Matters of Public Importance: Senate
During Matters of Public Importance (MPIs), senators, particularly shadow ministers, raise issues for discussion in the Senate. This lesson involves a role-play that helps students understand the purpose of MPIs. It explores how senators use MPIs to speak on behalf of the community, to call on the government to take action on an issue or to criticise the government’s handling of a matter.
Up to 90 minutes is set aside in the Senate each sitting day to discuss MPIs, although the discussion usually lasts about an hour, and between four and six senators speak on the issue. Any senator can propose an MPI. However, they are usually raised by shadow ministers and are about matters of ministerial responsibility.
MPIs might be about a topic such as the government’s handling of the economy or its response to a national emergency or international crisis. It could be about the state of hospitals, or the need to protect koala habitats.
Discussion will only proceed if it is supported by five senators, including the senator who proposed the MPI. The discussion is opened by the senator who proposed the MPI. The speeches then alternate between government and non-government senators.
Choosing an MPI
Help your students choose an MPI by:
- brainstorming ideas with the class
- selecting a topic connected to a relevant curriculum area
- identifying a problem in your school or community
- finding a topical issue in the media
- identifying a matter currently before the Parliament.
You can choose to discuss one or more MPIs. Write the MPI topics on the whiteboard so students can refer to them.
Getting into role
- Divide the class into government, opposition, minor parties and Independents.
- Select a President – this is a non-debating role and is generally someone from the government who can exercise authority in the room.
- Select a senator to introduce the discussion. For example, if the MPI is about banning homework, the Shadow Minister for Education would speak first.
- Ensure that for each MPI you have between two and five other senators who wish to speak on the matter. Ask these senators to prepare a short response on the topic.
- Provide the President with a list of the MPIs that are to be discussed.
Starting the role-play
- The President announces the MPI and asks the senators who support the discussion to stand up.
- Senators who want to speak on the MPI stand.
- The President calls the senator who has proposed the MPI to speak first.
- Speeches then alternate between government and non-government senators.
- The President thanks the senators.
Madam/Mr President: I have received a letter from Senator ________ (use the student’s first name) proposing that the Senate discuss the following matter of public importance, that ________ [insert topic].
I call upon those senators who support the discussion to stand [pauses to allow senators to stand]. I call Senator ________ (call the senator who proposed the MPI) to speak.
Senator ________: Madam/Mr President...
Madam/Mr President: I call Senator ________ (use the first name of a student who is standing).
The President repeats this step for any other senators who wish to speak.
When there are no more speeches, the President ends the discussion.
Madam/Mr President: I thank the senators for taking part in the MPI.
How effective is an MPI in raising an issue or scrutinising the government?
Speaking on an issue in Parliament can put it on the public agenda and may lead to government action. MPIs may highlight government mismanagement or mishandling of a matter, which can put pressure on the government to address the problem. By highlighting government weakness, opposition senators can remind Australians that the opposition is the alternative government.
Why is it important that other senators agree to the raising of the MPI?
This indicates that the issue is considered serious enough to be discussed in Parliament and may be one that affects a significant number of people or even the whole community.
How is an MPI different to a debate on a bill?
An MPI is a discussion on a topical issue, on which no vote is taken. A debate on a bill is a formal discussion about the merits of the bill. MPIs give senators the opportunity to raise issues that are not the subject of a bill before the Parliament.
Who might take notice of an MPI?
The government may act in response to an MPI, particularly if it is an issue that requires urgent attention. The media may report the issue, which may then put pressure on the government to respond or take action.
Senate – Seating plan for the classroom
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Mini role-play: Matters of public importance: Senate
The Senate chamber during a division
Source/Credit line: David Foote/DPS AUSPIC
A senator speaking in the Senate chamber
Source/Credit line: David Foote/DPS AUSPIC
The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in the chamber
Source/Credit line: DPS AUSPIC
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