Chapter 16 - Committees

Legislative and general purpose standing committees

(See Supplement)

The legislative and general purpose standing committees, appointed under standing order 25, are the engines of the Senate’s committee system. First established in 1970, together with a system of estimates committees, these committees, specialised by subject, inquire into and report on matters referred to them by the Senate.

The committees cover between them all areas of government responsibility and subjects of inquiry. Specific matters, within their subject areas, are referred to them by the Senate. Some “watching briefs” are also referred to them, for oversight of areas of government activity. They have the task of scrutinising annual reports of government departments and agencies and bills referred to them.

The main features of the committees are:

  • eight committees are established under standing order 25 with each subject area similar to the responsibilities of related government departments and agencies

  • the committees inquire into matters referred to them by the Senate, bills, estimates, annual reports and performance of agencies

  • each committee is allocated a group of government departments and agencies by resolution

  • each committee has eight members, with equal numbers from government and non-government parties, the government party having the chairs and non-government parties having the deputy chairs

  • chairs have a casting vote when the votes are equally divided, as do deputy chairs when acting as chairs

  • the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, may appoint another member of a committee to act as chair during the temporary absence of both the chair and deputy chair from a meeting

  • senators may also be appointed as substitute members, replacing other senators on committees for specific purposes, or as participating members, who have all the rights of members except the right to vote

  • provisions authorising other senators who are not members of committees to attend and participate in public hearings apply only to estimates hearings

  • committees may appoint subcommittees with a minimum of three members

  • subcommittees have the same powers as the full committees, including the power to send for persons and documents, travel from place to place and meet in public or in private and notwithstanding any prorogation of Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives

  • the chairs and deputy chairs of the committees and any select committees form the Chairs’ Committee, which meets with the Deputy President in the chair, to consider and report to the Senate on any matter affecting the operations of the committees

  • each committee is supported by a single secretariat unit.

The committees therefore have the capacity to perform any of the Senate’s roles on its behalf.

The operations of the committees are considered below under Appointment and membership of committees, Powers of committees and Conduct of inquiries.

Events leading to the establishment of legislative and general purpose standing committees and estimates committees on 11 June 1970 and their subsequent history are covered in ASP, 6th ed., pp 728-41; see also Senate Committees and Responsible Government, the proceedings of a conference held to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Senate committee system in 1990 (Papers on Parliament, No. 12, Department of the Senate, September 1991).

For further detail on the reference of annual reports and legislation to committees, see below under Conduct of inquiries, Referral of matters to committees. Reports of the legislative and general purpose standing committees are listed in the Department of the Senate’s Consolidated Register of Senate Committee Reports. A supplement to the Register is produced annually and a consolidated version prepared at the end of each Parliament. Other information about committees may be found in the following publications:

Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees: The First 20 Years 1970-1990, Senate Committee Office (tabled 20/8/1991, J.1392).

Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, The Twentieth Anniversary of the Committee, December 1991 (PP 298/1991).

Department of the Senate, Annual Report, various (see particularly Work of Committees: Supplement to the Department of the Senate Annual Report 1992-93)*.

Committee Office Information Bulletin, Nos 1-20*.

Work of Committees (published biannually from 1994; supersedes items marked *).

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