Role-play lesson plans
Question Time – in the House of Representatives
Lesson plan target
- Level: Upper primary to secondary
- Lesson duration: 40-70 minutes
- Classroom set-up: 10 minutes
During Question Time in the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister and ministers are called upon to answer questions and to explain government decisions and actions. This lesson involves a role-play that helps students understand the purpose of Question Time, in particular how it works to scrutinise (closely examine) the government.
By participating in a role-play that simulates the process of Question Time in the House of Representatives, students will:
- understand the role of government ministers, the opposition, minor parties and Independents
- explore parliamentary scrutiny and government accountability
- inquire into real and current issues
- practise public speaking, careful listening and quick thinking
- engage in critical thinking.
- What is the purpose of Question Time? The Parliament uses Question Time to call on the government to explain its decisions and actions. The opposition, Independents and members of minor parties also use Question Time to raise important issues.
- Who participates in Question Time and what groups do they belong to?
- government backbenchers, the opposition, Independents and members of minor parties, who ask the questions
- government ministers, who answer the questions.
- Who is responsible for scrutinising the government? The opposition, minor parties and Independents hold the government to account by checking that the government’s decisions are in the best interests of the nation.
- How effective is Question Time in making the government explain its actions? Question Time can bring to light issues or problems and press the government to take action. It also gives ministers the opportunity to address topical or urgent issues. However, because public and media attention focuses on Question Time, it can be used for political opportunism. The opposition might ask questions that challenge government decisions, while government backbenchers might ask ministers questions that highlight the government's achievements.
Setting the scene 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 Question Time in the House of Representatives. You can view replays of Question Time by following this link on the Australian Parliament House website: www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/House_of_Representatives/ About_the_House_News
Note: Question Time runs for about 70 minutes, so you may wish to show the class a 10 to 15 minute excerpt of the session.
- Students could also read and discuss the PEO's Question Time Fact Sheet: www.peo.gov.au/students/fact_sheets/question_time.html
- After watching Question Time, discuss with the class:
- What is the purpose of Question Time?
- Was there a difference between the questions asked by the opposition and the government?
- How well did it work? For example, did the government explain its actions?
- How well did the ministers answer the questions?
- What was the role of the Speaker?
- Encourage students to get into role as members of parliament and to understand that they:
- represent the views of their electorate
- may be working as part of a team; for example, they may belong to the government or opposition.
Students can find out more about the roles of people in Parliament by checking the Factsheet series on the PEO website: www.peo.gov.au/students/fact_sheets/index.html
MAIN ACTIVITY: Conducting a Question Time role-play
You can create a more authentic atmosphere by rearranging your classroom to look like a parliamentary chamber and by using props and a script. This will also help students embrace their roles.
Before the role-play can start, students will need to come up with questions to ask government ministers. During Question Time, members of parliament ask ministers questions about issues that fall within their federal areas of responsibility. For example, if the government announced a plan to ban homework, the opposition would ask the Minister for Education to explain why.
Create a list of current issues by either:
- brainstorming what is in the news
- listing areas of concern related to a specific unit of study
- collecting news articles related to matters of national importance
- raising issues of local or school interest.
Once the class has listed a range of issues, questions are written specifically for the minister who has responsibility for that portfolio. For more information about how to develop questions.
Transform the classroom into a chamber by arranging chairs and tables into a horseshoe shape as indicated by the diagram. A larger printable version of this diagram, as well as illustrations of the actual chamber, are in the Role-play Toolkit.
The PEO scripts 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. A full script, and a template, are available in the Role-play Toolkit.
Getting into role
- Divide the class into government, opposition, minor parties and Independents (go to Parliament Now on the PEO website for current numbers in the chambers). Use these numbers to gain the right proportions for your parliament.
- Divide the government into ministers (frontbenchers) and backbenchers.
- Divide the opposition into shadow ministers and backbenchers.
- Select a Speaker' this is a non-debating role and is generally someone from the government who can exercise authority in the room.
- Select a Clerk (pronounced 'Clark') and Serjeant-at-Arms these are parliamentary officers, who do not debate or vote. A teacher may take up the role of Deputy Clerk. This role does not require active participation, but puts the teacher in a central position in the room so they can assist with the running of the role-play.
- Elect party leaders – the government elects the Prime Minister and the opposition elects the Leader of the Opposition.
- Distribute portfolios (areas of responsibility) to government ministers.
