House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

17 - Documents

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Documents presented to the House

In order to exercise effectively its responsibility to oversight the activities of the Executive Government, the Parliament needs to be kept informed of the activities of government departments and bodies under the control of government. The presentation of documents and reports by Ministers is very important to Parliament in fulfilling its critical role. It demonstrates the accountability of the Government to the Parliament and, through it, to the community. Documents presented to the House are important primary sources of information from which a Member may draw in asking questions and in making a useful contribution to debate. The presentation of a document to the House places it on the public record.

The fundamental right of Parliament of access to information concerning the activities of government is often given expression in legislation where, for example, Acts of Parliament require government departments and statutory bodies to present reports, including financial reports, of their activities to the Parliament. Information is also provided in other ways, principally through answers to questions in writing and without notice, in the course of debate, and by means of statements by Ministers on government policy or activities. The House itself has a right, expressed in the standing orders,[1] to seek information in documentary form.

Annual reports for virtually all federal government departments and agencies are presented to the Parliament, and this situation was arrived at after pressure and recommendations from within Parliament.[2]

Before the revised standing orders were adopted in 2004, the traditional term ‘paper’ extended in practice to documents presented to the House in electronic form, such as computer disk or videotape.[3] The term used in the current standing orders is ‘document’, which is now defined as meaning a paper or any record of information, including:

  1. anything on which there is writing;
  2. anything on which there are marks, figures, symbols or perforations having a meaning for persons qualified to interpret them;
  3. anything from which sounds, images or writings can be reproduced with or without the aid of anything else; or
  4. a map, plans, drawing or photograph.[4]

However, only printed documents can be included in the Parliamentary Papers Series and it is a government requirement for printed versions of government reports to be presented in addition to any electronic version.

There is no requirement for documents to be in English. Unusual documents presented in recent years have included a ‘message and signatures written on fabric’ (i.e. a bed sheet), and a 13 metre long banner containing signatures.[5]

The traditional phrase ‘table a paper’ and the more recently preferred phrase ‘present a document’ are synonymous.

Method of presentation

Documents are presented to the House in a number of ways. They can be presented pursuant to statute, at government initiative, pursuant to standing orders,[6] by order of the House and by leave of the House. Documents may be presented by the Speaker, by Ministers and, in restricted circumstances, by private Members. There are special provisions for the presentation of petitions and committee and delegation reports. Various documents are presented by the Clerk. As well as being presented by Ministers, government documents may be delivered to the Clerk and be deemed to be presented.

Time of presentation

The more important ministerial documents are usually presented during the period of time set aside in the order of business following Question Time on each sitting day.[7] However, a Minister may present a document at any time when other business is not before the House.[8] With some exceptions, leave is required for a document to be presented at any other time (see page 830). It is the practice of the House that the Speaker may present a document at any time, but not so as to interrupt a Member who is speaking. Documents may be presented in the Federation Chamber.[9]

Documents presented at the time provided in the order of business are generally presented together according to a previously circulated list. A schedule of documents to be presented is made available to the Manager of Opposition Business by 12 noon on the day of presentation, and circulated to Members in the Chamber at the first opportunity. Following Question Time a Minister presents the documents as listed, and the documents so listed are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings and Hansard. Documents are presented individually if a schedule has not been circulated, if they are not listed on a schedule or if a statement is to be made in connection with a document.[10]

By the Speaker

The standing orders provide that documents may be presented to the House by the Speaker.[11] The reports of those committees of which the Speaker is chair, or joint chair, are presented by the Speaker.[12] The Speaker presents the reports of parliamentary delegations of which he or she is leader.[13] The Speaker also presents documents dealing with parliamentary activities,[14] and, pursuant to the Parliamentary Service Act, the annual reports of the Parliamentary Service Commissioner, the Department of the House of Representatives, and the Department of Parliamentary Services (the parliamentary department under the joint authority of the Speaker and the President).[15]

The Auditor-General Act requires the Auditor-General to transmit to each House of the Parliament reports prepared under that Act.[16] Having furnished information to the Prime Minister in relation to an investigation, the Commonwealth Ombudsman may also forward copies of a report concerning the investigation to the President and the Speaker for presentation to Parliament.[17] These reports are presented to the House by the Speaker in his or her role as the representative of the House in its relations with authorities outside the Parliament.[18]

The Speaker may also communicate to the House letters and documents addressed to the Speaker, such as replies to expressions of congratulation or condolence made by the House,[19] or messages of the same kind from foreign countries and other legislatures,[20] letters acknowledging a motion of thanks of the House,[21] or relating to the rights and privileges of the House or its Members, such as communications notifying the House of the arrest or imprisonment of a Member.[22] In 1988 the Acting Speaker presented a copy of a letter from a Deputy President of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission seeking the appointment of a joint select committee to inquire into his situation. Another letter from the same person was presented in 1989.[23] The Speaker has presented a letter from a High Court Judge, and read a statement from the judge, received following criticism of the judge in Parliament.[24] In 2003 the Speaker presented a resolution of the Queensland Parliament which, in part, requested the Commonwealth Parliament to establish an inquiry.[25] A document communicated to the House by the Speaker may be read and entered in the Votes and Proceedings or simply recorded as being received. Unless presented by specific action of the Speaker,[26] documents of this kind are not regarded as having been formally presented to the House.

