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Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 16 - Committees

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Standing domestic committees

There are eight standing domestic committees established by standing order. They are:

  • Procedure
  • Privileges
  • Appropriations and Staffing
  • Library
  • House
  • Publications
  • Senators' Interests
  • Selection of Bills

Procedure Committee

A descendant of the 1901 Standing Orders Committee, the Procedure Committee is established under standing order 17 and has been in operation under its present name since 1987.

The committee has four ex officio members, the President, Deputy President, Leader of the Government in the Senate and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. It is chaired by the Deputy President, a provision adopted in 1994. Its remaining six members are appointed from the Senate without any prescribed allocation of places to government or non-government senators. This formula allows as wide a representation of senators as is considered appropriate at any time. The Leaders of the Government and of the Opposition in the Senate are authorised to appoint substitute members when they are unable to attend meetings.[12]

The committee's terms of reference are "any matter relating to the procedures of the Senate referred to it by the Senate or by the President".[13] The standing orders do not confer formal inquiry powers upon the committee as they are not considered necessary. Most of the matters considered by the Procedure Committee are referred by the Senate. Although it does not formally gather evidence, the committee sometimes invites submissions from senators. A 1993 reference to the committee on the hours of sitting and routine of business included an instruction that the committee invite submissions from all parties in the Senate and independent senators and consult with the Procedure Committee of the House of Representatives, which was undertaking a similar inquiry.[14] In most cases reports are developed following discussions and consideration of issues papers. The committee cannot meet other than in Parliament House without authorisation by the Senate.[15]

Reports of the committee may be considered in committee of the whole to facilitate free discussion of detailed matters, but may also be considered by the Senate. Consideration of the reports may be listed under Government Business orders of the day because, following the presentation of a report, a minister moves the motion to provide for its consideration, or may be listed as an order of the day under Business of the Senate, either by order contained in the reference to the Procedure Committee[16] or following a motion moved on presentation of the report.[17] The designation of Procedure Committee reports as Business of the Senate orders of the day gives priority to their consideration, as befits significant matters of relevance to the conduct of the business of the Senate.[18]

Committee of Privileges

The Committee of Privileges is established by standing order 18, which provides:

  1. (1) A Committee of Privileges, consisting of 7 senators, shall be appointed at the commencement of each Parliament to inquire into and report upon matters of privilege referred to it by the Senate.
  2. (2) The Committee shall have power to send for persons and documents, to move from place to place and to sit during recess.
  3. (3) The Committee shall consist of 7 senators, 4 nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate and 3 nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.
  4. (4) The Committee shall elect as its chair a member nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.

(SEE SUPPLEMENT)

As well as inquiring into privilege matters referred by the Senate, which mainly relate to cases of alleged interference with senators or committees, the committee also reports on matters raised with the President of the Senate under Resolution 5 of the Privilege Resolutions, that is, responses by persons to statements made about them in the Senate.[19]

Apart from Resolution 5 matters, inquiries referred have chiefly been of three types: possible unauthorised disclosure of evidence or draft reports; possible misleading evidence given to a committee; or possible interference with, or adverse treatment of, witnesses as a result of their having given evidence. A list of the committee's reports since its establishment in 1966 and consequent action by the Senate is in appendix 3.

In addition to Resolution 5 matters and individual privilege cases referred by the Senate, the committee has also participated in the legislative function of the Senate. In 1994, the committee examined and reported on a private senator's bill, the Parliamentary Privileges Amendment (Enforcement of Lawful Orders) Bill 1994. The bill provided a mechanism for resolving conflicts between the Senate and the executive by providing for questions relating to the failure of ministers and public servants to comply with lawful orders of the Senate, and related issues of public interest immunity, to be resolved by the Federal Court. In its 49th report,[20] the committee concluded that such a bill was not necessary and that the Senate already possessed the powers required to resolve such conflicts. The committee also examined the Tax Laws Amendment (Confidentiality of Taxpayer Information) Bill 2009 recommending the removal of provisions purporting to criminalise the provision of information to parliamentary committees in certain circumstances.[21]

The committee acts as an essential safeguard of the rights of senators and the Senate, and the rights and obligations of witnesses appearing before the Senate and its committees.

Appropriations and Staffing Committee

Standing order 19 provides for the appointment of a Standing Committee on Appropriations and Staffing whose role is to inquire into:

  1. (a) proposals for the annual estimates and the additional estimates for the Senate;
  2. (b) proposals to vary the staff structure of the Senate, and staffing and recruitment policies; and
  3. (c) such other matters as are referred to it by the Senate.

