Chapter 5 - Standing and Select Committees

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Standing Committees

22    Publications

  1. A Publications Committee, consisting of 7 senators, shall be appointed at the commencement of each Parliament, with power to act during recess and to confer and sit as a joint committee with a similar committee of the House of Representatives.

  2. All documents presented to the Senate which have not been ordered to be printed by either House of the Parliament shall stand referred to the committee, which shall make recommendations on the printing of documents.

  3. When sitting with a similar committee of the House of Representatives, the committee shall also have power:

    1. to inquire into and report on the printing, publication and distribution of parliamentary and government publications and on such related matters as are referred to it by the relevant minister; and

    2. to send for persons and documents.

  4. The committee shall elect as its chair a member nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate.

Amendment history

Adopted: 19 August 1903 as SO 36 (Printing Committee) (corresponding to paragraphs (1) to (3))

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”)
  • 12 June 1970, J.200 (reconstituted as the Publications Committeewith additional powers of inquiry when sitting as a joint committee with the equivalent House of Representatives committee)
  • 22 March 1972, J.919 (references to the “Treasurer” replaced with references to the “relevant Minister” to reflect changes to the Administrative Arrangements Order)
  • 24 August 1994, J.2053 (to take effect 10 October 1994) (a government senator to be elected chair – new paragraph (4))

1989 revision: Old SO 36 renumbered as SO 22, language simplified, redundancies removed and powers standardised

Commentary

  Report on the printing standards for documents presented to Parliament, September 2007
 

The Publications Committee (formerly the Printing Committee) monitors the standard of Commonwealth publications

A Printing Committee had been established on 6 June 1901, along with other domestic committees.[1] As was the case with those other committees, the Standing Orders Committee recommended that this early Senate practice be followed in crafting a permanent standing order. Debate on the adoption of original SO 36 was brief but productive. The size of the committee was increased from 6 to 7, for consistency with the other domestic committees. The possibility that the President should be an ex officio member (occupying the additional place) was canvassed, but rejected on the grounds that the President already had a great deal of committee work to do, the Speaker was not a member of the equivalent committee in the House, and President Baker could not recall a Presiding Officer being a member of a printing committee in any of the states. A further amendment was accepted that would empower the Senate committee to meet with its House equivalent, and the need for the committee to have power to meet during recess was rejected because it had not been found necessary for such committees to meet during recess.[2]

The role of the committee, to make recommendations on whether documents laid before the Senate should be printed (in the Parliamentary Papers Series), touched on fundamental parliamentary functions but also ensured that potential conflict between the views of two separate printing committees, often covering the same ground, was inevitable. The 1938 MS records that these inevitable differences of opinion between the two Houses culminated in a special report from the Senate Printing Committee on 19 July 1906 reporting the following resolutions:

  1. That it is the right of the Senate to order the printing of any Paper laid on the Table of the Senate.

  2. That the action of the Senate in ordering any Paper to be printed is not open to review by the Printing Committee of the House of Representatives.

  3. That it is not proper that the action of the Senate should be brought by the Printing Committee of the House of Representatives under the attention of the Prime Minister.

  4. That the Chairman of the Printing Committee of the Senate make report to the Senate accordingly.[3]

The Senate adopted the report on 26 July 1906 to back up its Printing Committee against an overreaching House committee and a Prime Minister who had chosen to comment on a decision of the Senate to order the printing of certain regulations under the Post and Telegraph Act 1901.The minister tabling the regulations had indicated that they had appeared in the Government Gazette but were not otherwise on the records of the Senate. A senator moved a motion for their printing so that they would appear in the Journals. The House Printing Committee complained to the Prime Minister (one of whose officials forwarded the correspondence to the chair of the Senate committee) that, as the regulations were published under the Rules Publication Act 1903, it was an unnecessary expense for them also to be printed as Parliamentary Papers. Senators took umbrage at this incursion into their territory and the practical outcome of the spat was that the Prime Minister ordered the Acting Government Printer to provide members of both Houses with copies of all Commonwealth publications in future.[4]

Peace broke out the following year when the Senate committee invited the House committee to meet “in joint consultations on the question of the printing of Parliamentary Papers, so that action may be taken satisfactory to the members of both Houses”.[5] The committees agreed to meet jointly every Thursday during the Session, or as often as necessary to deal with the business requiring attention. Meetings were chaired alternately by the Senate committee chairman and the House committee chairman and the two Clerks were given advance authority to have printed and circulated those tabled papers of a nature usually ordered for printing.

