Chapter 5 The committee system and other issues
The Committee reviewed the reforms of the House committee system in two
previous interim reports: one completed five weeks after their implementation, Interim
Report: Monitoring and review of procedural changes implemented in the 43rd
Parliament, and the other twelve months after their implementation, Interim
Report No. 3: Monitoring and review of procedural changes implemented in the 43rd
Parliament: The effectiveness of reforms to the House committee system. The
origins of some changes and the Committee’s initial response have been discussed
in these two reports.
This chapter will re-visit some of the earlier conclusions and examine
the progress of the reforms to the committee system after nearly two years.
The chapter also reconsiders other issues in the Committee’s initial
interim report including the changes to weekly sitting hours, minor amendments
and updates to the standing orders to enhance the operations of the House, and
the renaming of the Main Committee.
In summary, the Agreement proposed a number of changes to the House
committee system including:
- reducing the number
of standing committees from 12 to nine;
- reducing membership
of committees from 10 to seven;
- increasing the
opportunity for supplementary members to be appointed to an inquiry;
- providing the
Selection Committee with the power to refer bills to committees for additional
- providing additional
opportunities for Chairs and Deputy Chairs to make statements in the House
about committee inquiries; and
- improving government
response times to committee recommendations.
Number of committees and membership
Under amended standing order 215(a), House standing committees were
reduced from 12 in the previous Parliament to nine in the 43rd
Parliament. Standing order 215(d) reduced membership of these committees from
10 permanent members (six Government and four non-Government) to seven (four
Government and three non-Government), with provision to accommodate non-aligned
Members. In the 2010 report (prior to the reforms), this Committee recommended
a rationalisation in the number and membership of committees to allow Members
to use their time more effectively and concentrate their involvement on fewer
committees. The Leader of the House,
on introducing the amendments to standing orders commented on the need to
ensure an effective and efficient committee system.
In the 42nd Parliament there were 256 positions
on House and joint committees to be filled by 118 Members eligible to be
members. As a result, most
eligible Members were required to serve on two or three committees and a number
served on as many as four.
As at 20 June 2012, there are 278 positions
on House and joint committees and 118 eligible Members.
Figure 5.1 compares the distribution of committee positions among Members for
the 42nd Parliament and the 43rd Parliament to 30 June
Figure 5.1 Distribution of committee positions among Members
of the 42nd and 43rd Parliaments
42nd Parliament 43rd
Research Office statistics 2012
Distribution of committee positions in the 43rd Parliament
indicates that, while fewer Members are serving on two or three committees,
substantially more are serving on four or more committees.
The anomaly noted in the interim report on the effectiveness of the
reforms on the House committee system, appears to have continued. Two joint
standing committees and six joint select committees have been established
during the 43rd Parliament, cancelling out the loss of positions
caused by the reduction in House committees. Fourteen Members have
been appointed to the two joint standing committees and 38 Members to positions
on the six joint select committees.
To enable Members to participate in inquiries of particular interest to
them, provision was made for up to four supplementary Members (up from two in previous
parliaments) to be appointed to a committee. In the 43rd
Parliament to 30 June 2012, 40 supplementary Members had been appointed to eight
separate committees for particular inquiries.
Referral of bills to committees
The Selection Committee can refer bills that it considers controversial
or requiring further consultation or debate to relevant standing or joint
committees. In the 43rd Parliament, as at 30 June 2012, the
Selection Committee has referred for inquiry 114 bills to 14 committees (seven House
standing committees and seven joint committees).
Thirty bills have been referred to the Standing Committee on Economics,
21 bills to the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, 13 to
the Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications and 12 to the
Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry. The
remaining bills have been referred to 10 other standing and joint committees
with each committee receiving between one and nine bills.
Of the 114 bills referred to committees, as at 30 June 2012, the inquiry
process has been concluded on 104. The average duration of each has been 64
days, with the longest taking 210 days and the shortest one
There have been two refinements to the process that the Selection
Committee uses to refer bills to committees:
reporting timeframes; and
- providing reasons for
As noted in this Committee’s second interim report, the Selection
Committee originally set reporting timeframes for the bills it referred to
committees. However, it discontinued this practice after it referred the first
This Committee recommended in its second interim report that the
Selection Committee provide the reasons for referring a bill to a committee, to
improve efficiency. A number of committee
Chairs and Deputy Chairs publicly supported this recommendation. For example,
the Chair of the Standing Committee on Employment and Education told the House:
The education and employment committee concurs with the
Procedure Committee’s recent recommendation that reasons be provided for
referral. The committee and I am sure that those stakeholders who made
submissions would have found an explanation as to why the current proposal was
referred most useful.
