Chapter 16 - Committees

Instructions to committees

Committees being bodies appointed by the Senate for its purposes, they may be given instructions by the Senate.

Instructions to committees are covered in Chapter 22 of the standing orders and apply both to committees of the whole and other committees. The application of these standing orders to committees of the whole dealing with bills is covered in Chapter 12, Legislation, under Instructions to committee of the whole.

The purpose of an instruction to a committee is to empower it to undertake an action it would not otherwise have power to undertake. As indicated in Chapter 12, an instruction may also require a committee to do something which is within its power and which the Senate requires to be done, for example, in the cases of standing and select committees, to hear particular witnesses (see below). An instruction also binds a committee to undertake the action determined by the Senate. It may have application, for example, where the non-government majority of the Senate seeks to direct a committee with a government party majority. An instruction may also be used to extend or restrict the order of reference to a committee but, in practice, this is invariably achieved by an ordinary resolution altering the terms of reference.

Instructions to committees, other than committee of the whole, have been invoked only rarely. In June 1991 a motion to refer matters relating to the administration of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to a committee was the subject of some disputation. The reference was originally intended to be to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee but was changed to the Finance and Public Administration Committee on the basis that the matters related to general questions of public administration. The chair of the Finance and Public Administration Committee moved an amendment to alter the motion to an instruction to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee to consider the particular matters listed in the proposed reference as part of its scrutiny of the department’s annual report, considered by the committee under a standing reference of all annual reports to the relevant committee (19/6/1991, J.1229). The amendment was defeated and the Finance and Public Administration Committee subsequently presented a significant and substantial report on the management and operations of the department. Normally, an instruction to a committee requires notice (SO 151). In this case, although the amendment would have had the effect of instructing the committee, it was moved not as an instruction per se but as an amendment to a motion and therefore did not require notice.

An instruction was given to the Procedure Committee in 1993 in relation to a reference on the hours of sitting and routine of business. Although the committee has no formal evidence gathering powers it was instructed by the Senate to invite submissions from all parties in the Senate and independent senators (18/8/1993, J.357).

Committees may be directed by the Senate to hear evidence on particular matters or from particular witnesses (7/2/1995, J.2895-7; 6/6/1995, J.3364-5; 4/11/1996, J.836; 22/10/1997, J.2673; 21/10/1999, J.1966; 10/4/2000, J.2582-3; 2585; 28/6/2000, J.2958; 28/11/2000, J.3594-5; 19/6/2001, J.4322; 12/3/2002, J.154-6; 18/9/2002, J.760; 25/11/2003, J.2709-10; 16/6/2004, J.3473). For a direction to invite the Prime Minister and another minister to give evidence, see 9/3/1995, J.3063-4 (See Supplement).

The legislative and general purpose standing committees to which the Telstra (Dilution of Public Ownership) Bill 1996 and the Workplace Relations Bill 1996 were referred were instructed to hold public hearings in each state and territory capital city (21/5/1996, J.173-6; 23/5/1996, J.214-5, 217-8).

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