No. 231 for the sitting period 12-14 May 2009

15 May 2009

Restructure of committee system

The Senate on 13 May, on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee (in a report presented during the non-sitting period), restructured the legislative and general purpose standing committees to return to the system of dual committees which was in  operation from 1994 to 2006.  As under that previous structure, each of the standing committees will have two versions in their subject area, with a legislation committee with a government party majority and a government party chair, and a references committee with a non-government majority and a non-government chair.  The legislation committees will inquire into bills, conduct the estimates hearings and carry out the continuing oversight of government departments and agencies, while the references committees will inquire into other matters referred to them by the Senate.  Members of the committees were appointed on 14 May, when the restructure took effect.

The Procedure Committee report recommended that the existing select committees be phased out, and that no more than three select committees operate at any one time.  The existing six select committees, however, continue to function, and their phasing out will be a matter for future decision by the Senate.

Withholding of information from committees

The Senate passed on 13 May an order setting out the process to be followed by public sector witnesses who believe that they have grounds for withholding information from Senate committees.  In essence, the order requires that witnesses state recognised public interest grounds for withholding information and, at the request of a committee or any senator, refer the matter to the responsible minister, who is also required to state recognised public interest grounds for any claim to withhold the information.

The order does not change the existing procedures of the Senate, but consolidates the formerly established, but not always followed, process, for the guidance of public sector witnesses in the future.

Attached to this bulletin is the text of the order and a letter, tabled in the Senate, from the Clerk to Senator Cormann, who moved the motion for the order, setting out its background and effect.

Committees: references of bills before their introduction

Two significant orders were passed for the references of bills to committees before their appearance to enable the committees to begin their work as early as possible.

A motion moved by the government on 14 May refers the government legislation on its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme to the Economics Legislation Committee.  The committee is required to report by 15 June.  The bills came into the House of Representatives as the Senate was passing the reference.

A motion moved by the Opposition, also on 14 May, refers all government budget legislation introduced before 5 June and proposed to commence before 11 August to the relevant committees.

Many committee reports, including reports on bills, were presented during the non-sitting period and tabled in the Senate, but the committees received several other major references, indicating that there is to be no let-up in the intense pace of committee work.

Order for production of documents

An order passed on the motion of the Opposition on 13 May states that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy, is in contempt of the Senate for his failure to comply with an order of 4 February for the production of documents in relation to the National Broadband Network.  The order required the production of the documents on the same day, and also contained a provision postponing the government legislation on the network so long as the government refuses to provide the documents.  Neither the documents nor the legislation has appeared.

Legislation

Bills to validate the collection of the “alcopops” tax from the time of its collection at the budget last year until budget time this year was passed on 13 May (see Bulletin nos. 228 pp 2-3, 230 pp 1-2).  There has been intense speculation as to whether a continuing refusal by the majority of the Senate to pass legislation to continue the tax will provide the government with a “trigger” for a double dissolution under section 57 of the Constitution.  The government has introduced tariff proposals that enable it to continue to collect the tax without legal challenge, but is also apparently planning to introduce legislation to continue the tax in June, after the three month period required by section 57 has elapsed.  There is a question about whether such a bill could actually conform with section 57.  Attached to this bulletin is an advice provided by the Clerk to a senator, and released by the senator, considering that and related questions.

Unusual accountability-related amendments were passed on 14 May on the motion of Senators Fielding and Xenophon to the Australian Business Investment Partnership Bill, one of the government’s pieces of legislation intended to deal with the global financial crisis. One amendment requires that a ministerial approval of arrangements entered into by ABIP Limited, the body established under the bill, not take effect until the time for parliamentary disallowance of the approval has passed or the approval has been approved by each House. Another amendment requires the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to prepare for tabling a competition exemption report in relation to exemptions of ABIP Limited from competition laws.  The bill and its related bill have not yet been passed, but the government appears to accept the amendments.

Estimates hearings

The tabling of the budget documents on 12 May set in train the process for the estimates hearings, which will occur from 25 May to 5 June.

The portfolio budget statements partly implement the reforms called for by former Senator Murray and the Finance and Public Administration Committee in recent years by providing greater specification of programs, but the problem of the ordinary annual services has not yet been resolved and further changes will be required to completely reform the appropriations system.

Related resources

The Dynamic Red records proceedings in the Senate as they happen each day.

The Senate Daily Summary provides more detailed information on Senate proceedings, including progress of legislation, committee reports and other documents tabled and major actions by the Senate.

Like this bulletin, these documents may be reached through the Senate home page at www.aph.gov.au/senate/

Inquiries: Clerk's Office
(02) 6277 3364

Attachment 1

Attachment 2

Public interest immunity claims
Order of the Senate 13 May 2009

  1. If:

    1. a Senate committee, or a senator in the course of proceedings of a committee, requests information or a document from a Commonwealth department or agency; and

    2. an officer of the department or agency to whom the request is directed believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee,

    the officer shall state to the committee the ground on which the officer believes that it may not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, and specify the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.

  2. If, after receiving the officer’s statement under paragraph (1), the committee or the senator requests the officer to refer the question of the disclosure of the information or document to a responsible minister, the officer shall refer that question to the minister.

  3. If a minister, on a reference by an officer under paragraph (2), concludes that it would not be in the public interest to disclose the information or document to the committee, the minister shall provide to the committee a statement of the ground for that conclusion, specifying the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document.

  4. A minister, in a statement under paragraph (3), shall indicate whether the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee could result only from the publication of the information or document by the committee, or could result, equally or in part, from the disclosure of the information or document to the committee as in camera evidence.

  5. If, after considering a statement by a minister provided under paragraph (3), the committee concludes that the statement does not sufficiently justify the withholding of the information or document from the committee, the committee shall report the matter to the Senate.

  6. A decision by a committee not to report a matter to the Senate under paragraph (5) does not prevent a senator from raising the matter in the Senate in accordance with other procedures of the Senate.

  7. A statement that information or a document is not published, or is confidential, or consists of advice to, or internal deliberations of, government, in the absence of specification of the harm to the public interest that could result from the disclosure of the information or document, is not a statement that meets the requirements of paragraph (1) or (4).

  8. If a minister concludes that a statement under paragraph (3) should more appropriately be made by the head of an agency, by reason of the independence of that agency from ministerial direction or control, the minister shall inform the committee of that conclusion and the reason for that conclusion, and shall refer the matter to the head of the agency, who shall then be required to provide a statement in accordance with paragraph (3).

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