The Chair of the Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services
reiterated the point, emphasising the connection between reasons for referral
and committee efficiency:
While supporting the referral of bills as an effective
mechanism for increasing transparency and public consultation, the committee
feels that the referral process would be more effective if an explanation were
also provided as to why the bill was referred in the first place so that the
committee can target its efforts more effectively.
The Selection Committee responded to these concerns and has provided
reasons for the referral of all bills since Report No. 49 on 22 March 2012.
This Committee also recommended: that standing order 222(a)(iii) be
amended to remove the provision that one member of the Selection Committee is
sufficient to select a bill for referral, (thereby requiring a majority
decision of the Committee). The Government indicated
its support for this recommendation in its response presented on 1 November
2012 to the Committee’s second interim report.
A further development noted in the interim report was the trend for
Chairs to present a statement to the House discharging the committee’s
requirement for reporting on bill referrals, rather than presenting a report.
This has enabled them to report back quickly. In their discharge statements
Chairs have noted the uncontroversial nature of bills or the unnecessary
duplication of an inquiry where a bill has been referred to both House and
Senate committees. One Chair commented that the bill under investigation had
been referred to eight Senate committees:
Eight committees of the Senate will conduct wide-ranging
scrutiny of executive government over the next four days. It was the view of
the committee that it would unnecessarily duplicate the work of these Senate
committees and possibly create confusion amongst witnesses if it attempted to
undertake its own, concurrent examination.
As at 30 June 2012, 53 reports on bills referred by the Selection
Committee have been presented to the House and 11 statements discharging the
requirement for reporting have been presented.
Statements by Chairs and Deputy Chairs
The Agreement proposed that committee Chairs be able to make short
statements to the House relating to committee inquiries.
Standing order 39(a) enables Chairs and Deputy Chairs to make such statements
during the periods for committee and delegation business on Mondays. Chairs and
Deputy Chairs representing seven committees used this opportunity, making 25
statements to the House. One Chair remarked:
… I want to thank the Standing Committee on Procedure for the
change to the standing orders that actually allows us to discuss committee
reports as they are going along and not just at the end, when all the hard work
is done and you are relegated to five minutes in this place. I think this is a
terrific initiative and I commend the parliament and those involved in the
The Agreement proposed to encourage more timely responses from the
Government to committee reports and greater accountability from Ministers for
those responses. The House resolved on 29
September 2010 to require the Government to respond to recommendations in
committee reports within six months of the report being presented to the House.
If the Government failed to respond within the timeframe, the relevant Minister
was expected to present a statement to the House explaining the reasons for the
delay. Additionally, committees were enabled to request a Minister to appear
before the committee and provide an explanation.
Of the 58 committee reports tabled to 30 June 2012, 45 required a
Government response to recommendations. Six of those have not yet reached the
six month cut-off date. Of the remaining 39 reports, 21 have received a
Government response, eight within the specified period, leaving 18 outstanding.
On five occasions a Status of Government Response explaining the cause for the
delay in responding to the committee’s recommendations has been presented to the
In previous parliaments the Speaker presented a schedule listing
government responses and outstanding responses to committee reports to the
House approximately every six months. In addition, in the 43rd
Parliament, the Status of Government Response has been tabled by the Leader of
the House on behalf of the relevant Minister and the document has then been
made the subject of a take note motion.
As the Committee observed in its interim report, many of the reforms
proposed in the Agreement and implemented in the 43rd Parliament,
stemmed from recommendations of the Committee.
Despite the reduction in the number of committees and in membership of
committees, the overall number of committee positions has increased and the
number of Members serving on four or more committees has increased
substantially. This indicates, unfortunately, that the aim of these reforms to
make the committee system more workable for Members and allow individual
Members to dedicate their time more effectively to committee work
may not have been met.
Members, by their actions, have indicated a favourable response to the greater
opportunity to be appointed as supplementary Members to particular inquiries.
