Chapter 9 - Times of sittings and routine of business

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62    Consideration of committee reports and government responses and Auditor-General’s reports

  1. Where in any week there are orders of the day for the resumption of debate on motions for the consideration or adoption of reports of committees or government responses to such reports:

    1. on Thursday at the time provided orders of the day relating to reports of committees or government responses presented to the Senate during that week shall be severally called on, in the order in which the respective reports or government responses were presented;

    2. if there are no orders of the day relating to committee reports or government responses presented during that week, or if debate on motions relating to such reports or government responses concludes before the expiration of 60 minutes, orders of the day relating to committee reports or government responses presented prior to that week shall then be severally called on in an order which is the reverse of the order in which the respective reports or government responses were presented;

    3. in any debate on such motions so called on, each senator may speak for not more than 10 minutes; and

    4. any debate pursuant to this standing order shall be interrupted at the expiration of 60 minutes.

  2. Reports of the Auditor-General in respect of which no motion is moved on their presentation, and orders of the day for adjourned debates on such reports, shall be placed on the Notice Paper for consideration on Thursday at the time for the consideration of committee reports and government responses under general business, after those reports and responses.

  3. Where debate on a motion under the provisions of this standing order is adjourned or interrupted, senators who have spoken to the motion under the provisions of this standing order may speak again to the motion for the time allowed by the standing orders when the debate on the motion is again called on in the normal course of business.

    1. If a committee report is presented at the time provided on Wednesday or Thursday, a motion may be moved relating to the report.

    2. A senator speaking to such a motion shall not speak for more than 10 minutes, and debate on all such motions shall not exceed 60 minutes.

    3. If a debate is not concluded at the expiration of that time the debate shall be made an order of the day for Thursday at the time for consideration of committee reports.

Amendment history

Adopted: 21 November 1989, J.2219, as SO 62 (with effect from the first sitting day in 1990) (previously dealt with by sessional orders; incorporated into standing orders as part of the 1989 revision)

Amended:

  • 14 October 1991, J.1579–81 (changes to ensure that adjourned debates on government responses could be resumed at the time provided for consideration of committee reports)
  • 13 February 1997, J.1442–45, 1447 (to take effect 24 February 1997) (addition of paragraph (4) consequential on incorporation of 1994 reforms to the routine of business, as modified by sessional orders, providing an hour on Wednesdays and Thursdays for the presentation and consideration of committee reports and up to an hour on Thursdays after general business for the resumption of adjourned debates)
  • 10 May 2000, J.2692 (insertion of paragraph (2) providing for consideration of Auditor-General’s reports)

Commentary

The report by McMullin was the first review of the committee system  

The first review of the committee system was tabled by President McMullin in February 1971

 

Like SO 61, SO 62 emerged in response to changing circumstances; in this case, the greater emphasis on the work of Senate committees and the need for extended opportunities to debate their reports. There are few – and sometimes no – such opportunities in many comparable parliamentary systems. Indeed, the subordinate place of committees is still reflected in such standing orders as SO 39 which provides that the only motion that may be moved on the presentation of a report is a motion that the report be printed. Any other proceeding on a report is to be by motion on notice. However, these provisions are now expressed to be subject to SO 62(4) which provides otherwise at designated times in the week, when motions may be moved without notice in relation to committee reports.

SO 62 also provides for the resumption of adjourned debates on committee reports and government responses at a designated time on Thursdays and for the consideration of Auditor-General’s reports, another significant accountability mechanism.

Moves towards recognising the important work done by Senate committees by ensuring adequate debating opportunities and conditions for committee reports began in the 1930s after the establishment of the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances (see SO 60). This standing order sufficed for the occasional reports of committees until the 1970s but the creation of a system of committees in that decade led to the search for new ways of ensuring that the work of committees in scrutinising the executive was adequately recognised and acted upon.

While the first review of the new committee system was too early to deal with the fate of committee reports,[1] it was not long before the Senate agreed to arrangements to provide for the consideration of reports of its standing and select committees. In a resolution agreed to on 14 March 1973, the Senate set aside two hours on Thursdays for consideration of committee reports as business of the Senate and therefore having precedence over other business for the time allowed. Reports would be listed on the Notice Paper in order of presentation and individual senators would have up to 30 minutes each to speak. On the same day, the Senate agreed to a resolution declaring its opinion that governments should respond to committee reports within three months after their presentation. Both motions were moved on behalf of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Murphy (ALP, NSW).[2] The first committee reports under this order were listed in the following day’s Notice Paper, Thursday 15 March 1973, but for one reason or another, no consideration occurred until 3 May 1973 when a report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, listed since 15 March, was debated.[3]

The following year, the order was included in a fresh batch of sessional orders agreed to on 14 March 1974 but it operated only until the dissolution of both Houses under s.57 of the Constitution in April 1974.[4] When the Senate resumed after the double dissolution, the order was not renewed, probably because of the attempt to put Senate committees on hold while a joint committee examined a committee system for the Parliament as a whole.[5] The joint committee was re-established after the 1975 double dissolution but there was no attempt to revive the 1973 order. Instead, when committee reports were presented, motions were moved, by leave, to take note of them. Any adjourned debates became general business orders of the day, called on first during general business on alternate Thursdays when orders of the day were given precedence over notices of motion (see SO 59). This situation prevailed for the rest of the decade and into the early 1980s.

