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Teaching

Question Time: Senate

Role-play lesson plan – Question Time: Senate [PDF 966kb, 5 pages]

During Question Time in the Senate, ministers are called upon 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 provides for scrutiny (close examination) of the government.

Outcomes

By participating in this role-play, 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.

Focus questions

What is the purpose of Question Time?
The Parliament uses Question Time to call on the government to explain its decisions and actions. This is referred to as scrutinising the government. 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.
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:

  • After watching Question Time, discuss with the class:
    1. What is the purpose of Question Time?
    2. Was there a difference between the questions asked by the opposition and the government?
    3. How well did it work? For example, did the government explain its actions? How well did the ministers answer the questions?
    4. What was the role of the President?
  • Encourage students to get into role as senators and to understand that they:
    • represent the views of their state or territory
    • may belong to the government or opposition so will be working as part of a large team
    • may be an Independent or member of a minor party.

Students can find out more about the roles of people in Parliament by checking the PEO Fact Sheets.

MAIN ACTIVITY: Conducting a Question Time role-play

Scripts

The PEO scripts provide the 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. You can download a full script set or a template, which allows you to write your own script, from the Toolkit (to the right).

Preparing questions

Before the role-play can start, students will need questions to ask government ministers. You could use the PEO’s scripted questions and answers provided in the Toolkit on the right. Otherwise your students could prepare their own questions.

During Question Time, members of parliament ask ministers questions about issues that fall within their federal areas of responsibility. Create a list of current issues by either:

  • brainstorming topics in the news
  • listing areas of concern related to a specific unit of study
  • exploring issues of local or school interest.

Once the class has created their list, they can write their questions. Questions are directed at ministers who are responsible for the relevant portfolio. For example, if the government announced a plan to ban homework, the opposition would ask the Minister for Education to explain why.

The members of each team then meet 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.

Set-up

Transform the classroom into a chamber by arranging chairs and tables into a horseshoe shape as indicated by the seating plan. The seating plan, as well as diagrams of the actual chamber, can be downloaded from the Toolkit (to the right).

Props and costumes

The Clerk will need a bell. You may like to use other props, such as a Black Rod for the Usher and gowns for the President and Clerks. Instructions for making these are in the Toolkit.

Getting into role

  • Divide the class into government, opposition, minor parties and Independents. Refer to Parliament Now for the current numbers in the chambers. Use these to work out the proportions for your parliament.
  • Divide the government into ministers (frontbenchers) and backbenchers.
  • Divide the opposition into shadow ministers and backbenchers.
  • Select a President – from the government this is a non-debating role and needs to be someone who can exercise authority in the room.
  • Select a Clerk (pronounced 'Clark') and Usher of the Black Rod these are parliamentary officers, who do not debate or vote. A teacher may take 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 Leader of the Government in the Senate and the opposition elects the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.
  • Distribute portfolios (areas of responsibility) to government ministers.

Starting the role-play

  1. The Clerk rings the bell and tells the senators to stand.
  2. The Usher of the Black Rod leads the President into the chamber, carrying the Black Rod vertically in their right hand.
  3. The Usher of the Black Rod announces the President and moves to their seat.
  4. The President tells everyone to sit down and begins the session.
  5. The Clerk reads the rules of Question Time.
  6. The President calls a senator to ask a question and then calls the relevant minister to answer the question. The President repeats this step.

Ending the role-play

  1. The Question Time session finishes either when there are no more questions, or when the Leader of the Government in the Senate requests that all further questions be placed on the notice paper.
  2. The Usher of the Black Rod leads the President from the chamber, holding the Black Rod vertically in their right hand.

Debrief

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 which 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 the ministers defend the government in Question Time?
Ministers need to show that they are managing their responsibilities well. Ministers also have to be extremely well-prepared and give clear, positive answers. The government can also prepare questions which focus on its achievements.

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.

Extension activities

House of Representatives or Senate

To further explore the role of government ministers, conduct a law-making role-play that follows the progress of a bill through the Parliament. To do this, check out the Law-making role-play lesson plans for the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Diagrams

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