The committee is responsible for determining the amounts for inclusion in the parliamentary appropriation bills for the annual and additional appropriations for the Senate and for reporting to the Senate on its determinations prior to the Senate's consideration of the relevant parliamentary appropriation bill. In relation to staffing, the committee is responsible for making recommendations to the President and reporting to the Senate on any matter. It is required to make an annual report to the Senate on the operations of the Senate's appropriations and staffing and related matters. The committee also oversees the funding and administration of security measures affecting the Senate.

The President, the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate are ex officio members of the committee. The Leader of the Government in the Senate may nominate another Senate minister as a representative, thereby ensuring that the government retains a presence on the committee to represent its views. The Leader of the Opposition in the Senate may also nominate a representative. There are six other members, three nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate and three nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate or by any minority groups or independent senators. Originally, the committee had seven members but the number was increased to nine when the committee was re-established in May 1983.[22]

The President is the committee's chair and has the power to appoint a deputy chair from time to time. The chair, and deputy chair when acting as chair, has a casting vote when the votes are equally divided.[23] Senators who are not members of the committee may attend and participate in its deliberations and question witnesses but may not vote.[24]

Unlike the other domestic standing committees, the Appropriations and Staffing Committee has power to appoint subcommittees.[25] Like the Committee of Privileges, it also has power to summon witnesses and to require the production of documents.

See also Chapter 5, Officers of the Senate: Parliamentary Administration, under Senate's appropriations and staffing, and Chapter 13, Financial Legislation, under Parliamentary appropriations.

Library Committee

The Library Committee is established by standing order 20 as follows:

  1. (1) Library Committee, consisting of the President and 6 senators, shall be appointed at the commencement of each Parliament, with power to act during recess, and to confer and sit as a joint committee with a similar committee of the House of Representatives.
  2. (2) The Committee may consider any matter relating to the provision of library services to senators.

The President is the chair of the committee.

In 2008 a joint resolution of the two Houses established a joint standing committee and detailed provisions for its composition and proceedings.[26] The standing President and Speaker are not members of the joint standing committee whose functions arise partly from the enactment of the Parliamentary Service Amendment Act 2005 which established the office of Parliamentary Librarian. Senators appointed under standing order 20, other than the President, are also appointed to the joint standing committee.

The committee invariably sits as a joint committee. Having no powers of inquiry, the committee generally functions as a forum in which to raise and consider matters of relevance to the operations and administration of the Parliamentary Library. It is an advisory committee and the Presiding Officers, with joint responsibility for the Library, are not bound to follow the advice of the committee.

House Committee

The House Committee, established under standing order 21, sits as a joint committee with the House of Representatives House Committee. The committee's terms of reference are "any matter relating to the provision of facilities in Parliament House referred to it by the Senate or the President". Its membership comprises the President, Deputy President and five senators. When it meets as a joint committee arrangements exist for the rotation of the chair between the President and the Speaker. The committee does not possess inquiry powers.

In 1981 the Senate House Committee conducted an inquiry into the organisation, operation, functions and financial administration of the Joint House Department. A resolution conferred powers to summon witnesses and require the production of documents for the purposes of the inquiry. After presentation of the committee's report on 26 August 1982,[27] a follow-up inquiry was referred to the committee which was again given inquiry powers for the purpose.[28] The reference having been renewed, the committee presented an interim report in May 1983.[29]

In 1994, the committee received a reference from the Senate to inquire into the future treatment and use of old Parliament House.[30] A subsequent resolution authorised the committee to summon witnesses and require the production of documents.[31]

Publications Committee

The Publications Committee, established by standing order 22, also normally sits as a joint committee with its House of Representatives counterpart. The committee has seven members but there are no formal conditions attaching to the representation of government and non-government senators.

The committee makes recommendations to the Senate on the printing of documents presented to the Senate and which have not already been ordered to be printed. An order to print a document ensures its inclusion in the series of parliamentary papers; all documents presented to the Senate are ordered to be published.[32] It is usual upon the presentation of committee reports to the Senate for a motion to be moved that the report be printed. The motion is not commonly moved when other documents such as petitions, government documents, delegation reports or reports of the Auditor-General are presented, and it is these which are considered by the Publications Committee at regular meetings in accordance with guidelines determined by the committee. When the Publications Committee reports to the Senate, recommending the printing of certain documents, a motion is moved, by leave, that the report be adopted (leave is required for a motion that would otherwise require notice to be given). The motion may be amended; for example, to provide for the printing of a document not recommended for printing by the committee.

