Since 1901, select committees have provided the Senate with the ability to conduct ad hoc inquiries. Select committees are inherently responsive to the needs and composition of the Senate at any time and they can react quickly to the Senate's requirements. Unlike standing committees, they cease to exist when they have reported upon the matters referred to them.
In 1970 there was an expectation that the standing committees then established would avoid the need for many select committees. With the emergence and maturing of the legislative and general purpose standing committees, it was expected that most matters would be referred to standing committees because of their readiness and expertise. In its report on the committee system in 1994, the Procedure Committee observed that select committees and their chairs would continue to be appointed on an ad hoc basis, depending on the needs of the Senate. The committee suggested, however, that the Senate might have "as a goal the existence of no more than two select committees at any time". At the time the report was presented there were four select committees. Within a month of the Senate's agreeing to adopt new standing and other orders giving effect to the Procedure Committee's report, a further select committee was appointed.
The Senate has continued to make use of both standing and select committees, although there have been informal attempts to limit the number of select committees operating at any one time to two. Appendix 8, Committees on which senators served, shows the numbers of committees operating in the Senate, and indicates that select committee activity has remained vigorous.
There are several reasons for this. Select committees are an extremely versatile inquiry vehicle. Because they examine single issues, select committees permit a concentration of focus and effort on those issues. While they may undertake short, sharp inquiries, select committees are also appropriate vehicles for lengthy and sustained inquiries. Whereas many legislative and general purpose committee inquiries proceed on a multi-partisan basis and result in unanimous reports, select committees often function in a highly politically charged environment in which a great deal of political heat is generated and unanimous reports are unlikely and unlooked for. Select committees can also be the vehicles for relatively uncontroversial, wide-ranging and effective inquiries into subjects which do not fit readily into existing committee arrangements.
A list of select committees from 1901-1985 may be found in ASP, 6th ed., at pp 745-6. Since 1985 (the currency of the 6th ed.), select committees have been appointed by the Senate as shown in appendix 9.
Usually the powers and procedures of select committees are provided for in their resolutions of appointment. Otherwise, the general provisions relating to committees in standing orders 27 to 42 apply. Select committees are required to have a specific reporting date, which may be varied by agreement of the Senate. Unless otherwise provided in the resolution of appointment, a select committee chair has a deliberative vote only. The Senate may give a committee inquiry powers, including the power to call for persons and documents.
For a select committee to commence its inquiry on the publication of a treaty, see the Select Committee on the Free Trade Agreement Between Australia and the United States .
The standard resolution of appointment for select committees usually contains the following elements:
- (1) That a select committee, to be known as the Select Committee on ............................. be established to inquire into and report upon:
- (a) ....................................................;
- (b) ....................................................; and
- (c) .....................................................
- (2) That the Committee present its final report on or before ....................... ......................
- (3) That the Committee consist of X Senators, as follows:
- (a) X to be nominated by the Leader of the Government in the Senate;
- (b) X to be nominated by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; and
- (c) X to be nominated by minority groups or independents.
- (4) That the committee may proceed to the dispatch of business notwithstanding that all members have not been duly nominated and appointed and notwithstanding any vacancy.
- (5) That the committee elect as chair one of the members nominated by the ....... ...................................... and, as deputy chair, a member nominated by ..................
- (6) That the deputy chair shall act chair when the chair is absent from a meeting of the committee or the position of chair is temporarily vacant.
- (7) That, in the event of an equality of voting, the chair, or the deputy-chair when acting as chair, have a casting vote. [If not specified, SO 31 applies.]
- (8) That the committee and any subcommittee have power to send for and examine persons and documents, to move from place to place, to sit in public or in private, notwithstanding any prorogation of the Parliament or dissolution of the House of Representatives, and have leave to report from time to time its proceedings and the evidence taken and such interim recommendations as it may deem fit.
- (9) That the committee have power to appoint subcommittees consisting of X or more of its members, and to refer to any such subcommittee any of the matters which the committee is empowered to consider.