Pursuant to statute

Documents presented pursuant to statute are those documents required to be presented to the Parliament by virtue of provisions in Acts of Parliament. They may be presented by the Speaker (see above), by Ministers, or delivered to the Clerk for deemed presentation see page 830).

Various types of document are covered by the term ‘statutory document’. For example, an agency is usually required by its enabling legislation to present a report on its operations each financial year, and the report required to be accompanied by financial statements and the report of the Auditor-General on those statements.[27]

Agencies may be permitted or required to investigate and report on specific matters and to present their reports to the Parliament.[28] A number of statutes require that the Minister responsible for the administration of an Act present a report to the Parliament on the operations of that Act,[29] and Acts providing for grants or financial assistance to the States have required that statements of guarantees and payments, and financial agreements, be presented to the Parliament.[30] Since 1986 annual reports of government departments have been presented pursuant to statute. This followed amendments to the Public Service Act providing that reports should be prepared and presented to Parliament each year, in accordance with guidelines approved on behalf of the Parliament by the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit.[31]

There is a statutory requirement that where any Act confers the power to make regulations, those regulations shall be laid before each House of the Parliament. There are also statutory requirements for presentation of many other instruments of a similar nature.[32]

At government initiative

Many reports and other documents, not required by statute to be presented, are considered by the Government as important enough to present to the House for the information of Members. In many cases it is an exercise in the accountability of the Executive to the Parliament. For example, the annual reports of Public Service departments were presented in this way before there was a statutory requirement to do so. In other cases it is an acknowledgment of the fundamental right of access of Members to information concerning government policy or activity, and within this framework documents presented to the House cover a virtually unlimited range of subject matters. They include reports of royal commissions, treaties,[33] agreements and exchanges of notes with foreign countries, reports of committees of inquiry established by the Government, and ministerial statements. These documents are usually presented by Ministers, although in some cases they are forwarded to the Clerk for recording in the Votes and Proceedings as documents deemed to have been presented (see below). The Government has issued guidelines for departments on the presentation of government documents to the Parliament.[34]

In the past such documents were presented nominally ‘by command of the Governor-General’,[35] and referred to as command papers. This term in relation to documents presented to the Australian Parliament did not have the same significance as the term used in the United Kingdom Parliament where such documents are printed as a separate Command Paper series. The term in Australia was purely technical, referring to the manner of presentation, and is no longer current usage.

Deemed to have been presented

In 1962, to save the time of the House, the Standing Orders Committee recommended an amendment to the standing orders providing that a miscellany of papers (mainly statutory documents) may be deemed to have been presented if they are delivered to the Clerk and recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.[36] The recommendation was adopted and in 1963 the Acts Interpretation Act was amended to make the proposed new procedures for the presentation of documents legally effective.[37]

Current standing orders provide that documents may be delivered to the Clerk who shall record them in the Votes and Proceedings. Documents delivered to the Clerk are deemed to have been presented to the House on the day on which they are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.[38] Documents received on a sitting day before 5 p.m. (3 p.m. on Thursday) are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings of the day of receipt. In other circumstances they are recorded in the Votes and Proceedings of the next sitting day. Government departments are advised to consider the time limit in cases where the day of presentation may be significant.

The main types of document delivered to the Clerk for recording in the Votes and Proceedings are the documents presented pursuant to statute described above, including, in particular, delegated legislation.

By leave

Leave of the House is required to enable the presentation of a document in circumstances not provided for in the standing orders or established practice of the House. It is expected that a Member or Minister seeking leave to present a document will first show it to the Minister at the Table or to the Member leading for the Opposition, as the case may be, and leave may be refused if this courtesy is not complied with.[39]

By private Members

Other than providing for the presentation of committee and delegation reports, the standing orders make no provision for private Members to present documents. Any private Member (unless presenting a parliamentary committee report, or a delegation report during the time allotted on Mondays, or unless the document relates to a matter of privilege raised by the Member[40]) wishing to present a document must obtain leave of the House to do so,[41] and leave may be granted only if no Member present objects.[42] Leave is not required to present an explanatory memorandum to a private Member’s bill.


