Chapter 16 - Committees

Power to take evidence in private

Most committees are empowered to hear evidence in public or in private. It is open to a committee to decide not to pursue a matter because it would be contrary to the public interest for reasons including possible prejudice to court proceedings, national security or individual privacy. In making such decisions, however, most committees have an option not in practice available to the Senate itself, and that is the power to take evidence in camera.

By hearing evidence in private and agreeing to orders forbidding publication of the evidence, a committee may inform itself fully on an issue and at the same time minimise any risk arising from the publication of evidence. A committee may decide to publish the in camera evidence at a later date when the risk of harm has passed, or may decide on partial publication in order to balance competing concerns. For further material on the taking of evidence in camera and other measures to protect witnesses, see Chapter 17, Witnesses, under Protection of Witnesses: (b) procedural protection. The report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Sexual Harassment in the Australian Defence Force: Facing the Future Together (August 1994, PP 147/1994), contains a useful discussion of some of the issues involved in taking evidence in camera and releasing it at a later date, particularly in the context of individual privacy and the right to natural justice of an individual against whom allegations are made (Annex 1, Evidence, pp 327-30).

Committees considering estimates must take all their evidence in public. Documents submitted to a committee considering estimates may not be withheld from publication; nor may evidence be taken in camera. (See above, under Estimates committees.) Matters which arise during the consideration of estimates may be the subject of reference to a legislative and general purpose standing committee in possession of the full range of committee powers. (See Supplement)

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