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Frequently asked questions - Committees

What is a Parliamentary Committee?

A parliamentary committee is a small group of members of parliament who consider legislation and matters of public importance on behalf of the Parliament.

This information is about committees of the upper house of parliament, the Legislative Council (Council). The Legislative Assembly also operates its own committees, and much of the information contained in this FAQ also applies to those committees.

There are usually between four and eight members on a committee. The Council decides which members will be assigned to a committee. This usually happens following an election.

The Council operates a number of committees that review legislation in addition to financial and inquiry focussed committees.

The functions of each committee are set out in the Legislative Council Standing Orders.

What do committees do?

Committees look in detail at issues and legislation referred to them by the Legislative Council. The committees report their findings back to the Council.

The Council uses committees as a tool to assist them to legislate; monitor and review legislation (including delegated legislation); review government administration and expenditure; gather information and publicise issues.

A committee may conduct a public inquiry and call for input from the community.

How many committees does the Legislative Council currently operate?

The Legislative Council is responsible for eight standing committees:

  • Legislation Committee
  • Uniform Legislation and Statutes Review Committee
  • Public Administration Committee
  • Environment and Public Affairs Committee
  • Procedure and Privileges Committee
  • Estimates and Financial Operations Committee
  • Joint Committee on Audit
  • Joint Committee on Delegated Legislation.

The Council will sometimes establish select committees. Select committees investigate specific matters and they cease to exist once they have reported on the matter to the Council. A recent example of a select committee is the Select Committee on Elder Abuse.

How can I contribute to a Committee inquiry?

Committees generally receive evidence in writing (a submission) or through listening to people give evidence at a hearing. If you require assistance to make a submission or give evidence contact committee staff.

During the early stages of an inquiry, committees will advertise to invite submissions. Individuals and organisations are asked to respond to the inquiry’s Terms of Reference. Committees usually advertise in The West Australian and, if appropriate, regional newspapers. Announcements will also be made on the Council’s Twitter account (find us @WALegCouncil).

Each committee has an individual webpage on the Parliament website that 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.

What are Terms of Reference?

Terms of Reference provide the boundaries for a committee’s inquiry. They set out the issues that the committee will consider. For example a committee inquiring into the establishment of a space industry in Western Australia should not be investigating matters relating to the dairy industry.

You will find a list of current inquiries on each committee’s webpage. Clicking on the inquiry will take you to the terms of reference.

What is a submission?

Submissions are one of the primary sources of information for committees when they hold inquiries. Anybody can make a submission to an inquiry – including individuals, private organisations and government agencies. When you make a submission you are giving evidence to the committee.

Submissions are usually in writing. If you are unable to provide a submission in writing or you require assistance making a submission contact the committee staff.

What should my submission cover?

Submissions should be about one or more of the inquiry’s Terms of Reference.

A submission is a chance for you to give the committee information to consider during its inquiry. The submission can include your views, experiences or suggestions for change.

What should my submission look like?

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 be clear about what you think the committee needs to know.
  • Include your full name and up-to-date contact information.
  • If you wish to include existing documents with your submission attach the documents as separate appendices.
  • If you are unable to provide your submission in writing or you need help contact the committee staff.

What happens to my submission?

All submissions are considered by the committee.

Normally submissions are made public and placed on the committee’s webpage. To protect the privacy of submitters, the committee remove signatures and personal contact details before publishing submissions.

You are required to keep your submission confidential until the committee decides to publicly release it. Normally a committee will make a submission public at some stage during its inquiry but this does not always happen. Check with the committee staff if you have questions.

Committee staff may contact you to seek further information on matters you raise. In some circumstances, the committee may invite you to appear before it to give evidence in a hearing.

Most committee inquiries result in a written report to the Legislative Council, which may contain recommendations and findings. Providing the report to the Legislative Council is called “tabling the report”. Once a report is tabled a copy will be sent to you and the report will be placed on the committee’s webpage.

Once the committee receives your submission, it becomes a committee document and is subject to parliamentary privilege.

Can a committee reject my submission?

Yes. This might occur if the committee concludes that a submission does not address the terms of reference, or that it may constitute an abuse of parliamentary privilege.

Why is my submission subject to parliamentary privilege?

Submissions to parliamentary committees are protected by parliamentary privilege. This means what you write in your submission to a committee, so long as it is not deliberately false, cannot be questioned or used against you in a court, tribunal or similar proceedings.

Privilege is important as it allows you to be honest and direct in your submission to a committee without fear of being sued harassed, intimidated or improperly influenced by anyone.

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.

It is important to note the privilege protection is strictly limited to the information published by the committee. If you provide or transmit the contents of your submission to other persons, it may not be protected by Parliamentary Privilege. Other people can view your submission on the committee webpage.

If you are concerned about the content of your submission contact the committee staff.

Can I ask that my submission be treated confidentially?

Yes. You can request that all or part of your submission is accepted as either a private or an in camera submission.

