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Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 16 - Committees

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Legislative and general purpose standing committees

The legislative and general purpose standing committees, appointed under standing order 25, are the engines of the Senate's committee system. First established in 1970, together with a system of estimates committees, these committees, specialised by subject, inquire into and report on matters referred to them by the Senate. The committees have been restructured on three occasions since 1970 with major restructuring occurring in 1994 when a system of paired legislation and references committee was adopted. After a brief return to a unitary system in 2006 (coinciding with the then government's majority in the Senate), the paired system was restored on 13 May 2009.[64]

The committees cover between them all areas of government responsibility and subjects of inquiry. Specific matters, within their subject areas, are referred to them by the Senate. Some "watching briefs" are also referred to them, for oversight of areas of government activity. They have the task of scrutinising annual reports of government departments and agencies and bills referred to them.


The main features of the committees are:

  • eight pairs of committees are established under standing order 25 with a references committee and a legislation committee in each subject area
  • references committees inquire into matters referred to them by the Senate, other than matters to be referred to legislation committees
  • legislation committees inquire into bills, estimates, annual reports and performance of agencies
  • each pair of committees is allocated a group of government departments and agencies
  • each committee has six members, with the government party having the chairs and majorities on legislation committees and non-government parties having the chairs and majorities on references committees
  • seven of eight references committees have opposition chairs while the remaining is from the largest minority party; allocation of these chairs is determined by agreement between the opposition and the largest minority party and, in the absence of agreement, is determined by the Senate
  • committees with government party chairs elect non-government deputy chairs and those with non-government chairs elect government deputy chairs; the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, may appoint another member of a committee to act as chair during the temporary absence of both the chair and deputy chair from a meeting
  • chairs have a casting vote when the votes are equally divided, as do deputy chairs when acting as chairs
  • the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, may appoint another member of a committee to act as chair during the temporary absence of both the chair and deputy chair from a meeting
  • senators may also be appointed as substitute members, replacing other senators on committees for specific purposes, or as participating members, who have all the rights of members except the right to vote
  • provisions authorising other senators who are not members of committees to attend and participate in public hearings apply only to estimates hearings
  • committees may appoint subcommittees with a minimum of three members
  • subcommittees have the same powers as the full committees, including the power to send for persons and documents, travel from place to place and meet in public or in private and notwithstanding any prorogation of Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives
  • the pairs of committees may confer together to coordinate their work, and the chairs of these and any select committees form the Chairs' Committee, which meets with the Deputy President in the chair, to consider and report to the Senate on any matter affecting the operations of the committees
  • each pair of committees is supported by a single secretariat unit.

The committees therefore have the capacity to perform any of the Senate's roles on its behalf.

The operations of the committees are considered below under Appointment and membership of committees, Powers of committees and Conduct of inquiries.

For further detail on the reference of annual reports and legislation to committees, see below under Conduct of inquiries, Referral of matters to committees. Reports of the legislative and general purpose standing committees are listed in the Department of the Senate's Consolidated Register of Senate Committee Reports. A supplement to the Register is produced annually and a consolidated version prepared at the end of each Parliament. Other information about committees may be found in the following publications:

Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees: The First 20 Years 1970-1990, Senate Committee Office.[65]

Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, The Twentieth Anniversary of the Committee, December 1991.[66]

Department of the Senate, Annual Report, various*[67]

Committee Office Information Bulletin, Nos 1-20*

Work of Committees (published biannually from 1994; supersedes items marked *)

Senate Committees and Government Accountability, Proceedings of the conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the Senate's legislation and general purpose standing committee system, Papers on Parliament No. 54, Department of the Senate, December 2010.

64. J.1942-6.
65. Tabled 20/8/1991, J.1392.
66. PP 298/1991.
67. See particularly Work of Committees: Supplement to the Department of the Senate Annual Report 1992-93.