- (10) That the committee be provided with all necessary staff, facilities and resources and be empowered to appoint persons with specialist knowledge for the purposes of the committee with the approval of the President.
- (11) That the committee be empowered to print from day to day such papers and evidence as may be ordered by it, and a daily Hansard be published of such proceedings as take place in public.
There are few specific requirements relating to the membership of select committees. The standing orders retain the provision for committee members to be nominated by the mover of the committee but this provision is rarely used to select named senators to serve on the committee. The more common approach is for the mover of a committee to nominate a membership formula along the lines of paragraph (3) of the model resolution of appointment above. It is also increasingly common for select committees to have participating members. If this is required, a provisions based on standing order 25(7)(b) to (d) are added to the resolution. Specific quorum provisions are now unusual, the quorum for committees and subcommittees being provided for by standing order 29.
The number of senators on select committees has varied between five and nine. On six- or eight-member select committees, which were once the norm, the chair was usually a government party senator with the ability to exercise a casting vote, giving the government party an effective majority. The use of an odd number membership formula tends, on the other hand, to give the balance of power on committees to minority groups who hold the balance of power in the Senate. The balance of power on a select committee is significant only when the issues under consideration are contentious and divisive. The five-member Select Committee on Public Interest Whistleblowing in 1994, for example, with two government, two opposition and one minority party senator, reported unanimously on a very sensitive issue without dividing along party lines.
Until 1994 select committee chairs were usually government senators. Exceptions were those select committees to which the government of the day failed to nominate members, leaving the chair by default to the opposition. In 1982, the independent Senator Harradine chaired the seven-member Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation and in 1983 Senator Peter Rae, who had been the chair of the Finance and Government Operations Committee before the change of government that year, chaired the Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing, which was appointed to complete an inquiry begun by the standing committee under Senator Rae's chairmanship. Whereas the resolution appointing the Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation provided for the chair to be elected from the members of the committee, the resolution appointing the Select Committee on Statutory Authority Financing named Senator Rae as chair of the committee. The chair of the Select Committee on Superannuation and Financial Services was appointed by the Senate in 1999. In 1992 Australian Democrat Senator Coulter was elected chair of the Select Committee on the Functions, Powers and Operation of the Australian Loan Council. In 1993, opposition chairs were elected to the select committees on Public Interest Whistleblowing, and Certain Foreign Ownership Decisions in relation to the Print Media. Also in that year, in anticipation of the government chair of the Select Committee on Superannuation standing down from the position, a resolution was agreed to by the Senate providing for his successor and the deputy chair of the committee to be "allocated among the members of the committee by agreement between the Leader of the Government in the Senate and the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and the Leader of the Australian Democrats, and, in the absence of agreement duly notified to the President, the allocation of the chair and deputy chair shall be determined by the Senate". In the event, determination by the Senate was unnecessary as the Leaders agreed that the new chair should be an opposition senator who had previously been deputy chair of the committee. In 1995 the committees on ABC Management, Aircraft Noise, Land Fund Bill and Land Fund Matters all had non-government chairs. The Select Committee on the Victorian Casino Inquiry, appointed in 1996, had a non-government majority and elected an opposition senator as chair. Six select committees established in 2008, on agriculture and related industries, state government financial management, housing affordability, regional and remote indigenous communities, fuel and energy and the national broadband network, had non-government majorities and Opposition chairs.
Following the adoption of recommendations in the Procedure Committee's First Report of 1994, the sharing of select committee chairs and deputy chairs became a standard practice, reflecting formal arrangements for the sharing of standing committee chairs and deputy chairs.
Since the restructuring of the committee system in 1994, there has been an unofficial agreement about the number of select committees in operation at any one time. Though non-binding, the agreement was reiterated in 2009 when the committee structure returned to the 1994 arrangements.
In acknowledgement of this informal understanding, the Select Committee on the Reform of the Australian Federation was established on 17 March 2010 to be appointed at the conclusion of the Select Committee on the National Broadband Network (which presented its final report on 17 June 2010).