House of Representatives Committees

Role and operations

Introduction

  1. These notes on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (also known as the Public Works Committee or PWC) provide background information about the functions, responsibilities and membership of the Committee, how it operates and guidelines for the preparation of submissions.

The Committee

  1. The Committee was established in 1913. It is one of the oldest investigative committees of the Parliament. The Committee is constituted by the Public Works Committee Act 1969.

  2. The Act empowers the Committee to inquire into and report to the Parliament on each public work referred to it. The Act requires that all public works for the Commonwealth which are estimated to cost more than $15 million must be referred to the Committee. There are some exceptions to this rule, but essentially all public works sponsored by Commonwealth departments and major statutory authorities with large building programs come within the ambit of the Committee's investigatory powers.

Functions and Responsibilities of the Committee

  1. The Committee's terms of reference are contained in subsection 17(3) of the Public Works Committee Act. A copy of this section is set out on page 6 of these notes. Essentially, the Committee is required to report as expeditiously as practicable on:

Membership

  1. The Committee is bipartisan and consists of six Members of the House of Representatives and three Senators. See the membership of the Committee for more information.

Public Comments on Proposed Works

  1. Proposed public works are referred to the Committee for consideration and report by the House of Representatives, the Senate, or by the Executive Council. Once a proposed public work has been referred, the Committee receives a submission from the sponsoring department. Copies are sent by the Committee secretariat to organisations and individuals who it believes may have an interest in the project to give them the opportunity to provide comments and submissions.

  2. The Committee advertises for public submissions in major national newspapers and newspapers serving locations where the public works are to be undertaken.

  3. Submissions received as a result of these processes form a very important component of the Committee's inquiry, enabling organisations such as trade unions, environmental groups, local councils and individuals to comment on proposals and the Committee to be better informed about community reactions.

Submissions

  1. There is no set format for submissions. A submission may contain facts, opinions and argument and be accompanied by appendices and other supporting data.

  2. If a submission is lengthy, it should be prefaced by a brief summary.

  3. Generally, submissions should:

  1. Submissions should avoid:

Evidence

  1. All written submissions to the Committee become the sole property of the Committee when received by the Committee Secretariat. As such, they are confidential documents and may not be given to any other persons, including the media, unless permission of the Committee to do so has been sought and obtained.

  2. As part of its operating procedures the Committee will authorise the Committee secretariat to provide to interested persons and organisations copies of submissions from sponsoring departments or agencies. The Committee will also authorise the Committee secretariat to release submissions from other persons and organisations.

Comments on Submissions

  1. The Committee will obtain written comments or supplementary submissions from sponsoring departments or agencies on submissions received from other organisations or persons. All submissions received by the Committee will be included in the volume of submissions and will be available on the Committee's Web site.

Public Hearings

  1. The Committee generally conducts public hearings into proposals referred to it. Members of the Committee question witnesses representing the sponsoring department including the design and construction organisation, seeking amplification on matters raised in their submission or in submissions made by other organisations and individuals.

  2. Authors of submissions may be invited to give oral evidence before the Committee at a public hearing if the Committee considers that the inquiry will benefit from such evidence. Such questioning also allows the witness to amplify points made in the submission or to provide additional information.

Notification of Public Hearing

  1. Witnesses are advised of the date, time and place of public hearings by the Committee secretariat as soon as practicable. Generally, public hearings are held close to the location of the proposed work.

  2. It is in the interests of all witnesses who wish to appear before the Committee to attend, if possible, the entire public hearing. Witnesses who have timing limitations and restrictions should discuss these with the secretariat prior to the public hearing.

Procedures at Public Hearings

  1. Witnesses should note that the Committee's proceedings are lawful proceedings of the Parliament and as such warrant the same respect that proceedings in the Parliament itself demand.

  2. On entering the hearing room witnesses should make themselves known to the Committee staff - the Secretary or the Assistant Secretary.

  3. When it is his or her turn to give evidence, the Chair will call the name of the witness, or the organisation represented, to approach the witness table.


Oral Evidence

  1. The Chair will then ask the witness to be seated. For the Hansard record the witness will be requested to give his or her full name and the capacity in which he or she is appearing before the Committee.

  2. The Chair will then formally acknowledge receipt of the witness's submission and ask the witness if he or she wishes to make any amendments to it. Witnesses are advised to discuss the handling of substantial amendments with the secretariat as these must be available at least a week before the public hearing.

  3. The submission (and any amendments) will then be incorporated into the volume of submissions and copies are made available to the media and other interested persons or organisations.

  4. The Chair will then give the witness an opportunity to make a short (no more than five minutes) opening statement to the Committee summarising the main points of the submission, raising issues relevant to the inquiry.

  5. Questions will then be asked by the Chair and members of the Committee. These questions will seek to clarify aspects of the submission, seek relevant additional information not included in the submission and to enable points to be amplified. It is a parliamentary convention that witnesses address the Committee through the Chair.

  6. Should a witness be unable to answer a question or provide information at the time of the public hearing, the permission of the Committee may be requested to provide a written answer at a later date.

  7. Witnesses should note that lack of cooperation or the giving of untrue evidence can be regarded as contempt of Parliament. The Public Works Committee Act specifies penalties in such circumstances.

Confidential Evidence

  1. In certain circumstances written submissions and oral evidence may be presented in private. The Public Works Committee Act provides that the Committee may take the evidence in private; or direct that the document, or part of the document, be treated as confidential.

  2. Witnesses who believe that their submission contains matters which should be discussed in private are advised to consult with the Committee secretariat prior to the public hearing.

Recording of Evidence

  1. All oral evidence is recorded on audio tape by Hansard (the Parliamentary Reporting Staff) and is later transcribed. The transcript and the written submissions presented to the Committee constitute the formal evidence of an inquiry. Copies of proof transcripts are forwarded to all witnesses following the hearing to enable minor corrections to be made.

  2. Corrections to the transcript should be confined to grammar, statements wrongly attributed and words which have been incorrectly transcribed. Witnesses also receive a final corrected transcript at a later stage.

Committee Reports

  1. After the public hearing, and when all the evidence has been collected and considered, the Committee prepares a report on the proposed work for tabling in the House of Representatives and the Senate. A report addresses the terms of reference in relation to a proposal as well as matters raised in submissions and at public hearings, and makes appropriate recommendations. When the report is tabled a short statement is made which summarises the report's conclusions and recommendations. A copy of the of the Committee's report will be sent to all witnesses after it is tabled. A copy is also placed on the Committee's website www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/pwc

Expediency Motion

  1. After a report has been presented, the House of Representatives must pass an 'expediency motion' before work on a project can commence. The expediency motion is often debated by Members and matters raised by the Committee in its report are discussed. Very often assurances about matters of concern to the Committee are given by Ministers during the debate on the motion.

Further information about the Committee's operations may be obtained by phoning or writing to the Committee Secretariat at the following address:

Produced by the Public Works Committee Secretariat December 2006

Extract from the Public Works Committee Act 1969

PART III-REPORTS ON PUBLIC WORKS

Functions of the Committee

17. (1) The Committee shall, as expeditiously as is practicable-

(2) The Committee may, in its report on a public work, recommend any alterations to the proposals for the work that, in its opinion, are necessary or desirable to ensure that the most effective use is made of the moneys to be expended on the work.

(3) In considering and reporting on a public work, the Committee shall have regard to-


(4) In considering and reporting on a public work proposed to be carried out by an authority of the Commonwealth, the Committee shall have regard to the functions, powers and duties of the authority and to the powers conferred on a Minister in relation to the activities of the authority concerned.

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