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Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 16 - Committees

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Evolution of the committee system

The Senate's first standing orders provided for the establishment of both standing and select committees. The standing or domestic committees were concerned with the Senate's own affairs and support services and included a Standing Orders Committee, Library Committee, House Committee, Printing Committee and Elections and Qualifications Committee. The first committee reports in 1901 were made by the Elections and Qualifications Committee and the Standing Orders Committee.[5] Select committees were used to inquire into particular matters the Senate considered worthy of inquiry. Such committees were given powers to summon witnesses and require the production of documents, and procedures for examining witnesses were set out in the standing orders. The first select committee report presented to the Senate examined steamship communication between Tasmania and the mainland. Other select committees were appointed as required.

In 1932, the Regulations and Ordinances Committee was established following a report of the select committee appointed in 1929 to consider, report and make recommendations upon the advisability or otherwise of establishing standing committees of the Senate upon:

  1. (a) statutory rules and ordinances
  2. (b) international relations
  3. (c) finance
  4. (d) private members bills

and such other subjects as were deemed advisable.[6]

The select committee was of the view that a standing committee system, to be successful and bearing in mind the small number of senators available (then 36), would need to grow from modest beginnings.[7] Although the select committee originally recommended the establishment of regulations and ordinances and external affairs committees, and the modification of the standing orders to facilitate the reference of bills to committees, the matter was recommitted and the committee's second report[8] recommended that only a regulations and ordinances committee be established. There had been government fears that an external affairs committee might use its powers to obtain access to sensitive documents on Australia's external affairs and the proposal for a committee in this area was not pursued at that time. The significant volume of delegated legislation made without parliamentary scrutiny was of concern to all sides of politics, however, and the establishment of a regulations and ordinances committee was therefore seen as a priority. In 1982 that committee was joined by the second of the standing legislative scrutiny committees, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, charged with ensuring that all bills and Acts observed similar fundamental principles as those applying to delegated legislation.

The modern committee system dates from 1970, when the Senate agreed to the appointment of seven legislative and general purpose standing committees, standing ready to inquire into any matters referred by the Senate in a range of subject areas, and five estimates committees to examine the annual estimates of departments in a more orderly and effective manner.[9]

With this development, the evolution of the main types of committees on which senators have served was complete.

A major refinement occurred with the adoption of resolutions by the Senate on 5 December 1989 providing for the systematic referral of bills to legislative and general purpose standing committees. These orders came into effect in the latter half of 1990 and facilitated the realisation of a long-held ideal, that Senate committees should have a greater role in the consideration of legislation.

In 1994, as a result of a Procedure Committee report on the committee system,[10] the estimates and legislative and general purpose committees were amalgamated. A scheme of paired committees, incorporating the functions of estimates and legislative and general purpose standing committees in each subject area, a references committee and a legislation committee, was adopted. The chairs of other committees were reorganised so that the distribution of chairs approximated the representation of parties in the Senate. In 2006 the pairs of committees in each subject area were amalgamated, returning to pre-1994 arrangement for the legislative and general purpose standing committees until 2009 when the post-1994 structure was restored.[11]

5. For the early history of these domestic committees, see Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, under SOs 17-22 and 207, pp. 87-108, 561-3.
6. PP S1/1929-31.
7. SD, 1/5/1930, p. 1311.
8. PP S2/1929-31.
9. For accounts of events leading to the establishment of the committee system in 1970, see ASP, 6th ed., pp. 728-44; Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, Introduction, pp. 16-20; Senate Committees and Responsible Government: Papers on Parliament No. 12, Department of the Senate, August 1991.
10. First Report of 1994, PP 146/1994. For discussion of the background to the restructure, see Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, Introduction, pp. 28-9.
11. 13/5/2009, J. 1943-6.