The Committee previously examined the impact of the referral of bills to
House and joint committees by the Selection Committee and is encouraged to see
that the Selection Committee now provides reasons for the referral of bills.
The Committee is also pleased to note the Government’s support for its previous
recommendation to remove the provision that one member of the Selection
Committee is sufficient to select a bill for referral. To implement this change
an amendment to the standing orders would need to be passed by the House.
The Committee notes that committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs have made
good use of the opportunity to update the House on committee inquiries and
welcomes the increased prominence provided to committee work.
In its initial interim report, the Committee discussed issues raised by
implementation of the changes, suggested some refinements and identified
several areas for ongoing monitoring. The key areas of concern were:
- changes to weekly
- refinements to
improve the efficiency of proceedings; and
- renaming of the Main
Changes to weekly sitting hours
To accommodate the expanded opportunities for private Members, sitting
hours have been increased. As this Committee has noted, the extra sitting hours
have had significant consequences for Members, their staff and parliamentary
Tables 5.1 and 5.2 below compare meeting and adjournment times with
those in the previous Parliament.
Table 5.1 Set meeting and adjournment times of the House,
order 29(b), 20 October 2010
Table 5.2 Set meeting and adjournment times of the House,
Order 29(b), 1 December 2008
Despite the extended sitting hours, the hours in an average sitting day
in the House do not appear to have increased very greatly, although the change
is noticeable. In the 43rd Parliament during 2011 an average sitting
day was 11 hours and 34 minutes in the House. During an equivalent period in
the 42nd Parliament an average sitting day was 10 hours and 2
However, the extended sitting hours have substantially affected the
average daily sitting hours in the Federation Chamber, with the average hours
increasing from 4 hours and 47 minutes in the 42nd Parliament to 6
hours and 59 minutes in the 43rd Parliament.
As noted previously, the additional sitting hours in the House and
Federation Chamber are a concern in their own right for Members: they ensure
two long days each sitting week in each Chamber. Additionally the support
provided by Members’ staff and Parliamentary staff in preparing speeches,
procedural scripts, Clerking, broadcasting and Hansard services, and so on, is
considerable. There are also repercussions from changed travel patterns for
Members who have electorate commitments and, like most members of the
community, family and home commitments.
Anecdotal evidence suggests to the Committee that the concerns expressed
by Dr Mal Washer MP, have been realised. In his submission Dr Washer noted:
These additional hours are having an adverse effect on the mental
and physical health of Members, their staff and the staff of the Parliament.
The result is mental and physical fatigue leading to altered
mood with higher levels of anxiety and depression, poor concentration and often
abnormal sleep patterns. Physically there is a drop in fitness levels and
reduced immunity which would affect resistance to infection and malignancy and
exacerbate chronic disease. There is a greater tendency for the use of
medication to assist with sleeping and with some increased alcohol consumption.
Many Members have time zone differences up to 3 hours during
Eastern Daylight Saving further compounding the problem and are fatigued by up
to 7 or more hours of travelling to Canberra. We all have a duty to care for
ourselves and our staff.
Refinements to improve the efficiency of proceedings
In the Committee’s initial interim report it noted a number of areas
where fine-tuning of standing orders and changes in practice would contribute
to the overall efficiency of the proceedings of the House and Federation
Chamber. The issues raised
- the form of stating
the question on amendments;
- scheduling of private
Members’ items in the Federation Chamber and return of items from the
- speaking time limits
for debates not otherwise provided for and items of private Members’ business;
- listing in the Notice
Paper of private Members’ business items to be voted on;
- the Speaker as Chair
of the Selection Committee; and
- appointment of
supplementary members to House committees.
Stating the question on amendments
In this Committee’s initial report, it discussed a proposal by the Clerk
of the House of Representatives to change the way questions on amendments are
stated and put to the House. It was suggested that a
shortened form of the question (already provided for in the standing orders) be
used to simplify the process and avoid confusion.
The long-standing practice had been for questions on amendments to
motions to be stated in the form: ‘that the words proposed to be omitted stand
part of the question’, as provided by standing order 122(a)(ii):
Standing order 122(a)(ii):
If the purpose is to omit certain words in order to insert or
add other words, the question shall be –
That the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the
If this question is resolved in the affirmative, the
amendment is disposed of: if negatived, the Speaker shall put a further
That the words proposed be [inserted, or added].