The requirement for leave also applies to Ministers when other business is before the House.[43] Other business is defined as any question before the House (or Federation Chamber) for decision. Ministers therefore do not require leave to present documents between items of business, during Question Time,[44] while making a ministerial statement or personal explanation, during a discussion of a matter of public importance, or during the period for Members’ three minute statements in the Federation Chamber. Conversely, leave is required during adjournment and grievance debates, when there is a question before the House. As in other procedural matters, the same rules apply to Parliamentary Secretaries. Ministers do not require leave to present an explanatory memorandum or other documents connected to a bill before the House. Leave has been required for a newly appointed Minister to present a report of a parliamentary delegation of which he had been a member while a private Member.[45]

Pursuant to standing order 201

Standing order 201 provides that if a Minister quotes from a document relating to public affairs, a Member may ask for it to be presented to the House. The document must be presented unless the Minister states that it is of a confidential nature.[46] The rule has been said to be akin to the rule of evidence in the courts where evidence not placed before the court may not be cited by counsel.[47]

Speaker Snedden laid down steps to be followed when a request for presentation is made under this standing order. The Chair will first ask the question ‘Has the Minister read from the document?’. If the answer is ‘no’, the Chair accepts the Minister’s word. If the answer is ‘yes’, then the Chair will ask the further question ‘Is it a confidential document?’. If the Minister replies that it is confidential, then it is not required to be presented. If it is not a confidential document, and the Minister has read from it, he or she is then required to present the document. The Speaker also said that if a Minister states that he is only referring to notes, then that is the end of the matter—the Chair would not require the tabling of the document.[48]

It is not always easy for the Chair to determine the status of documents. The provisions of the standing order do not apply to personal letters quoted from by a Minister,[49] nor to private documents.[50] A Minister who summarises correspondence, but does not actually quote from it, is not bound to lay it on the Table.[51] The standing order also applied in the former committee of the whole[52] and legislation committees, and by extension of these precedents would apply in the Federation Chamber.

It has been held that when public interest immunity (see page 624) is claimed by the Government in court proceedings it is the duty of the court, and not the right of the Executive Government, to decide whether a document would be produced or withheld.[53] In 1978 a Member raised as a matter of privilege the possible application of these principles to the tabling of documents under the standing order. The Member suggested that the Speaker should stand in a similar position to the court and when a document relating to public affairs was quoted from by a Minister any claim by the Minister that the document was confidential should be judged by the Speaker and not the Minister. The Speaker stated that the cases were significantly different and that the clear course of the standing order must be followed.[54]

Presented by the Clerk
Returns to order

The House itself can order documents to be presented. Upon the House agreeing to a resolution that certain documents should be presented, the Clerk refers the order to the Minister concerned. When the documents are received, they are presented by the Clerk.[55]

Although the standing order only contemplates orders in relation to documents to be produced by Ministers, the House has the power to order other persons or bodies to produce documents. However, generally only documents which are of a public or official character would be ordered to be presented to the House. The power to require the production of papers by private bodies or individuals is in practice more likely to be exercised by committees.[56]

In 1999 a private Member was ordered to produce a document. However, the Member did not comply with the order, stating that the document was no longer in his possession, and no further action was taken by the House.[57]

The procedure of calling for documents was frequently followed during the early years of the House, but it fell into disuse.[58] Much of the information previously sought in this way is now presented to the House pursuant to statute or at government initiative. However, this power has continuing importance and it may be delegated to committees, thus enabling them to send for documents and records.[59] In the Senate orders have been made more recently for the presentation of documents.[60]

An order for documents to be laid before the House may give rise to a claim of public interest immunity. In other words, in respect of certain documents, the Executive may claim an immunity in respect of their production (see page 624).

Election petitions

The validity of any election or return may be disputed by petition addressed to the High Court acting as the Court of Disputed Returns.[61] Although there are no presentation provisions under the standing orders or under statute, it has been the practice for the Clerk to present for the information of the House copies of election petitions,[62] and copies of orders[63] (and related documents[64]) of the Court of Disputed Returns on the petitions, forwarded in accordance with the Commonwealth Electoral Act.[65]

Returns to writs

The standing orders provide that at the first meeting of a new Parliament the Clerk shall present the return to writs following the general election.[66]

Parliamentary committee and delegation reports

The standing orders provide that the reports of committees or delegations may be presented at any time when other business is not before the House. In addition, special set periods are provided on Mondays in the House for committee and delegation business and private Members’ business.[67] During these periods Members can present reports and make statements in relation to reports presented (subject to Selection Committee determinations). When a report is presented at other times, leave is required to make a statement, and there can be no assurance that time will be made available.

