Explainer: Parliamentary Committees

Learn why committees are an essential opportunity to engage with policy-makers.

When most people think of committees their eyes start to glaze over – both in political and everyday life, there have been plenty of examples which give truth to the saying “death by committee”. In spite of the cliché, they are an important part of Australian democracy and are a key opportunity to contribute to the government’s decision-making processes, and influence future direction.

So, what are committees?

Committees are essentially an investigative body tasked by a chamber of Parliament or a Minister to look into specific issues or legislation. There are ongoing committees known as Standing Committees, which look into matters relating to policy areas like health or economics, and Select Committees which are time-bound, for example the Joint Select Committee on the Voice Referendum. With the support of a committee secretariat, committees receive submissions from a wide variety of stakeholders, listen to witnesses, consider proposals and feedback, analyse evidence and data, debate and report their conclusions to their respective chambers.

Who can sit on a committee?

Members and senators are nominated to be members of a particular committee by their respective parties (independent MPs may be put forward by the opposition whip, or nominate themselves to the Speaker), and are officially appointed by the chamber. Each committee has allocations for government, opposition and crossbench MPs, and are usually a particularly important part of a backbencher’s activities.  

Politicians can also apply for nomination to committees that are of interest to them or their electorates.

How do I engage with committees?

If a committee exists that is closely aligned to your goals, be proactive! It's often a good idea to contact the Chair and Deputy Chair of a relevant committee to introduce your organisation and make sure you’re kept in the loop on committee activities.

Most committees hold inquiries not just during sitting weeks but throughout the year, and call for public submissions on a particular issue. These submissions, when written well, are a highly effective tool for bringing your issue to the attention of decision makers. Like with all government engagement, there is a surplus of voices and only a finite amount of time (and energy) for decision-makers to engage with your content – so make your effort count with our four ways to make your next submission stand out from the crowd.

Once submissions have been considered, you may be asked to present before a committee hearing to further elaborate on your submission and be asked any questions that the committee may have. If it’s not possible to answer certain questions at the time, you may be asked to provide them on notice.

From there the committee will meet privately to discuss their findings, and work towards writing a final report for presenting to their respective chamber. Keep in mind that there isn’t always agreement between committee members, so dissenting reports are a good way to understand the nuanced positions between MPs and parties.

Want to learn more about how committees work and how to develop an effective submission? See our detailed guide here.

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