Chapter 5 - Standing and Select Committees

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General committee provisions

33    Meetings during sitting

  1. A committee of the Senate and a joint committee of both Houses of the Parliament may meet during sittings of the Senate for the purpose of deliberating in private session, but shall not make a decision at such a meeting unless:

    1. all members of the committee are present; or

    2. a member appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and a member appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate are present, and the decision is agreed to unanimously by the members present.

  2. The restrictions on meetings of committees contained in paragraph (1) do not apply after the question for the adjournment of the Senate has been proposed by the President at the time provided on any day.

  3. A committee shall not otherwise meet during sittings of the Senate except by order of the Senate.

  4. Proceedings of a committee at a meeting contrary to this standing order shall be void.

Amendment history

Adopted:

  • paragraph (4) adopted 19 August 1903 as SO 293 but renumbered as SO 289 for the first printed edition
  • paragraph (3) adopted on 11 June 1914, J.79–80, as SO38A (a parallel provision applying to standing – as opposed to select – committees[1]), but renumbered as SO 39 for the next printed edition in 1922
  • [paragraph (1) adopted as SO300A (as a sessional order) on 22 September 1987, J.100]

Amended:

  • 24 August 1994, J.2053 (to take effect 10 October 1994) (SO 33 was rewritten, restructured into three paragraphs and greater flexibility added for decision-making at meetings permitted during sittings – subparagraph (1)(b))
  • 14 May 2003, J.1799 (restrictions on meetings during sittings lifted once adjournment proposed – paragraph (2))

1989 revision: Old SOs 39, 300A (in sessional orders) and 301 combined into one, restructured as two paragraphs and renumbered as SO 33; repositioned from old chapter XXII on select committees (where applicable); language simplified

Commentary

  Authorisation to hold a public meeting during sitting for the Economics References Committee
 

Extract from the Journals of the Senate. Committees may not meet while the Senate is sitting unless they are authorised to do so

Standing order 33 has been extensively modified since the first version of it was adopted in 1903 but the principle it embodies has not changed. Senators cannot be in two places at once and their primary duty is to the Senate. It is therefore inappropriate for committees to meet while the Senate is sitting unless the Senate has given approval.[2] A parallel version of the prohibition on select committees meeting during sittings, originally adopted as part of what ultimately became old SO 300 (see SO 32), was adopted in June 1914 to apply to standing committees, on the recommendation of the Standing Orders Committee in its First Report (PP No. S.1 /1914). It was to be located in the chapter relating to standing committees which (apart from a quorum provision) otherwise contained only those standing orders relating to the appointment of particular standing committees. Standing orders relating to committee operations were all in old chapter XXII on select committees. It is not clear why the Senate thought it necessary to add a prohibition on standing committees meeting during sittings when there was already an applicable prohibition in chapter XXII. Perhaps the old rule, expressed by President Baker during the 1903 debates, had been forgotten; namely, that all committees were select committees by definition unless they were committees of the whole.[3]

By the late 1980s when the Senate had grown from 36 to 76 members and a comprehensive system of committees had been in operation since 1970, there was pressure to consider the issue from a fresh perspective.[4] Principally, however, the matter was brought to a head by the Public Accounts Committee which had asserted a right to meet during sittings of the Senate pursuant to an unclear provision in its statute. The Standing Orders Committee disagreed but proposed an alternative mechanism to allow Senate and joint committees to hold private meetings during sittings.[5] Standing order 300A was adopted as a sessional order on 22 September 1987 and incorporated into the revised standing orders in 1989 as part of SO 33. It had been amended on adoption to include a safeguard against committees making decisions at meetings which some members may not have been able to attend because of higher commitments in the chamber. Committees could meet in private while the Senate was sitting but could not make decisions (“make resolutions or take votes”) unless all members were present.[6] Committees that wished to hold public hearings during the sitting of the Senate would continue to need the Senate’s approval.

In conjunction with the 1994 restructuring of the committee system, a new level of flexibility was incorporated into the first paragraph. Although committees had been able to hold private meetings during sittings of the Senate since 1987, decisions could not be taken unless all members were present. The inability of committees to make routine, unanimous decisions at such meetings unless all members were present became an unnecessary restriction. Consequently, a new provision was added to allow decisions to be taken if a member appointed on the nomination of the Leader of the Government and a member appointed on the nomination of the Leader of the Opposition were present, and the decision was unanimous. On 75 per cent of the legislative and general purpose standing committees, this would allow the chair and deputy chair to make routine decisions at properly constituted meetings. For those committees with a minor party chair or deputy chair this would not be possible without an opposition member present, but the presence of an opposition member was a requirement for the minimum quorum in any case. The rights of minor party members were protected by the fact that they had a veto over decision-making at meetings during sittings if the decision involved a matter of controversy. Non-unanimous decisions could be taken only if all members attended, or if the Senate had authorised the committee to hold a meeting during sittings that was not in accordance with standing order 33(1).[7]

Changes to the routine of business in 1994 resulted in definite adjournment times for three out of four evenings, with an open-ended adjournment debate on Mondays (which, from 1997 became the only late evening sitting). When the open-ended adjournment debate moved from Mondays to Tuesdays in 2002, potential meeting time for committees came under pressure.[8] In 2003, the Senate adopted a recommendation from the Procedure Committee that committees should be able to meet without the restrictions contained in standing order 33 once the question for the adjournment of the Senate had been proposed.[9] Committees were thereby able to utilise more effectively the limited opportunities to hold public hearings (or unrestricted private meetings) during sitting weeks.

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