How to best use your opportunity to influence government policy, by Account Director Kathy Lindsay.

Appearing at a parliamentary inquiry should be seen as your opportunity to influence government policy. You will appear before a committee made up of government, opposition and cross bench members of parliament who are very interested in what you have to say. There are few better ways of getting your message across to government, few better ways of influencing the debate, few better ways of advocating for change… or the status quo. Don’t get me wrong, there are better ways, but they are not easy either.

Appearing at a parliamentary inquiry will:

  • give you direct influence into government policy-making that affects your company and its bottom line
  • raise your profile with government and the opposition
  • mean that anything you say may be on the public record.

You may be asked to appear at a public hearing because you made a submission to a parliamentary inquiry and the committee wishes to clarify your comments and directly ask you questions. Even if you choose not to make a submission, you may be asked to attend a hearing if the committee believes you have information or opinions of interest.

If you are asked to appear, as a rule you should do so. You can be subpoenaed. Your appearance is on the public record. It will be streamed live and a full transcript will be published in Hansard. So, it is important to thoroughly research the inquiry, plan your appearance and practice your statements and responses to likely questions.

You will be given an opportunity to make a short opening statement when you appear followed by questions from committee members. If you have already made a formal submission to the inquiry, your opening statement should add to it rather than repeat it.

Responding to questions from the committee is likely to be challenging. Your questioners are seasoned members of parliament who expect you to tell it to them straight, get to the point and not waste their time. Expect them to interrupt you. They want you to stick to the topic, provide answers that are black or white without shades of grey and either agree with their point of view or provide a watertight reason to the contrary.

Your appearance will take around 30 or 45 minutes. Your discomfit will directly correlate to how much you disagree with the questioner and how much you introduce shades of grey into the discussion.

Preparing for an appearance in front of an inquiry is quite different to preparing for a media interview. Everything is recorded, verbatim. You have to either answer their questions or give a reason why you can’t that is acceptable to the questioner. Bridging doesn’t work so well, offering another interesting angle doesn’t either, and avoid the sales pitch altogether. You can take questions on notice, but ideally you should only do so if you don’t have the answer to hand and you are confident that you do have the answer back at the office. Avoid agreeing to provide an answer on notice if it will take time and effort that you can’t afford. Or worse, the answer will get you into (even more) hot water.

If this sounds fraught with danger while offering tremendous upside, you will understand the need for careful planning, clear determination of ways to achieve desired outcomes and comprehensive practice.

There are currently 131 public inquiries being undertaken by 66 senate, house and joint parliamentary committees.

Committees cover wide ranging topics and they develop terms of reference to provide guidance for the inevitable report.

Wells Haslem Mayhew has recently assisted clients in preparing for appearing in front of the Senate Economics Committee and the Joint Parliamentary Corporations and Financial Services Committee.

See more about getting involved in committees here.