Chapter 16 - Committees

Meeting with House committees

Meetings between Senate and House of Representatives committees are governed by standing order 40. A Senate committee may not confer or sit with a committee of the House of Representatives except by order of the Senate. Any such order is conveyed by message to the House of Representatives with a request that leave be given to the committee of that House to confer or sit with the Senate committee. Conferring may occur orally or in writing and includes exchange of information. The term “sit with” refers to two committees formally meeting together, transacting business and making decisions as if they were a joint committee. Committees meeting together under this standing order may exercise only such powers as are conferred in the order of the Senate authorising the meeting. Proceedings of any conference or joint sitting must be reported to the Senate by its committee.

Some of the domestic standing committees commonly meet as joint committees with their House of Representatives counterparts, pursuant to the standing orders governing their establishment and operations. These include the Library Committee (SO 20), the House Committee (SO 21) and the Publications Committee (SO 22). Other cases of committees of the two Houses meeting together are extremely rare.

In November 1987 the Senate Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure was empowered to sit as a joint committee with its House of Representatives counterpart for consideration of a reference on any proposed variations to the Canberra City Plan. The resolution provided for the following conditions:

  1. That the Joint committee appoint as its chairman the Chairman of the Senate Committee or the Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee.

  2. That the quorum of the committee be 2 Senators and 2 Members of the House of Representatives.

  3. That a subcommittee of the Senate Committee, when considering the matters referred to in paragraph (1), be empowered to sit with a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee, when that subcommittee is considering those matters, as a subcommittee of the joint committee.

  4. That a Senator who is not a member of the Senate Committee may attend a meeting of the joint committee or a subcommittee, with the approval of the joint committee or subcommittee, and participate in its proceedings and deliberations, but may not vote.

  5. That nothing in these resolutions be taken to affect the power of the Senate Committee to consider the matters referred to in paragraph (1) or its duty to report to the Senate on those matters. (3/11/1987, J.250-1)

When the committee received a reference on the Canberra leasehold system on 14 April 1988, it was empowered to sit as a joint committee with its House of Representatives counterpart under the same provisions as in the resolution of November 1987, to which the House of Representatives had agreed on 5 November 1987 (J.628). This further resolution was also agreed to by the House of Representatives on 18 April 1988, and the inquiry was undertaken by a joint subcommittee, whose report was adopted as a report of the Senate Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure and presented to the Senate on 24 November 1988 (PP 411/1988).

A message was received from the House of Representatives on 3 May 1994 (J.1558) requesting that the Senate agree to an order that its Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs confer with its counterpart committee in the House in relation to inquiries being undertaken by both committees into section 53 of the Constitution. In response, the Senate directed its committee to confer with its counterpart. A further message from the House of Representatives, dated 30 June 1994, and reported in the Senate on 23 August 1994 (J.2038), contained more specific provisions for a joint meeting of the two committees to take evidence on their references. No action was taken by the Senate in response to this message.

The independence of each House from the other, and their differing composition and history, make joint meetings of committees a rarity not lightly authorised by the Senate, which values particularly the advice of its own committees. Practical difficulties in reaching agreement on rules for joint meetings and in securing agreed reports are also grounds for the traditionally strong resistance in the Senate to such joint meetings.

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