Role-play lesson plans
Committee (House of Representatives or Senate)
Lesson plan target
- Level: Upper primary to secondary
- Lesson duration: 40-70 minutes
- Classroom set-up: 10 minutes
The Parliament of Australia uses the committee system to examine bills more closely and investigate matters of public importance. Committees research issues, gather evidence from experts and individuals, and make recommendations. They can do this in more detail than is possible in either the House or Senate chambers. This lesson involves a role-play that helps students understand how committees are conducted and their importance to the parliamentary process.
Note: This lesson plan assumes some prior knowledge of the law-making process. The PEO does not recommend using this lesson as a starting point for studying Parliament; rather, it encourages further examination of previous lessons in this series.
By participating in a role-play that simulates the process of a parliamentary committee, students will:
- understand the role of the Parliament in examining bills
- explore how the Parliament investigates matters of public importance
- examine government accountability and parliamentary scrutiny
- inquire into real and current issues
- engage in critical thinking
- practise public speaking.
The committee role-play allows students to explore the following questions:
- What is a committee's purpose? Committees are part of the Parliament and are established by the House of Representatives and the Senate to scrutinise bills or investigate issues in greater detail. Often, there is not enough time during debates in the chamber for parliamentarians to investigate detailed and complex issues. The committee members read all the submissions and may invite selected people or groups to appear before the committee. Usually some people are invited to appear before the committee in Parliament House. Sometimes the committee travels to different places in Australia so that parliamentarians can meet a wide variety of concerned people.
- How do committees fit into the law-making process? A committee can examine a bill in detail by calling upon experts to provide testimony as well as seeking the opinion of the public. The committee will make recommendations for passing, rejecting or changing a bill, based on the information gathered during the inquiry. Through this process, the Parliament gains a greater insight into the potential impact of the bill.
- How effective are committees in encouraging public engagement in democratic processes? When a committee calls for submissions to an inquiry, any individual or group can submit information to be considered by the committee. Committees can then call people to give evidence in person. To ensure that as many voices as possible are heard, committee hearings are held in towns and cities across Australia, as well as at Parliament House in Canberra.
- Who participates in committees? Committees are conducted by senators and/or members of the House of Representatives who research bills and issues of interest to the Parliament. The other participants are the individuals and organisations who have information that may be of use to the committee, or want to represent a particular point of view to the committee.
- What would prompt the Parliament to refer a bill or issue to a committee for investigation? Bills and issues are referred to committees when the Parliament does not think it has enough information to make an informed decision without further investigation.
Preparing for the role-play
Before the role-play begins, you can set the scene by doing some short activities with the students. For example:
- Watch a committee in the Parliament. You can view committees by following this link on the Australian Parliament House website: www.aph.gov.au/News_and_Events/Watch_Parliament
Note: Committees run at different times of the week. You can contact the PEO for assistance in finding a time to watch a committee.
- After watching the committee, discuss with the class:
- What process did the hearing follow?
- What was the role of the chair?
- What was the role of the witness group?
- What information did the committee find out?
- Students could also read and discuss the PEO's Parliamentary Committees Fact Sheet:
Getting into role
Choose five or six students to be committee members, who are members of parliament. They will ask questions of the witness groups. One of these students will be the committee chair, who will run the hearing.
Divide the rest of the students into witness groups, with 3-5 students per group. They will answer questions from the committee. One student from each group will be the spokesperson, who will read a short prepared statement when their group gives evidence.
Encourage students to get into role and to understand that:
- the members of parliament are there to ask questions and to investigate. They do not argue with witness groups, they just want information
- witness groups may want to persuade the committee to support their point of view. To this end they should support their point of view with quality information and research.
Planning for the role-play
Your class will need to decide on a topic for the committee to investigate. You can create a list of topics by:
- Choosing a topic that the class is required to study in the curriculum.
- Brainstorming what is in the news (for example, environmental, health and education issues).
- Exploring areas of interest to students.
- Looking through news articles about matters of national importance.
- Discussing issues of importance to the school or local area.
Setting the terms of reference
A committee needs to have a strict set of guidelines for its investigation. These are called the terms of reference, and determine the exact areas that the committee will investigate. Sticking to the terms of reference gives some structure to the committee's questioning, and stops it from straying off the topic. An example of a Senate committee's terms of reference is provided at the end of this lesson plan. Templates for creating your own can be found in the Toolkit (to the right).
The role-play works best when students have had sufficient time to research the topic of investigation in some detail. Each witness group should focus its research on the issue that concerns its group.
