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Creating a Parliamentary Internship program for law students

Robert Guthrie
School of Business Law
Curtin University of Technology


A form of parliamentary internship has been operating in Western Australia since 1992. Students from Murdoch University, Curtin University of Technology and University of Western Australia generally studying politics and journalism units have undertaken forms of parliamentary internship.

As a general rule, the academic supervisor from each university will negotiate with the Parliamentary Education Officer for places within the parliamentary internship program and the selection of topics for research nominated by parliamentarians in either first or second semester of an academic year. It is customary for the Parliamentary Education Officer to seek topics for research from all parliamentarians and to advise the respective academic supervisors of the proposed research topics. In the normal course of events, students will discuss the suitability of a research topic with their academic supervisor and will in due course, be allocated to a parliamentarian. It is usual that the student does not chose the topic or parliamentarian according to political affiliation, although in some cases it is necessary not to allocate a student due to a potential conflict of interest.

It is usual for students to meet with their academic supervisor and allocated parliamentarian at the beginning of semester so as to negotiate various aspects of common interests in research, discuss the resources necessary to complete the research and to gauge the likely required interaction between the parliamentarian and the students.

Students who undertake a parliamentary internship in Western Australia are given access to a wide range of parliamentary resources, chief amongst these being access to the parliamentary library. It is also common for parliamentarians to provide students with access to their own parliamentary office resources. Students on parliamentary internship are not on work experience and are considered to be on the staff of parliamentarian to whom they allocated.

It is not expected that the parliamentarians will supervise the students. It is also the case that students will have limited access to be busy parliamentarians constantly engaged with the business of their electorates. The general role of the parliamentarian is to direct the students to resources and to fine tune the topic of research. All this is done in collaboration with the academic supervisor.

Parliamentary internships for legal studies students

The students from Curtin University who undertook the parliamentary internship in second semester 2000 came from a stream of students who were enrolled to complete their Bachelor of Commerce (Legal Studies), with the one exception of a student who was studying Education. All students had studied a basic Legal Framework unit and had completed a unit of study in state and federal industrial relations systems.

Students who undertook the internship were enrolled in the unit Law 303 (Industrial). This unit comprised the following areas of study:

  1. Workers Compensation
  2. Damages for Personal Injuries
  3. Occupational Health
  4. Equal Opportunity Law
  5. Women in the Paid Workforce
  6. Strike Law
As can be seen the unit involved a broad range of matters. Students enrolled in this unit would complete continuous assessment by class participation and presentation, a group report and final exam. Students were expected to develop skills in report writing and to use the Internet as a source of legal research. Past exams questions and all tutorial questions were structured as problem scenarios.

Those students selected to complete the internship were required to attend all lectures in Law 303 (Industrial) but did not have to complete the group report and class presentation or exam. Instead, each intern student completed various Internet search quizzes currently available from Work Cover and WorkSafe and in addition, for 80% of the mark for this unit completed the internship project. Only those students who had a semester weighted average at distinction level were allowed to enter the program. Intern students were encouraged to attend tutorials and throughout semester most intern students attended all lectures and tutorials.

By structuring the internship within an existing unit it was possible to implement the program immediately, without the need to make amendments to course or process paperwork for a new unit.

As the usual practice for interns required that they select a topic from those nominated by parliamentarians, there was, to some extent, a departure from the usual procedure for these legal studies students. Given that the emphasis in the Law 303 (Industrial) course was on the above legal topics and given the nature of the studies, it was not possible to obtain topics from a broad range of parliamentarians. Instead the Parliamentary Education Officer was requested to seek topics from those parliamentarians who were involved in industrial relations, industrial law, equal opportunity and the related topics of the Law 303 (Industrial) course. In the end result, four parliamentarians nominated topics, which was suitable, which were as follows:

  1. An examination of fraud in the workers compensation system.
  2. An examination of laws in relation to same sex couples.
  3. An analysis of work related fatality statistics.
  4. An examination of the use of medical panels in workers compensation claims.
  5. Research into the effect of 12-hour shift on workers' health.
  6. The effect of workplace agreements on wages.


Whilst the resources of the parliamentary library were available to intern students, it became apparent that for the students of Law 303 (Industrial), these resources were not critical to the completion of the intern project. In most cases, the resources of the Curtin University Robertson Library were adequate for most students. In addition, the academic supervisor was able to assist intern students with other resources.

Students in the internship were directed to compile the project in a style of a report requiring an executive summary, a properly formatted body of the report, recommendations and complete bibliography. Students were encouraged to use the footnote system of referencing, given that most legal research adopts this method. However, this is not obligatory and students could use the Harvard system of referencing should they choose.

It was considered to be a key element of completion of the project to provide recommendations to the parliamentarian or at least a list of questions which could be asked by the parliamentarian in question time. This was appropriate given that the four parliamentarians who had assisted with these internships were opposition or independent members of parliament.

