Chapter 5 - Standing and Select Committees

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Standing Committees

17    Procedure

  1. A Procedure Committee, consisting of the President, the Deputy President, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and 6 senators, shall be appointed at the commencement of each Parliament, with power to act during recess and to confer with a similar committee of the House of Representatives.

  2. If the Leader of the Government in the Senate or the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate is unable to attend a meeting of the committee, that senator may appoint a senator to act as a member of the committee at that meeting.

  3. The committee may consider any matter relating to the procedures of the Senate referred to it by the Senate or by the President.

  4. The Deputy President shall be the chair of the committee.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SO 33 (corresponding to paragraphs (1) and (2))

Amended:

  • 2 December 1965, J.427 (to take effect 1 January 1966) (changes in terminology and timing: committee to be appointed at the beginning of each “Parliament” rather than each “Session”)
  • 22 March 1972, J.919 (membership increased by one)
  • 22 October 1981, J.589 (Leaders became ex officio members and allowed to appoint substitutes)
  • [22 September 1987, J.96 (adoption of sessional order changing the name of the committee)]
  • 24 August 1994, J.2052 (to take effect 10 October 1994) (Deputy President designated as chair – paragraph (4))
  • [30 November 1995, J.4301 (membership increased by one and Senator Chamarette (GWA, WA) appointed)]

1989 revision: Old SO 33 renumbered as SO 17, change of name effected by 1987 sessional order incorporated and paragraph (3) describing committee’s function added

Commentary

  Minutes of the first meeting
 

The minute book of the Standing Orders Committee with the minutes of its first meeting marked up for printing

The Standing Orders Committee predated the adoption of the Senate’s permanent standing orders which took effect on 1 September 1903. It had been appointed as an ad hoc committee on 5 June 1901 to recommend to the Senate which state legislature’s standing orders the Senate should adopt on a temporary basis pending the development of its own permanent standing orders.[1] The committee appointed was a large one, comprising the President and Chairman of Committees and seven other senators, or one quarter of the first Senate. Having recommended the adoption of the standing orders of the South Australian Legislative Assembly as a temporary measure, the committee’s major task was then to develop permanent standing orders. The committee’s deliberations were based on the second of Blackmore’s drafts, as modified by Senator O’Connor (Prot, NSW) and tabled in the Senate on 23 May 1901.[2]

This standing order, as adopted, reflected the procedures already used by the Senate for the ad hoc committee and maintained the membership at nine, the President and Chairman of Committees being ex officio members. One of the stated reasons for the large membership was to ensure that a quorum could be formed without difficulty.[3] The committee has always been a high level one with the Leader of the Government and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate usually included among the elected members (until they later became ex officio members). The distribution of the membership amongst the parties represented in the Senate has always been a matter of practice, not prescription. The 1938 MS records that the committee was:

… the largest of the Standing Committees, containing two more members than each of the others. The Committee is appointed by resolution of the Senate, moved by the Leader or Acting Leader of the Government, who selects the members to go on the committee. An attempt is always made to give representation to all parties.

Despite the doubling of the size of the Senate in 1949, the size of committees had not altered. In 1971, the Standing Orders Committee recommended an increase of one to enable wider representation on the committee. At that time, the seven elected members of the committee comprised four government senators and three opposition senators. In the Senate, the numbers of government and opposition senators were equal (26) but there were also 5 DLP and 3 independent senators. An additional position on the committee would therefore allow the representation of minority groups and independent senators. The change was agreed to the following year and the intention of the change continues to be honoured.[4]

The practice of electing the Government and Opposition Leaders as members of the committee was also formalised. The Leader of the Government in the Senate was first appointed as such to the committee in 1951 and the Leader of the Opposition in 1969.[5]

In 1981, these two officers were identified for ex officio appointment to the committee with the proviso that if either senator could not attend a meeting of the committee, they were entitled to appoint a replacement for that occasion.[6] The Standing Orders Committee in its First Report for the Sixtieth Session (PP No. 361 /1981) rationalised the change on the basis that it had been difficult to arrange a meeting when it would be convenient for both Leaders who had many calls on their time. It was a pragmatic response to a practical problem.

At the beginning of the 35th Parliament, after the 1987 double dissolution, the committee was effectively superseded by the appointment of a Procedure Committee by a simple motion, moved by the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh (ALP, WA).[7] Apparently part of a larger government plan to align Senate committees with the newly-created standing committee system in the House of Representatives, the change was of little practical significance and, in any case, it was commonly thought that the name “Procedure Committee” was a more accurate reflection of the broader role of the committee than “Standing Orders Committee”. The name change was effected by sessional order on 22 September 1987[8] and incorporated in the 1989 revision. The name “Procedure Committee” had been used in the report of the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System which criticised the Standing Orders Committees of the Houses for being “too unwieldy to be used effectively as vehicles for reform and change. It has been posited that thenumber of ex officio members and the propensity of party leaders and office-holders to take membership on the committees has restricted their roles”.[9] The Senate ignored the Joint Committee recommendation for a smaller, back bench committee and maintained its large, high level committee which has proved effective in assessing and recommending useful and appropriate changes in a complex multi-party chamber where normally no party holds a majority.

The following paragraph was also added in the revision:

  1. The committee may consider any matter relating to the procedures of the Senate referred to it by the Senate or by the President.

The purpose of this addition, according to the summary of proposed changes of substance tabled with the first draft of the revision, was to include a statement in general terms of what the committee was intended to do. [10]

Since 1901, the committee had been chaired by the President as a matter of practice. In 1994, following the restructuring of the legislative and general purpose standing committees and the concomitant reallocation of a number of committee chairs to non-government senators in order to more accurately reflect the composition of the Senate, the Deputy President was designated as the chair of the Procedure Committee (the President remaining as an ex officio member).[11] Although there is nothing in the standing orders to specify that the offices of President and Deputy President are to be occupied by senators from any particular party or group, by convention the President is usually a government senator and the Deputy President an opposition senator.[12] On this basis, the Procedure Committee was to be regarded as having a non-government chair.

On the last sitting day of the 37th Parliament, 30 November 1995, the membership of the committee was temporarily increased by one and Senator Chamarette (GWA, WA) became a member in the short term. The purpose appears to have been to enable the Greens WA to be included in any consideration by that committee of the vexed issue of the allocation of questions at question time, a matter which has never formally been regulated by orders of the Senate.[13] The arrangement was not renewed at the beginning of the 38th Parliament in April 1996 and Senator Chamarette’s term as a senator concluded on 30 June 1996. The allocation of questions at Question Time was an issue that continued to interfere with the resolution of procedural matters after the change of government for the remainder of 1996.[14]

The powers of the committee do not extend to moving from place to place, the assumption being that the committee would not need to meet away from Canberra. In 2006, the Senate agreed to a resolution authorising the committee to move from place to place for the purpose of its inquiry into the latest restructuring of the committee system. The committee had found it convenient to meet in Sydney during a non-sitting week but could not do so without the Senate’s approval.[15]

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