When sitting as a joint committee with the Publications Committee of the House of Representatives, the committee has the following additional powers:

  1. (a) to inquire into and report on the printing, publication and distribution of parliamentary and government publications and on such related matters as are referred to it by the relevant Minister; and
  2. (b) to send for persons and documents.[33]

This additional role of the joint committee arose from recommendations of the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary and Government Publications[34] which were adopted in 1970. The investigatory function is invoked when the committee considers matters relating to Commonwealth publishing. The committee has undertaken inquiries under this function and presented several reports, most recently recommending electronic distribution of the series of parliamentary papers.[35]

In 1993 the committee criticised the presentation of large numbers of annual reports of departments and agencies in the last sitting week before the end of the year. The basis for this criticism was that:

[t]he Committee believes that this situation diminishes Parliament's role in ensuring the accountability of these organisations through their annual reports to Parliament by reducing the opportunity for Members and Senators to critically review and debate matters contained in the reports.[36]

Requirements for annual reports stipulate 31 October as the deadline for tabling. The requirements were part of the revision of accountability documentation stemming from the altered Budget timetable introduced in 1994 and provided under the Public Service Act 1999.[37]

Senators' Interests Committee

Under standing order 22A(1), the functions of this committee are:

  1. (a) to inquire into and report upon the arrangements made for the compilation, maintenance and accessibility of a Register of Senators' Interests;
  2. (b) to consider any proposals made by senators and others as to the form and content of the Register;
  3. (c) to consider any submissions made in relation to the registering or declaring of interests;
  4. (d) to consider what classes of person, if any, other than senators ought to be required to register and declare their interests; and
  5. (e) to make recommendations upon these and any other matters which are relevant.

Its membership is required to reflect as closely as possible the composition of the Senate. The committee has a specified membership, which may be varied, of eight senators, three nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, four nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and one nominated by any minority groups or independent senators. The chair of the committee is a member of the committee nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Provision is made for the appointment of a deputy chair and for the chair (or deputy when acting as chair) to have a casting vote when the votes are equally divided.

The committee has power to send for persons and documents and to confer with a similar committee of the House of Representatives. It does not have power to move from place to place. Its inquiry power is qualified by a requirement that any exercise of the power to send for persons and documents, or any investigation of the private interests of any person, must be agreed to by not fewer than three members other than the chair. This is intended to be a safeguard against use of the committee's powers for partisan political purposes.

(SEE SUPPLEMENT)

The committee is required to present an annual report and may also report from time to time. Its main role is to oversee arrangements for the register which is now also published online.[38]

The committee was first established on 17 March 1994 following a commitment given by the government as part of a package of "accountability measures" to be pursued in the wake of the forced resignation of the Minister for Environment, Sport and Territories over the administration of the Community Cultural, Recreation and Sporting Facilities Program. The package was announced by the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gareth Evans, on 3 March 1994.[39] Notices of motion to establish such a committee had languished on the Notice Paper for years through the 1980s and early 1990s.[40]

Selection of Bills Committee

The Selection of Bills Committee, which is established by standing order 24A, makes recommendations to the Senate for the referral of bills to committees. The committee considers bills introduced into the Senate or received from the House of Representatives and reports to the Senate on whether any bills should be referred to legislative and general purpose standing or select committees.

Membership of the committee is based on an informal committee of party whips which meets each sitting day to confer on the day's program. The committee consists of the Government Whip and two other senators nominated by the Leader of the Government, the Opposition Whip and two other senators nominated by the Leader of the Opposition, together with the whips of any minority groups. The chair of the committee is the Government Whip who may from time to time appoint a deputy chair to act as chair when the chair is not present at a meeting. The chair, or deputy chair when acting as chair, has a casting vote when the votes are equally divided.

The standing order establishing the committee does not contain any criteria which the committee is required to follow in making recommendations in relation to bills. This allows the committee to take into account any grounds advanced by senators for the submission of bills to committee scrutiny.