Legal studies internship as distinct from other forms of internship

Students from a wide range of disciplines can access the internship, which operates at Murdoch University. Those students are provided with a course of lectures, which examines the various roles of parliament and some of the key non-parliamentary government officials such as the Auditor General and the Commissioner for Freedom of Information. This form of internship uses the parliamentary resources as an adjunct to the course of study. Somewhat differently, the Business Law School internship operating through Law 303 (Industrial) did not provide students with a background to the parliamentary processes and did not attempt to incorporate the role of the parliamentarians in the internships. Rather, the internship was an opportunity for students to undertake practical research, which would be externally monitored and evaluated. Because students in the Business Law School internship did not rely heavily on the parliamentary library as a resource and in most cases did not require access to the resources other than the parliamentarians.

Universally however, students benefited enormously from the contact with parliamentarians and the discussions that they had with them. In many cases, it was the first opportunity for students to engage in dialogue with parliamentarians.

Outcomes for students

For most students, the outcome of the parliamentary intern project was the completion of a high quality report, which allowed them to develop report writing skills and research techniques. In at least three cases, projects completed by the students will be used almost immediately for further research, questions on notice or further inquiries of the government.

All students indicated that they thought the project required more time and effort than they initially conceived. Most students considered that they had benefited from the project enormously and were clearly proud of their ability to endure what for most was a demanding research project.

Some feedback from students included the following comments;

"Just to let you know that I met with Giz (Ms Giz Watson MLC) this afternoon and she was great. Gave me a stack of information and contacts."

"Just a short not to let you know that I spent 4.5 hours at the Parliamentary Library today. I grabbed heaps of relevant newspaper articles and borrowed a couple of reports... "

"Rob - after almost a solid week of trying to research for my project I am struggling to find legal resources/angle to match up with the data on social and health issues of shift work... Think I just need someone to bounce some ideas off so I can get my head around it - don't want Giz to think I am an idiot!!! Whereas you already know the truth!!!."

"Giz completely understood my position and we have both negotiated on a more 'directional' topic to base the report on."

"Rob - after our chat I have put together a rough draft of headings for the report. To get myself back on track with Giz I am going to email her a brief exec summary of what I have so far within those headings as a basis for discussion... Thanks for the guidance-feel much more settled"

"The Parliamentarian has lots of demands on their time and it is difficult to squeeze into their schedule. However she has been very encouraging and I she would try to make herself accessible if I really needed."

"Thank you very much, that you help me a lot, so I can make 'a good report' ".

"Please find enclosed my executive summary. I have never written one before so I hope is sufficient) I am sure that you will tell me if it isn't). You may want me to include more on the cases and sections of the law... just let me know."

"It still needs some tightening up but I can't do any more at the moment. Many thanks for your patience and apologies for putting you under pressure with this."

"The best thing about the intern program is working on an assignment which could have some broad benefit/contribute to public debate. The worst thing was the time it took. The level of support from the parliamentarian was fine - no difficulty in developing terms of reference in one meeting. The support from the academic supervisor was excellent - always available for advice. I learned how to plan and execute a research project and I got an improved understanding of a specific area of the law. It was a valuable experience, though I did not realise the time it would take to write up the report - I probably should have commenced drafting earlier."

Whilst the style of the internship may have differed from the more mainstream politics/journalistic internship, whereby the processes of parliament are researched and reported upon, students in the legal studies internship benefited from examining the effect of and recommending changes to legislation.

Outcomes for the academic supervisor

For the academic supervisor, the outcome of the project was a realisation that considerable resources are required to facilitate an internship which overall requires high levels of students interaction, discussion and consultation. The completion of internship stands as a useful gauge and guideline for recommendation of students to Honours and postgraduate work. Overall supervision of an internship demands on average 1-2 hours private consultation with each student per week. In most cases students needed assistance with report writing format and in most cases it was necessary to assess at least 2 and sometimes 3 drafts.

The consideration of student's drafts was an important part of the program. This required students to get their ideas on paper early. Students in most case provided sub-headings for topics to be covered and then over time embellished these sub-headings with their research. In due course a full report was build up. The completion of an executive summary was challenge for many students.

The internship also provides both students and the academic supervisor with the opportunity to pursue highly practical areas of research and in the case of students the potential to explore alternative areas of employment. It is not unknown for intern students to become employed as research assistant to parliamentarian.

Future directions

Discussions have taken place between colleagues at Curtin University of Technology and Murdoch University so that the continued integration of the legal studies internship is likely in the future.

There is potential for the legal studies course at Curtin University to be amalgamated or integrated or combined with the internships currently completed by politics and journalism students at Curtin. There is also potential for cross-divisional fertilisation of the program to allow for a combined series of internship lectures. A small group is forming with a view to providing a focal point of reference for the Parliamentary Education Officer.

It is anticipated that Curtin will host a "meet the politicians" day by inviting a range of parliamentarians onto campus as part of the program,

Please cite as: Guthrie, R. (2001). Creating a Parliamentary Internship program for law students. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/guthrie1.html

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