The committee members need to have a broad understanding of the issues the witness groups may raise. This will then enable them to ask the witness group relevant questions. The committee plans questions to ask each witness group; however it may also ask spontaneous questions in response to issues raised by the group. Although witnesses prepare for questions, witnesses may be asked a range of questions by the committee without prior notice.
Main Activity: Conducting the committee role-play
Setting the scene for the role-play
Transform the classroom into a committee room by arranging chairs and tables as shown in the diagram. A larger version of this diagram is available in the Toolkit (to the right).
The PEO scripts will provide a framework for the role-play. The scripts include specific roles that can be assigned to students and indicate what they have to do and say.
This role-play will require some flexibility, particularly from the committee members, who may need to depart from their scripted questions to pursue a line of inquiry.
YOU ARE NOW READY TO BEGIN THE ROLE-PLAY
Starting the role-play
- The committee chair reads the opening statement.
- The committee chair invites the first witness group to the table.
- The committee chair invites the first witness group to make its opening statement.
- The witness group leader makes a brief (one to two minutes) opening statement outlining the group's position and what it hopes the Parliament will do regarding the topic.
- The committee chair invites committee members to ask questions of the witness group (5-8 minutes per group).
- The committee chair thanks the witness group for attending and invites the next group to the table.
- Repeat steps 3–6 until all witness groups have given evidence.
Ending the role-play
- The committee session finishes when the committee chair reads the closing statement.
After the committee, you might like to explore the following questions with your students.
- What happens to the information gathered by the committee? The committee prepares a report which is tabled in Parliament. The report may make recommendations for Parliament to consider; for example, it may suggest that Parliament introduce legislation, or amend a bill or an existing law to deal with an issue. The government may act on these recommendations, or respond by developing policies or seeking further information. However, the Parliament is not obliged to act on the committee's recommendations.
- How can the witness group best prepare to speak to a committee? The committee speaks to witness groups in order to further explore their written submission. Therefore, witness groups need to be prepared to answer any questions related to the inquiry, based on their area of expertise. These questions are designed to:
- clarify aspects of a submission made to the committee by the group
- seek information relevant to matters within the committee's terms of reference
- allow the witness groups to expand on any points made in its submission.
- How does the committee respond if it receives contradictory information from witness groups? A committee uses the different perspectives to inform its findings. This ensures that a range of viewpoints has been considered. If the committee can't come to an agreement on a particular finding due to party position, a dissenting report can be written to express this difference.
- Who can submit information to a committee? Anyone can submit information to a Senate or House committee. Committees provide an opportunity for organisations, groups and individuals to participate in law making, to have their views placed on the public record and considered as part of the decision-making process.
Ask the students to use the information compiled by the committee to write a report on the findings and make recommendations to your parliament. This can be done in whatever way you feel is appropriate. For examples of how a report is written, look at any of the reports on the completed inquiries pages of the Parliament House website:
House of Representatives committees: www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/ House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=info/npschedule.htm
Sample of Committee's Terms of Reference
Inquiry into the status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population
Information about the Inquiry
On 17 November 2010 the Senate referred the following matter to the Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications for inquiry and report.
The Environment and Communications Committee is currently trialling access arrangements for people who are blind or vision impaired, to electronic submissions for the committee's inquiry into the status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population. If you would like to have a submission from this inquiry converted to HTML format please contact the secretariat on 02 6277 3526 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Committee would welcome feedback on the effectiveness of the trial. Feedback should be sent to email@example.com or alternatively contact the secretariat on 02 6277 3526.
Submissions should be received by 08 February 2011. The reporting date is 01 June 2011. On 21 September 2011, the Senate granted an extension of time for reporting until 22 September 2011.
The Committee is seeking written submissions from interested individuals and organisations preferably in electronic form submitted online or sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org as an attached Adobe PDF or MS Word format document. The email must include full postal address and contact details.
Terms of Reference
On 17 November 2010 the Senate referred the following matter to the Environment and Communications References Committee for inquiry and report by 1 June 2011, with effect from the first day of sitting of 2011:
The status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population, with particular reference to:
the iconic status of the koala and the history of its management;
- estimates of koala populations and the adequacy of current counting methods;
- knowledge of koala habitat;
- threats to koala habitat such as logging, land clearing, poor management, attacks from feral and domestic animals, disease, roads and urban development;
- the listing of the koala under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
- the adequacy of the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy;
- appropriate future regulation for the protection of koala habitat;
- interaction of state and federal laws and regulations; and
- any other related matters.