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Teaching

Committee: House of Representatives or Senate

Role-play lesson plan – Committee: House of Representatives or Senate [PDF 516kb, 5 pages]

The Parliament of Australia uses the committee system to closely investigate matters of public importance and examine bills. 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.

Outcomes

By participating in this role-play, 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.

Focus questions

The committee role-play allows students to explore the following questions:

What is a committee?
A committee is made up of members of parliament and can be established by either the House of Representatives or the Senate to scrutinise bills and investigate issues in greater detail.

How does a committee investigate a bill or issue?
The committee invites the community, experts and interest groups to make a written statement (submission) outlining their views about the bill or issue. It may then invite selected people or groups to appear before it to provide further information or answer questions from committee members.

What does the committee do with the information it gathers?
The committee writes a formal report which is presented to the Parliament. The report may make recommendations to act on an issue or suggest changes to a bill.

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 a committee in the Parliament. You can view committees on the Australian Parliament House websiteNote: 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:
    1. What process did the hearing follow?
    2. What was the role of the chair?
    3. What was the role of the witness group?
    4. What information did the committee find out?
  • Students could also read and discuss the PEO's Parliamentary Committees Fact Sheet.

Main activity: Conducting the committee role-play

Scripts

The PEO scripts provide a framework for the role-play. The scripts include specific ideas that can be assigned to students, and indicate what they have to do and say. However, this role-play works best when your students depart from the scripts to formulate their own questions and answers. You can download a full script set or a template, which allows you to write you own script, from the Toolkit (to the right).

Choosing a topic for investigation

The Toolkit (to the right) has scripts on preselected topics, which you may wish to use with your class. Alternatively your class could select their own 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 topics in the news (for example, environmental, health and education issues).
  • Exploring areas of interest to students.
  • Discussing issues of importance to the school or local area.

Getting into role

Committee
The committee is made up of members of parliament who question witness groups and report to the Parliament on their findings. Choose five or six students to be committee members. One of these students will be the committee chair, who will run the hearing.

Witness groups
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:

  • 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 position. They should support their viewpoint with quality information and research.

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 structure to the committee's questioning, and stops it from straying off the topic. Once you have decided on your terms of reference you can write them on the Committee Chairperson’s script, which is included in the script template. The script template can be downloaded from the Toolkit (to the right).

The investigation

The role-play works best when students have enough time to research the topic of investigation in some detail. Each witness group should focus its research on the issue that concerns its group. They should have a particular point of view about the issue, and prepare evidence that will persuade the committee to accept their point of view.

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.

Once you have decided on your witness groups, record their names on the committee chair script.

Set-up

Transform the classroom into a committee room by arranging chairs and tables as shown in the diagram. A larger version of this diagram can be downloaded from the Toolkit (to the right).

Starting the role-play

  1. The committee chair starts the hearing by introducing the committee, outlining the terms of reference and listing the witness groups.
  2. The committee chair invites the first witness group to the table, and to state their names for the Hansard record.
  3. The committee chair invites the first witness group to make its opening statement.
  4. The leader of the witness group makes a brief opening statement outlining the group's position, and what it hopes the Parliament will do regarding the issue.
  5. The committee chair invites all committee members to ask the witness group questions (5–8 minutes per group).
  6. The committee chair thanks the witness group for attending and invites the next group to the table.
  7. Repeat steps 3–6 until all witness groups have given evidence.

Ending the role-play

  1. The committee session finishes when the committee chair reads the closing statement.
  2. You can ask the committee to prepare a report on the hearing. The report should outline what the committee thinks the Parliament should do about the issue they have investigated.

Debrief

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 introduces legislation, or amend a bill or an existing law, to deal with the issue. The government may act on these recommendations, or it may 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?
Witnesses should ensure that they have thoroughly researched the information that they will be presenting to the committee. They need to support any assertions they make with substantial evidence.

How does the committee respond if it receives contradictory information from witness groups?
One of the committee’s main jobs is to evaluate all the information presented to it, even when that evidence may be contradictory. The committee may decide it agrees with the point of view of one witness group over another, or may make its own conclusions after taking into account all the information presented.

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, and to have their views placed on the public record and considered as part of the decision-making process.

Extension activities

Have the students write a formal report which includes:

  • A summary of the evidence from the witness groups
  • Any recommendations the committee wishes to make to the Parliament about the issue.

Amendments

If your committee was investigating a bill, it may recommend that the bill needs to be changed. If you want to make changes (amendments) to a bill, check out the Amending a law role-play lesson plans for both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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