Odgers' Australian Senate Practice Thirteenth Edition

Chapter 16 - Committees

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Presentation of reports

Committees may not present reports without authority from the Senate. Reports are presented pursuant to standing orders or other orders of the Senate. Such orders may be specific, requiring the presentation of a specific report on a particular day, or they may generally authorise the presentation of reports from time to time.[264]

Legislative and general purpose standing committees may report from time to time their proceedings, evidence taken, and any recommendations, and should make regular reports on their progress.[265] Matters referred to the committees are usually referred with a specific reporting date. The presentation of the report becomes a Business of the Senate order of the day and therefore has priority over government and general business for the relevant day.[266] Similarly, bills referred to the committees carry a specific reporting date, as do the particulars of proposed expenditure or estimates. Such dates are determined on a case by case basis. For reports on annual reports the committees are subject to fixed reporting times. Reports on annual reports tabled by 31 October each year are due by the tenth sitting day of the following year. Reports on annual reports tabled by 30 April each year are due by the tenth sitting day after 30 June that year.[267]

Resolutions establishing select committees are required by standing order 28 to fix a time for presentation of the committee's final report. Such resolutions usually also include a provision authorising the committee to report from time to time. Long term select committees have also been required to present reports on a regular basis by the inclusion of a provision along the following lines:

That the committee report to the Senate by the end of each June and December until the end of the Parliament or until the committee presents its final report, whichever first occurs.

The Select Committee on Superannuation and the Select Committee on Community Standards Relevant to the Supply of Services Utilising Electronic Technologies were subject to such a requirement.[268]

Some standing committees are required to present annual reports of their operations. These include the Appropriations and Staffing Committee and the Committee of Senators' Interests.[269] Such reports are in addition to the committees' other reporting obligations.

The Scrutiny of Bills Committee and the Selection of Bills Committee are required to report on virtually all bills considered by the Senate. Although the standing orders do not specify the frequency of reports of these committees, in practice they usually report each sitting week. When presented on sitting days, reports of the Selection of Bills Committee are required to be presented after the giving of notices; leave is required to present them at other times.

A report of a committee is signed and presented to the Senate by the chair.[270] In the chair's absence, the deputy chair or another senator may present the report on behalf of the chair. Until a report is tabled, it may not be disclosed to any person other than a member or officer of the committee.[271]

Where members of a committee indicate an intention to present a minority report, they may present, without leave, such a report subsequent to the presentation of the main committee report. In the absence of a notification of intention to the committee, however, such a minority report is simply another document for which a senator requires leave to table.[272]

Reports of committees may be presented at any time when no other business is before the Senate.[273] By convention, time is set aside after question time and discussion of any matter of public importance or urgency each day, for the presentation of documents by the President, by senators presenting reports from committees and by the Clerk. Reports presented pursuant to Business of the Senate orders of the day are presented when the business of the day is called on, while reports of the Selection of Bills Committee are presented after the giving of notices of motion on any sitting day. An hour is set aside on Wednesdays and Thursdays for committee reports to be presented and debated. During the hour, a motion relating to a report may be moved and senators may speak for up to 10 minutes each.[274]

Reports when Senate not sitting

When a committee has completed its report it is desirable that it should be publicly available as soon as possible, particularly if the report deals with matters of significant public interest. Publication of the report should not be delayed by a long adjournment of the Senate. Provision is therefore made for the release of reports when the Senate is not sitting.

Standing order 38(7) provides for a report to be presented to the President or, in the President's absence, the Deputy President or, in the absence of the Deputy President, any one of the Temporary Chairs of Committees. The report is deemed then to have been presented to the Senate and its publication is authorised. Whoever receives the report may also give directions for its printing and circulation. The report is subsequently tabled by the President at the next sitting of the Senate.

The Senate agreed first in 1990 to an order providing for the presentation of committee reports to the President when the Senate is not sitting. The order was agreed to following a recommendation by the Procedure Committee.[275] The committee examined issues relating to the presentation of reports following an inquiry by the Committee of Privileges into a case of unauthorised disclosure of a committee report before presentation to the Senate. The Privileges Committee drew attention to the practice that had developed of committees seeking permission to present reports to the President when the Senate was not sitting, and noted that this practice had the advantage of minimising the danger of premature disclosure of reports finalised during long adjournments. First adopted as a sessional order, the procedure was subsequently adopted as an order of continuing effect.[276] The order formalised and extended a practice which had been operating frequently on an ad hoc basis since 1984.

Consideration of committee reports

Standing order 39 provides that no discussion shall take place on the presentation of a report but that the report and any documents accompanying it may be ordered to be printed. Any further proceedings on a report occur by motion after notice. Standing order 62, however, provides two special times for the presentation and debate of committee reports when they may be debated.[277] In conjunction with the acceptance of motions moved by leave on the presentation of reports at other times, this means that in practice most committee reports, except reports on bills, are debated on presentation.