Late in 1979, the Standing Orders Committee received a reference on the presentation of committee reports. Concerns had been raised about access by other senators to reports ahead of tabling to enable informed debate to occur shortly after tabling. Although tabled in March 1980, the Standing Orders Committee report was not considered for nearly 12 months. The committee had suggested that existing arrangements (under SO 39) were adequate but the matter was returned to it for further consideration.[6]

On its second attempt, in 1982, the committee proposed a new sessional order that would provide a fixed time for debate on committee reports at the end of each week, in addition to the existing opportunity under general business. This solution was adopted on 29 April 1982 and is the principal antecedent of SO 62.[7] It provided an hour before general business on Thursdays for the consideration of committee reports presented that week. If there were no reports presented during that week or if debate on them concluded, then reports presented in previous weeks could be called on in reverse order of presentation (that is, latest first). Each senator would have a speaking time limit of 10 minutes per motion with a total time limit of one hour. As was the case with the new sessional order on consideration of government documents (see SO 61), senators who had spoken on a report pursuant to the sessional order also preserved their right to speak again to the report if the adjourned motion were called on in the normal course of business. The order was re-adopted, with some variations, before being incorporated as a new standing order in 1989.[8] In 1991, by temporary order followed by sessional order, the time for consideration of committee reports moved from before general business to afterwards.[9]

  Orders of the day
 

Orders of the day relating to the consideration of committee reports are listed on the Notice Paper

Just as important as the right to adequate opportunities to debate committee reports was the issue of government responses to committee recommendations. See SO 60 for a history of the Senate’s consideration of government responses. The Standing Orders Committee (Procedure Committee from 1987) kept both matters under review and in October 1991, on the committee’s recommendation, orders of the day for consideration of government responses were added to the matters that could be considered on Thursdays under SO 62.[10]

In 1990, another concern emerged from a report of the Privileges Committee on a case of unauthorised disclosure of a committee report prior to its presentation to the Senate. A suggestion by the Privileges Committee for a change in procedures was referred to the Procedure Committee. The disclosure in question had been by a member of the committee providing a background briefing to journalists in advance of the tabling of the report. Tabling had been delayed, however, by pressure of other business and newspaper stories had appeared before the report was finally tabled the following day. In its 20th Report – Possible Unauthorised Disclosure of Senate Committee Report, the Privileges Committee suggested that the presentation of committee reports early on sitting days (before newspaper deadlines) be encouraged by allowing limited debate on a report presented in the morning (5 minutes for the chair and 3 minutes for other members with a total time limit of 15 minutes).[11]

The Procedure Committee noted the limitations of SO 39 and that presentation of committee reports pursuant to SO 63 occurred by custom at a particular place in the routine of business that was usually late in the afternoon of a sitting day, was often much later in the day and, on occasion, was overtaken by the intervention of other business. Conceding that the proposal had merit, the Procedure Committee nonetheless urged that limited debate as a matter of right was appropriate regardless of when a report was presented, with each member of a committee being allowed to speak for not more than 5 minutes.[12] The matter was referred back to the committee to consider a total time limit for such debate.[13] A second proposal (including a 30 minute time limit) was also sent back for reconsideration after reservations had been expressed in debate.[14] Recognising that there was some resistance to the proposal, even though that resistance may have been partly based on a misapprehension, the committee decided not to press it further.[15]

The idea was revived, however, when dramatic changes to the routine of business and hours of meeting were considered in 1993. A feature of the proposed routine was an hour on Wednesday and Thursday mornings when committee reports could be presented and motions relating to the report moved without notice. An individual time limit of 10 minutes applied, consistent with the time allowed under paragraph (1)(c). This new procedure came into effect at the beginning of 1994 and has proved to be a useful addition to the opportunities for senators to debate the outcomes of committee inquiries which now constitute the major part of a backbench senator’s work. By the time it was incorporated into the standing orders, changes to the routine of business meant the procedure was now available on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, rather than in the morning of both days. While this may be seen as a partial retreat from the original intention to present and debate committee reports early in the day as a way of preventing unauthorised disclosures influenced by newspaper deadlines, the explosion of news media into a 24 hour operation has to some degree overtaken that original purpose.

A final addition to the standing order occurred in 2000 with the adoption of paragraph (2) which provides for Auditor-General’s reports to be considered after committee reports and government responses on Thursdays. A motion may be moved, by leave, to take note of an Auditor-General’s report at the time it is presented. Before 2000, if debate on such a motion were adjourned, the order of the day for the resumption of the debate would go to the end of the list of general business orders of the day with no realistic prospect of returning to it. The change was made on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee and provides for all Auditor-General’s reports to be considered on Thursdays if time is available, regardless of whether a motion has been moved at the time of presentation.[16] By this means, reports which are presented directly to each House of the Parliament by the Auditor-General, a chief agent of accountability for Commonwealth expenditure, are afforded appropriate significance.

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