Most Senate committees are authorised to meet in public or in private session; the only exceptions are standing committees examining estimates, which must hear all their evidence in public and publish all documents received by them.
Committees usually hear evidence in public and publish all documents laid before them, but occasionally evidence is taken in private session and documents withheld from publication, usually for the protection of witnesses. Committees deliberate in private session.
The hearing of witnesses before Senate committees must be recorded in a transcript of evidence. Transcripts of public hearings are published, and committees may order the publication of transcripts of in camera hearings. In either case the publication is absolutely privileged.
Provision is made in standing order 25(16) for the publication of a Daily Hansard of the public hearings of the legislative and general purpose standing committees. Provision is also made in relation to committees examining estimates for a Hansard report to be circulated as soon as practicable after each day’s proceedings. Resolutions appointing other committees usually authorise the publication of their Hansards.
The transcript or other record of a committee hearing, including a sound recording, belongs to the committee. The question of senators’ access to the sound recordings of committee proceedings arose on 29 November 1990, when a senator asked the President about access to tape recordings of a joint parliamentary committee. The President’s response setting out the procedures relating to access was as follows:
The responsibility for the transcription of the proceedings of parliamentary committees rests with Hansard. When a transcript is completed, Hansard forwards that transcript in electronic and hard copy form to the committee, which undertakes the printing and distribution of that transcript. The committee subsequently advises Hansard of any suggested corrections to the transcript. Any request to Hansard for access to a tape-recording of the proceedings of a committee or an unproofed version of the transcript is referred by Hansard to the committee for decision. Usually that decision is advised to Hansard by the committee secretary after consultation with the committee chairman. This is what occurred in relation to the matter raised by Senator Vanstone. The principle is that transcripts, both proofed and unproofed, are the property of the committee and it is a matter for each committee to determine access to that material and advise Hansard accordingly.
The Senate, however, may make orders in relation to records of committee proceedings. On 6 December 1990 a senator moved that the Principal Parliamentary Reporter be directed to make available to members of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the National Crime Authority the Hansard sound recording of the public hearing of that committee held on 21 November 1990, in the absence of a transcript of those sound recordings. That question was passed without debate. Audiovisual recordings of estimates hearings are invariably made available to legislation committees in advance of transcripts.