By the time the 1938 MS was compiled it was long-settled practice for the chairmanship of the joint committee to alternate each Parliament between the chairs of the printing committees of the two Houses. If the chairman came from one House, then the deputy chair represented the other. The staff of each House conferred at intervals on the need for a meeting of the joint committee, based on the amount of business, and for each meeting a list was placed before the committee of the papers presented to Parliament and not already ordered by either House to be printed (the papers themselves being available for inspection). The committee’s task was to decide which reports to recommend for printing and an “exactly similar report is submitted to each House, and invariably adopted”. Whereas in the House, the Clerk read the report aloud before the adoption motion was moved, Edwards records that a “rather unsatisfactory practice” had grown up in the Senate which was asked to adopt the report immediately on presentation. Sometimes a notice of motion would be given for the adoption of the report on a future day, allowing senators to read the report in the Journals where it was always printed.

What is remarkable about the description of long-standing practice in the 1938 MS is how little things have changed in the ensuing decades. Apart from the use of computer technology by today’s secretariats to support the committees, the process remains virtually identical, even to the extent that meetings are still held on Thursdays during sitting periods. Reports are usually presented on the second Thursday of a sitting fortnight, after a meeting of the committee that morning, and a motion is moved for their adoption.[6] The only significant variation, which may well have left Edwards horror-stricken despite his dissatisfaction with the practice in his day, is that the committee’s reports are circulated in the chamber ahead of tabling. Senators are therefore in a better position to make an informed decision on the motion to adopt the report.

An enduring interest of the Publications Committee, wearing its joint committee hat, has been the cost, distribution and efficiency of the Parliamentary Papers Series. An early example occurred in September 1917 during World War I. To cut costs, the committee recommended that papers it recommended for printing be supplied to members on request rather than automatically, although they still received copies of all papers printed by order of their House.[7] Reviews to reduce the number of people receiving Parliamentary Papers have been almost continuous.

The Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary and Government Publications was established in 1962 to inquire into and report on the printing, publication and distribution of Parliamentary Papers and all government publications.[8] The committee reported in 1964 although its recommendations were not immediately acted on.[9] In 1970, however, the recommendation for continuing parliamentary review of Commonwealth printing and publishing by a new joint committee, that would also subsume the former roles of the printing committees, was referred to the Standing Orders Committee. The committee recommended that the Printing Committee be reconstituted as the Publications Committee with full inquiry powers when sitting as a joint committee with its House of Representatives counterpart. The committee’s report was adopted on 12 June 1970. Leader of the Opposition, Senator Murphy (ALP, NSW), who had been a member of the joint select committee, summarised the problem as follows:

This Committee was appointed because members in both Houses had become completely frustrated at their inability to find their way through the jungle of parliamentary papers and government publications, and that frustration extended to persons outside this community. Notwithstanding the efforts over years to get the Public Service to attend to this problem, for some reason it was utterly incapable of finding reasonable methods of seeing to it that there was a sensible system of publication and distribution of public documents.[10]

This was to be the task of the new Publications Committee, a task which continues to this day as the committee keeps under review the impact of new publishing technologies on the distribution of public documents. See Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 12th edition, p.354, for an account of some of the inquiries undertaken by the joint committee, including its monitoring of compliance by government agencies with printing and publishing guidelines and requirements for departmental annual reports. On 24 June 2010, the joint committee presented a report on the development and implementation of an electronic parliamentary papers series, a development that would greatly enhance access to these very important publications.[11]

The 1989 revision made few changes to the text although the powers of the committee were standardised with the powers of comparable committees by adding the power to act during recess, a power which had been consciously omitted in 1903 but which changing times and changing modes of committee operations now made unexceptionable.[12]

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 chair of the Publications Committee was designated as a government senator. This decision no doubt took into account the ramifications of the fact that the chair of the counterpart committee would always be a government member.

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