- Choose whips (managers) to organise questioners and team support.
YOU ARE NOW READY TO BEGIN THE ROLE-PLAY
Starting the role-play
You could start the role-play:
- at the beginning of Question Time (using the PEO script)
- with a party meeting where the teams devise a series of questions to ask the Prime Minister and ministers during Question Time.
The members of each team get together to prepare questions.
- Government backbenchers prepare questions and answers with government ministers.
- Opposition backbenchers and shadow ministers plan tough questions (often on controversial topics) for government ministers.
- Independents and minor party members could also devise their own questions, either as a group or individually.
Starting Question Time
- The Clerk rings the bell and tells the members to stand.
- The Serjeant-at-Arms, carrying the mace on their right shoulder, leads the Speaker into the chamber.
- The Serjeant-at-Arms announces the Speaker, places the Mace on the table and moves to their seat.
- The Speaker tells everyone to sit down and begins the session.
- The Clerk reads the rules of Question Time.
- The Speaker calls members to ask questions, then calls the relevant ministers to answer those questions. If your class runs out of questions and needs time to think of more, you can adjourn the House to let them prepare more questions at their party meetings.
Ending the role-play
- The Question Time session finishes either when there are no more questions or when the Prime Minister requests that all further questions be placed on the notice paper.
- The Serjeant-at-Arms, holding the mace on their right shoulder, leads the Speaker from the chamber.
After Question Time, you might like to explore the following questions with your students.
- What questions are likely to cause the government concern? Opposition questions attempt to highlight government weakness. They often target specific ministers and/or refer to controversial reports in the media. Such questions are usually of interest to the public.
- How can ministers defend the government in Question Time? Ministers need to manage their responsibilities well. Ministers also have to be extremely well-prepared and give clear, positive answers. The government can also prepare strong Dorothy Dixer questions which focus on its achievements.
- Why does Question Time draw more attention than other parliamentary activities? Ministers are required to attend Question Time. The likelihood of controversy draws the media and members of the public. The short question and answer format creates an exciting and well-paced atmosphere.
- What is the point of Question Time? Question Time places pressure on the government to take great care in the decisions it makes on behalf of Australians. It also reminds Australians that the opposition is the alternative government.
- What role does the media play in the process of scrutiny? Media organisations are free to select the news. They publish news to mass audiences and in doing so, may criticise the actions and decisions of the government. In this way, the media contributes to the scrutiny of the Parliament.
- What is the role of Independent and minor party members during Question Time? Like the opposition, Independents and minor party members ask the government questions; they scrutinise the government and demand accountability.
Types of questions
Although Question Time in the federal Parliament appears spontaneous, it is a strategically-planned part of the parliamentary timetable. Prior to Question Time, members of the government and the opposition plan questions to put to government ministers. The first question is usually asked by the leader of the opposition, after which questions alternate between the government and non-government members. Any opposition, Independent or minor party member may ask a question, but in the government only backbenchers ask questions.
Ministers have no warning about opposition questions, so they have to be well-briefed on topical issues in order to immediately respond to the question. Ministers must be able to think on their feet. Opposition questions are designed to make the government explain its actions, but also to reveal weaknesses in the performance of ministers and to present the opposition as an alternative government.
Ministers arrange for government backbenchers to ask questions on specific topics. These pre-arranged questions are called Dorothy Dixers after a 2Oth century newspaper columnist who, it is said, wrote her readers questions as well as the replies.
Dorothy Dixers are designed to put the government in a positive light by highlighting government achievements. They also provide ministers with an opportunity to display their political skill.
Standing Orders (rules of the chamber) state that questions should only seek to obtain information or press for action. Questions cannot be debated (used by the questioner to debate an issue), be argumentative or consist of a short speech.
Each question should be addressed to a specific minister. For example:
Member for Mustard:
Mr Speaker, I address my question to the Minister for Education. Minister, why is the government planning to take the extraordinary step of banning homework?
I call on the Minister for Education to answer the question.
Minister for Education:
Mr Speaker, the government believes that homework does not help children and that school provides the best environment in which to learn...
House of Representatives
If your class wants to explore further the role of government ministers, let them create a bill that falls within the area of a minister’s portfolio responsibility. You could conduct a role play that follows the progress of a bill through the House of Representatives. To do this, check out the Law-making role-play: House of Representatives lesson plan.