with you is only able to offer you advice. He or she cannot speak to the committee on your behalf. If you are thinking about having a lawyer come with you speak to the Principal Research Officer well before the hearing.
Members will generally only ask questions that relate to the inquiry Terms of Reference. If you have provided a submission to the committee, you can expect the committee to ask you questions about what you have said in your submission.
It is the Chair’s responsibility to make sure that the questions being asked of you are relevant to the inquiry.
If you are a public servant, members cannot ask you for your opinions on government policy.
Although committees have the power to compel answers to questions, this power is rarely invoked and any disagreement about answering questions is typically resolved through negotiation and compromise.
If you are in a hearing and do not wish to answer a question, you will be invited by the Chair to explain the reason for your objection. If the committee still wishes to hear your answer, it would be open to the committee to receive your evidence either in closed or in camera session. If you still refused to answer the question, the committee could report the facts to the Assembly.
Parliamentary privilege protects you from being taken to court and questioned about what you say to the committee at a hearing. This is important so that you are able to be honest and direct in your evidence to a committee, without fear of being sued for defamation or fear of harassment, intimidation or improper influence by anyone. In return, the committee expects you will provide evidence that is directly relevant to its inquiry and the questions asked, and not abuse the protection you have.
If you repeat any of the statements you make in hearing evidence (where they are not already in the public domain) or publish these statements elsewhere, you are not protected by parliamentary privilege for those subsequent statements. If you are found to have deliberately abused the protection given to you, for example, by making reckless statements about other people, you may be found to be in contempt of Parliament.
Wherever possible, witnesses will appear in person before the committee. However, in exceptional circumstances the committee may use video-conferencing facilities to take evidence.
Following the hearing, Hansard will produce an ‘uncorrected’ transcript of your evidence. This transcript is usually available within 48 hours of your appearance, although it can sometimes take longer.
If your evidence has been taken at a public hearing, the uncorrected transcript will be published on the committee’s website as soon as it becomes available, and you will be provided with a copy in order to make minor corrections. For your corrections to be included in the committee’s records, you must return your corrected transcript to the committee’s Principal Research Officer within 10 days from the date on the letter attached to the transcript.
The corrected version of the transcript is then published on the committee’s website and forms part of the committee’s formal evidence. The committee may rely upon it as it completes its report and makes its findings and recommendations.
You can contact the Legislative Assembly Committee Office on (08) 9222 7494, or if you know which committee your query relates to, you can find their contact information on their individual committee website.