The Clerk noted that stating the question in this form can be
‘counter-intuitive and puzzling to members and observers’ because Members in
favour of an amendment must vote ‘no’ on the initial question. Furthermore,
where an amendment is supported by a majority but contested, two divisions are
required for the amendment to be made.
Standing order 122(b) already included provision for the shortened form
‘that the amendment be agreed to’, provided that no Member objects. The wording
in this provision is such that if any Member objected, the Chair would have no
discretion and the longer form of the question would need to be put.
The simpler form was currently used for detailed stage amendments and sometimes
for amendments to motions, such as those moved by Ministers to non-government
The Clerk identified a number of advantages of the question on
amendments always being stated in the alternative simpler form:
- it is much more
straight forward than the “words stand” form and will always be clear to
members and those following proceedings. Members in favour of the amendment
vote “aye” and those against it vote “no” …;
- it allows amendments
to be moved to the amendment itself;
- if an amendment is
defeated other amendments can be moved to the main question, as well as
amendments to the question ‘that the motion, as amended, be agreed to’; and
- in the case of
amendments going to a vote, one division only is required to make a decision on
This Committee agreed that a trial of the change would be useful and in
June 2011 the then Speaker, Mr Harry Jenkins, introduced a trial of the new
arrangement. As the Speaker indicated
then, any Member could object to the arrangement and ‘require the traditional
form to be used in a particular case’. The Committee is unaware,
at 30 June 2012, of any Member objecting to the use of the new arrangements.
The resulting opportunity to use the new arrangement to allow an
amendment to be moved to an amendment was exercised by a Member in August 2012.
During the second reading debate on the Migration Legislation Amendment
(Offshore Processing and Other Measures) Bill 2011, the Member for Cook moved
an amendment to a previous amendment moved by the Member for Melbourne.
The Committee considers worthwhile any arrangement that makes House
procedure more straightforward and less confusing for Members and observers—without
sacrifice to the integrity of the process.
Private Members’ items in the Federation Chamber
In his submission, the Clerk of the House suggested two modifications to
the scheduling of private Members’ business items for the Federation Chamber
and the return of items of private Members’ business from there.
Currently copies of items of private Members’ business scheduled for the
Federation Chamber by the Selection Committee are presented by the Speaker to
the House and further debate is automatically referred to the Federation
Chamber. The Clerk’s first
proposal suggested that standing orders be refined to allow items scheduled by
the Selection Committee for the Federation Chamber to be deemed to have been referred
by the House:
This would obviate the need for the Speaker to table the
terms of matters in the House and for the matters to be deemed to be presented
or moved before they can stand referred to the Main Committee. It would also
allow the Member responsible for a notice to initiate a matter in the Main
Committee by presenting a bill or moving a motion.
The second proposal concerned the return of items of private Members’
business from the Federation Chamber. Currently the Speaker reports formally to
the House when items are returned. The Clerk suggested that
a Member could move in the Federation Chamber, under standing order 197(a),
that further proceedings on particular items be conducted in the House.
These returned items could then be listed on the Notice Paper as orders of the
day under private Members’ business in the House and be called on to be voted
on during government business time if standing orders were suspended.
To date, these suggestions have not been taken up.
Speaking time limits
The Clerk noted three issues with the allocation of speaking times in
the House and suggested some changes to address anomalies and improve
The first suggestion proposed that consideration be given to reducing
time limits for debates not otherwise provided for from 20 minutes to 15
minutes for the mover and from 15 minutes to 10 minutes for other speakers.
This ‘default’ provision currently applies for motions to take note of papers
and motions to suspend standing orders by leave.
The second suggestion was designed to correct the anomaly that exists
when items of private Members’ business are called on during government
business time. The Selection Committee regularly sets time limits for each
Member speaking on items of private Members’ business and these time limits
apply when such an item is considered during private Members’ business time.
However, when these items are called on during government business time,
Members are subject to the standard time limits which are longer than those usually
determined by the Selection Committee.
Finally, the Clerk referred to an issue raised by the Selection
Committee in its report to the House on 21 October 2010.