Although few of the committee's reports have indicated the basis on which the committee has made its recommendations, the committee has commented on particular referrals and given reasons why a decision has been made or changed. In its 4th report of 1990, for example, the committee indicated that there was a difference of views about which standing committee a package of social welfare bills should be referred to. Although the committee recommended that the bills be referred to the Community Affairs Committee, an amendment was moved to the motion that the report be adopted, which would have had the effect of referring parts of one of the bills to two different committees. The President ruled on a point of order that a bill could be referred to more than one committee because, although the order of the Senate referred to bills being referred to "a committee", as a matter of interpretation the singular number is taken to include the plural. The amendment was then agreed to.[41] In its 6th report of 1990, the committee indicated that its decisions not to refer two bills to committees as proposed by the Opposition and Australian Democrats, respectively, had been taken by a majority. One of these recommendations was subsequently overturned by an amendment to the motion that the report be adopted.[42] The committee reviewed an earlier recommendation not to refer a bill in light of comments on the bill by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee.[43] The committee now reserves disagreements for resolution by the Senate.[44] The committee has also reviewed recommendations not to refer bills on other grounds, including the circulation of a large number of government amendments to a bill[45] and representations by individual senators.[46] The committee has also reviewed its recommendations on the timing of referrals in view of the demands of a heavy legislative program.[47]

In practice the committee recommends the referral of a bill if a significant group in the Senate ask for the bill to be referred. Submissions seeking the referral of particular bills and identifying issues to be examined are published with the reports. Amendments to motions to adopt the committee's reports, however, are still relatively common.

The committee is required to examine all bills received from the House of Representatives or introduced into the Senate, except for bills containing no provisions other than provisions appropriating money, and, in respect of each bill, recommend whether it should be referred to a legislative and general purpose standing committee. The committee may also refer bills to appropriate select committees. When the committee decides that a bill should be referred to a committee, it is required to recommend which committee should receive the bill, the stage at which it should be referred and the date on which that committee should report.

An unusual order passed by the Senate on 14 May 2009, in referring budget-related legislation to committees before its introduction into either House, empowered the Selection of Bills Committee to vary the references.[48] A further refinement to the order, agreed to on 13 May 2010[49] (and reprised on 12 May 2011 with further streamlining[50]) removed the Selection of Bills Committee from the process and left it to individual committees to determine, by unanimous resolution, which bills did not require examination because they raised no substantive issues.[51]

The committee's reports are presented after the giving of notices of motion, or at other times by leave. Amendments may be moved to the motion that the report of the committee be adopted and these may include amendments to refer additional bills to committees. Debate on the reports is limited to 30 minutes with a 5 minute limit on individual contributions.

The committee recommends the referral to committees of a significant proportion of all bills considered by the Senate.


12. SO 17(2).
13. SO 17(3).
14. 18/8/1993, J.357.
15. 22/6/2006, J.2345.
16. 9/3/1989, J.1459.
17. 15/6/1989, J.1891; 21/12/1990, J.686; 12/9/1991, J.1512; 24/3/1992, J.2097.
18. See Standing Orders Committee, 1st Report, 62nd Session, PP 504/1985 pp. 1-3.
19. See Chapter 2, Parliamentary Privilege, for a detailed analysis of these resolutions and the work of the committee.
20. PP 171/1994.
21. See chapter 2, Parliamentary Privilege, under Parliamentary privilege and statutory secrecy provisions.
22. 11/5/1983, J.80.
23. SO 19(7).
24. SO 19(8).
25. SO 19(5).
26. 13/2/2008, J.121-2, 14/2/2008, J.156; resolution varied 17/11/2010, J. 327.
27. PP 163/1982; J.1030.
28. 22/9/1982, J.1093.
29. 17/5/1983, J.93. For other reports, see Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, p. 100.
30. 19/10/1994, J.2323.
31. 19/10/1994, J.2328.
32. SO 167.
33. SO 22(3).
34. PP 32/1964-6.
35. PP 160/2010.
36. 27th report, 4/5/1993, J.36.
37. See below, Conduct of inquiries, Referral of matters to committees, Estimates.
38. PP 366/2009; PP 159/2011.
39. SD, pp. 1453-4.
40. See also Chapter 6, Senators, under Pecuniary interests; Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, pp. 106-8.
41. 11/10/1990, J.322.
42. 17/10/1990, J.351.
43. 7th report of 1990, 8/11/1990, J.397.
44. 2nd report of 2002, 20/3/2002, J.240.
45. 1st report of 1991, 14/2/1991, J.747.
46. 3rd report of 1992, 26/3/1992, J.2124; 9th report of 2004, 23/6/2004, J.3651.
47. 9th report of 1990, 28/11/1990, J.487.
48. 14/5/2009, J.1957-8; 15/6/2009, J.1989-90.
49. J.3485-86.
50. J.911.
51. For examples of reports to this effect see 15/6/2010, J.3530-33, 3557-59; 14/6/2011, J.950.