  • A submission made private by the committee is confidential. No one can publish or disclose any part of the private submission received by the committee unless the committee or the Legislative Council itself decides to do so. If the committee or Council does not table or publish a private submission, the submission will not be disclosed.
  • A submission made in camera by the committee is also confidential but may only be published or disclosed by the Legislative Council itself. It is rare for a committee to agree to this level of protection.

If you have private or confidential information to present to the committee ask the committee staff for advice before sending in your submission. There are restrictions on the handling, use and publication of private and in camera submissions.

What about Freedom of Information?

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.

Can I withdraw my submission?

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 private evidence.

What is a hearing?

As part of its inquiry process a committee may invite or require people to attend, provide their views and answer questions for the committee.  This process is called a hearing and the information you give to the committee is called evidence. When you attend at a hearing to speak to the committee you are called a witness.

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.

A hearing may be held in a special hearing room at the Legislative Council Committee Office, in another place in the community or through a video conference. Committee hearings are normally open to the public and the media. Committees can also broadcast hearings on the parliament’s website.

Documents provided to a committee at a public hearing are often placed on the internet.

How do I appear before a committee to give evidence at a hearing?

There are two ways by which people can appear before a committee at a hearing.

First, you may receive an invitation from the committee. 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 ask to appear before that committee. The committee staff will advise you if the committee wishes to have you appear at a hearing to give oral evidence.

Parliamentary committees have the power to summons a person to attend a hearing or order a person to provide documents to a committee.

Where possible, witnesses will appear in person before the committee. Committees sometimes travel to a place to hold a hearing. The committee may also use video-conferencing facilities to take evidence.

I’ve been asked to come and give evidence, what do I need to do now?

When you arrive, go to the reception desk and give your name. The staff will give you an Information for Witnesses’ sheet to read and complete.

It is important to read the information sheet as the committee will ask if you have read it and if you have any questions.

The committee staff will take you into the hearing room and show you to your seat. The Committee will introduce themselves and go through some general information with you.

The member of parliament running the hearing (called the committee Chair) will ask you, as the witness, to state your full name and capacity in which you appear before the committee. This question is about whether you are appearing as a private citizen or whether you are there representing an organisation or group.

The Chair normally begins by asking a series of questions, followed in turn by the other committee members.

If at any time throughout the hearing you are unsure as to what is required, you can ask the Chair 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.

If you request that part of your evidence be heard in private, the committee may ask any members of the public who are attending to leave in order to discuss your request with you.

The Chair will tell you when the hearing is over.

If you have any questions or concerns contact the committee staff.

Do I have to give my evidence under oath or affirmation?

Legislative Council committees usually ask witnesses to providing evidence to do so under oath or affirmation.

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. Contempt of parliament is a serious matter and can be dealt with either by the parliament directly, or under the Criminal Code. 

What questions can the members ask me at a 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 also likely that the members will ask you what you think about information given by other people.

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 appearing in an official role, members cannot ask you for your opinions on government policy.

What if I don’t want to answer a question the committee is asking me?

Committees have the power to compel answers to relevant questions but this power is rarely used. 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 refuse to answer the question, the committee can report the facts to the Council.

Why is the evidence I give at a hearing subject to parliamentary privilege?

Evidence given at a hearing in Western Australia is protected by Parliamentary privilege. This means what you say to a committee, so long as it is not deliberately false, cannot be questioned or used against you in a court, tribunal or similar proceedings.

Privilege is important as it allows you to be honest and direct in your evidence to a Committee without fear of being sued, harassed, intimidated or improperly influenced by anyone.

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 repeat any of the statements you make to the committee in a hearing outside the hearing or publish these statements elsewhere, you are not protected by parliamentary privilege for those subsequent statements. Contact committee staff if you have any questions about this.

Can I ask to give my evidence in private?

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 private session, or in camera.

  • Evidence taken in a private hearing is confidential, and no one may publish or disclose any part of the evidence received by the committee unless the committee or the Legislative Council itself decides to do so.
  • If the transcript from a private hearing is not tabled or published by the committee at the completion of its inquiry, it remains private.
  • Evidence taken in camera is also confidential but may only be published or disclosed by the Legislative Council. It is rare for a committee to agree to this level of protection.

If you have private or confidential information to present to the committee, ask the committee staff for advice well before you attend the hearing. There are restrictions on the handling, use and publication of private and in camera evidence.

Can my lawyer attend the hearing with me?

Your lawyer can attend 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. They cannot speak to the committee on your behalf. If you are thinking about having a lawyer come with you speak to the committee staff well before the hearing.

What happens to my evidence?

A transcript of your evidence is usually available within 48 hours of your appearance at the hearing, although it can sometimes take longer.

You will be provided with a copy of the transcript so you can make minor corrections. You will be asked to return your transcript so your corrections can be included in the finalised 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 use your evidence to complete its report and makes findings and recommendations.

The committee may decide that your evidence will be kept private. If this happens the transcript will not be published on the website unless the committee decides later to make it public.

What do I do if I have more questions?

You can contact the Legislative Council Committee Office on (08) 9222 7300.

If you know which committee your query relates to you can find their contact information on their individual committee webpage.