The procedures for presentation and debate of committee reports have been considered several times by the Procedure Committee. In its First Report of 1990, the Procedure Committee examined a suggestion by the Committee of Privileges that there should be a limited debate on the presentation of reports and that, to discourage unauthorised disclosure, reports should be presented as early as possible on days when the Senate meets in the mornings.[278] The Procedure Committee reported that the idea had merit but its preferred approach was to allow limited debate as a matter of right regardless of when a committee report was presented. The matter was referred back to the committee for reconsideration and in its Second Report of 1991 the committee suggested that any such debate on a committee report should be interrupted after 30 minutes.[279] Again, the Senate referred the matter for reconsideration but the Procedure Committee, noting resistance to its earlier proposals, recommended no changes to the procedures current at the time.[280] Eventually, variations on these proposals were incorporated into changes to the hours of sitting and routine of business adopted by the Senate on 2 February 1994. These changes, recommended by the Procedure Committee in its Second Report of 1993,[281] included provision of an opportunity, on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, for committee reports to be presented and debated by right, without the need for the Senate to grant leave, and these provisions are now reflected in standing order 62.[282]

At other times when committee reports are presented, it is customary for the Senate to grant leave for a motion to take note of the report to be moved. When this occurs, senators may speak for up to 10 minutes to the motion and there is a 30 minute limit on the total time for debate. Debate on all such motions is limited to 60 minutes where two or more motions are moved in succession.[283]

Standing order 60 provides that a motion for the consideration or adoption of the report of a committee of the Senate and any government statement on such a report takes precedence of any other General Business on the day on which it is set down for consideration. Since most initial consideration of committee reports occurs by debate on a motion moved by leave when the report is presented, this procedure is rarely used.

When debate on a motion in relation to a committee report is adjourned or interrupted by other business, consideration of the report becomes an order of the day for the next day of sitting, in accordance with standing order 62. One hour is allocated for such debate on Thursday and senators may speak for not more than 10 minutes. A senator who has already spoken to the report on its presentation may speak to it again when debate is called on again under standing order 62. During consideration of orders of the day relating to committee reports and government responses, reports are called on in the following order:

  • orders of the day relating to reports or government responses presented that week are called on in the order in which they were presented;
  • orders of the day relating to reports or government responses presented prior to that week are called on in the reverse order of presentation; that is, from latest to earliest.

If an order of the day is called on and no senator speaks to it or wishes to adjourn the debate, the question on the motion is put and the item removed from the Notice Paper.

In most cases, the motion moved in relation to a report is that the Senate take note of the report. Where a report presents recommendations requiring some action by the Senate, the motion is that the report be adopted. Such motions are usually moved in relation to reports of the Committee of Privileges and the Selection of Bills Committee, whose recommendations require adoption by the Senate to bring them into effect.

Government responses

Since the 1970s, successive governments have undertaken to respond to committee reports within specified periods. The Senate first declared its view that the government should respond to committee reports in 1973 when the following resolution was agreed to:

  1. (1) The Senate declares its opinion that, following the presentation of a Report from a Standing Committee or Select Committee of the Senate which recommends action by the Government, the Government should, within the ensuing three months, table a paper informing the Senate of its observations and intentions with respect to such recommendations.
  2. (2) The Senate resolves that the President communicate this Resolution to the Government with a request that the foregoing procedure apply, from the date of the passing of this Resolution, to Reports already presented during the present Session and, in respect of future Reports, from the date of presentation of a Report.[284]

Various governments have given undertakings in relation to the presentations of responses.[285]

In 1994 the resolution was amended following the adoption by the Senate of new standing orders authorising members or groups of members to add dissenting reports, and members or participating members of committees to attach relevant conclusions and recommendations to reports. The amended resolution requires the government to respond also to any minority or dissenting report and any matter added to the report by a member or participating member.[286]

The Senate has also developed a mechanism for monitoring government compliance with this resolution. On 23 August 1979, the Senate considered the Standing Orders Committee's 4th Report of the 59th Session and agreed to adopt a proposal that the President provide reports to the Senate identifying committee reports to which the government had not delivered a response within the prescribed time.[287] Such reports have been regularly presented since 1981.[288]

Government responses are regularly subject to motions moved by leave that the Senate take note of the document. When debate on such a motion is adjourned, the resulting order of the day comes up for reconsideration on Thursdays during the hour set aside for consideration of orders of the day relating to committee reports and government responses, pursuant to standing order 62.

On occasions government responses have been presented in response to questions at question time. There is nothing in the rules of the Senate to prevent this, although question time does not facilitate the consideration of responses.[289]

264. SO 38(6).
265. SO 25(18).
266. SO 58(d).
267. SO 25(20).
268. See 5/5/1993, J.67, as modified by 8/2/1994, J.1219; and 19/5/1993, J.200, as modified by 22/2/1994, J.1278. Also see the resolution of appointment of the Select Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes which provided for the presentation of an interim report, 30/9/2010, J.119-20, 156.
269. SOs 19(3)(c) and 22A(9).
270. SO 38(5).
271. SO 37.
272. 10/5/2007, J.3805.
273. SO 63.
274. SO 62(4).
275. First Report of 1990, PP 436/1990.
276. 23/8/1990, J.237; 13/2/1991, J.738. For a full account of the evolution of the procedure, see Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, under SO 38.
277. See Chapter 8, Conduct of Proceedings, under Consideration of committee reports and Auditor-General's reports.
278. PP 436/1990, pp. 1-2, 7, 9.
279. PP 466/1991, pp. 1-2.
280. First Report of 1992, PP 527/1992, pp. 3-4.
281. PP 212/1993.
282. For a full account of the evolution of the procedure, see Annotated Standing Orders of the Australian Senate, under SO 62.
283. SO 169(2).
284. 14/3/1973, J.51.
285. See SD, 26/5/1978, p. 1933; 24/8/1983, p. 141.
286. 24/8/1994, J.2054.
287. J.883-4.
288. 10/11/1981, J.627.
289. SD, 29/11/2005, pp. 36-8.