The Selection Committee noted that, although it could under standing order
222(c) determine the time limits for second reading debates for private
Members’ bills, it was constrained by standing order 1 from allocating shorter
To date, these issues regarding speaking time limits have not been
Listing of private Members’ business items to be voted on in the Notice
Currently items of private Members’ business recommended by the
Selection Committee to be voted on are published in the Selection Committee’s
reports. The Clerk has suggested that listing these items on the Notice Paper
would be useful for Members.
To date, this has not occurred.
Speaker as Chair of the Selection Committee
As noted earlier in this report, the reconstituted Selection Committee
in the 43rd Parliament has a broader role than in previous
Parliaments. Under the current standing orders the Speaker chairs the Committee
which is responsible for:
- scheduling committee
and delegation business and private Members’ business for each sitting Monday;
- recommending items of
private Members’ business to be voted on;
- referring bills to
relevant standing and joint committees for further consideration; and
- setting times for
second reading debates.
The Clerk suggested that it may be appropriate, given the Selection
Committee’s wider responsibilities, if the Speaker were one step removed from
the significant decisions that the current Selection Committee is called on to
The Committee notes that, to date, no steps have been taken to alter the
situation and the Speaker continues to chair the Selection Committee.
Appointment of supplementary members to House Committees
The provision for Members to be appointed as supplementary members to
House Committees for particular inquiries was noted earlier. During its initial
inquiry, the Committee heard that the current phrasing in standing orders
215(d) and 229(c) which state that a committee ‘may supplement its membership’,
had been mistakenly interpreted to mean that committees had a role in
appointing their supplementary members. The Committee suggested
that a minor amendment to the standing orders would serve to clarify that the
appointment of supplementary members follows the normal procedure set down in
standing order 229.
The House has not considered this change to date.
Renaming of the Main Committee
The Committee noted in its initial interim report that it had received a
submission from the then Deputy Speaker, the Hon Peter Slipper, regarding the
renaming of the Main Committee. This Committee had long
advocated such a change in order to remove confusion over the location of the
second chamber of the House of Representatives and to improve the perceived
standing of the Main Committee.
In February 2012 standing orders were amended to rename the Main
Committee as the Federation Chamber of the House of Representatives.
On introducing the amendments, the Leader of the House commented on both the
issue of confusion and the status of the chamber:
It is pretty clear that there is some confusion, even among
members of parliament occasionally, arising from the fact that the Main
Committee does not meet in the room that is known as the main committee room.
There is also confusion from time to time about the status of the Main
Committee. It has been suggested to me, for example, when debating the referral
of a bill to the Main Committee, that such a referral somehow gives the bill
less status because the Main Committee is not seen as the equal chamber that it
is. It is simply this chamber meeting in another place at the same time so as
to improve the efficiency of the parliament.
The Committee reiterates its concerns that the extended sitting hours
are proving detrimental to the health and well-being of Members, their staff
and parliamentary staff. As the Committee argued in its initial interim report,
there are a number of ways to reduce the length of sitting days to allow more
convenient patterns of travel while retaining the time required to
satisfactorily meet Members’ parliamentary obligations. The Government noted
the original recommendation in its response on
1 November 2012 to the Committee’s initial report. However, in light of the
ongoing evidence presented to the Committee, it repeats its recommendation from
the initial report with the following modifications:
- that divisions and
quorums called for after 6.30pm, rather than 8.30pm, on Mondays and Tuesdays be
deferred until the following day; and
- that the time
allocated for the adjournment debate be reduced by rising half an hour earlier
on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, rather than rising half an hour earlier on
The Committee recommends that the House consider measures to
manage the workload of Members during sitting weeks, having regard to the
health and wellbeing of Members, their staff and parliamentary staff,
including but not limited to:
at 12.00 noon on Mondays in the House and 12.30pm in the Federation Chamber;
at 12.00 noon on Tuesdays in the House;
the reduction in sitting hours resulting from a) and b) by reducing the time
allocated to private Members’ business each week by three hours;
that divisions and quorums called for after 6.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays be
deferred until the following day; and
half an hour earlier on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, by reducing the
time allocated for adjournment debate.
In principle the Committee agrees to the need for ongoing refinement of
the standing orders and changes to practice that will improve the efficiency of
operations of the House. Finally, it encourages the House to take note of the
suggestions provided in its initial interim report and reiterated in this
report to enhance and update the standing orders accordingly.