In 2008 a new procedure was introduced providing for a report to be presented by the Speaker on Mondays, following which a motion to take note of the report is deemed to be moved and referred to the Federation Chamber for debate later the same day.[68]

Except where presented by the Speaker as described above, committee reports must be presented by a member of the committee[69] and are normally presented by the committee chair or, in the case of a joint committee where the chair is a Senator and the deputy a Member of the House, by the deputy chair.[70] Another member of a committee may, when asked to do so, present a committee report on behalf of the chair.[71]

In the case of committee reports, the Speaker (or Deputy Speaker if the Speaker is unavailable) is authorised to give directions for the printing and circulation of a report if the House is not sitting when the committee has completed its inquiry, and the committee must then present the report to the House as soon as possible.[72]

Ministerial statements

Ministerial statements are made to the House by Ministers on behalf of the Government and are a means by which the Government’s domestic and foreign policies and decisions are announced to the House. A place is provided in the order of business for ministerial statements on each sitting day, following questions and the presentation of documents.[73] However, they may also be made at other times.

In all cases leave of the House is required to make a ministerial statement. The relevant shadow minister, and occasionally other Members, may also make a statement on the same matter by leave, or following suspension of standing orders to allow a specified speaking time (the recent practice). If leave to make a statement is refused, it is open to the Minister, or another Member, to move a motion to suspend the standing orders to enable the statement to be made or, alternatively, the Minister may present the statement, move ‘That the House take note of the document’ and speak to that question.

Having concluded a statement made by leave, a Minister may present a copy of the statement. If this is done, the Minister or another Minister may then move a motion ‘That the House take note of the document’.[74] Debate on this motion enables the contents of the statement to be debated immediately or at a later time (see below).

Government guidelines for departments in relation to the making of ministerial statements include a formal approval process.[75] House processes for the making of ministerial statements are discussed in more detail under ‘Statements by leave’ in the chapter on ‘Control and conduct of debate’.

1. S.O. 200.
2. E.g. Joint Committee on Publications, Inquiry into the purpose, scope and distribution of the Parliamentary Papers Series, PP 216 (1977) 14, H.R. Deb. (24.11.1978) 3456–7.
3. E.g. VP 1996–98/619; VP 1998–2001/296–7; VP 1998–2001/853; VP 2004–7/1349.
4. S.O. 2. This aligns with the definition of a document in the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.
5. VP 2004–07/602, 1216.
6. S.O.s 199–200.
7. S.O. 34.
8. S.O. 199(b).
9. E.g. VP 1993–95/2516; VP 1996–98/457; VP 2008–10/942.
10. Resolution of the House effective March 1988. VP 1987–89/302–3.
11. S.O. 199(a). E.g. VP 1993–95/965;
12. VP 2010–12/71.
13. E.g. VP 1993–95/1613; VP 1998–2001/1115; VP 2010–12/239.
14. See for example, History of Hansard, VP 1970–72/1236; Radio broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings—papers, VP 1993–95/1327; VP 1996–98/95, 160; VP 2010–12/260 (response to committee report).
15. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, ss. 42, 65. Note that a report or other document presented by both Presiding Officers may be presented to the two Houses on different days.
16. Auditor-General Act 1997, ss. 15, 16, 17, 18, 25, 28.
17. Ombudsman Act 1976, s.17; VP 1985–87/392.
18. See Ch. on ‘The Speaker, Deputy Speakers and officers’.
19. E.g. VP 1978–80/981; VP 2002–04/1061–2.
20. E.g. VP 1978–80/930, 977; VP 1996–98/366–9; VP 2002–04/1318; VP 2007–09/750.
21. VP 1932–34/583.
22. E.g. VP 1970–72/517; VP 1990–92/1633 (letter of apology).
23. VP 1987–89/811, 1025.
24. VP 2002–04/122–2.
25. In response to a question the Speaker later indicated that he intended to take no action on the matter unless instructed by the House. H.R. Deb. (25.11.2003) 22719–20; (2.12.1903) 23432.
27. VP 1967–68/10. An authority could report for a 12 month period other than the financial year; for example, see reports of joint fisheries authorities under the Fisheries Act 1952 (now repealed), VP 1993–95/949, 1983.
28. E.g. Automotive Industry Act 1984, s. 10.
29. E.g. Housing Assistance Act 1996, s. 14; Air Navigation Act 1920, s. 29.
30. E.g. Urban and Regional Development (Financial Assistance) Act 1974, s. 8.
31. Public Service Act 1999, ss. 63, 73. Requirements for annual reports for departments, executive agencies and FMA Act bodies, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, June 2009.
32. And see ‘Delegated legislation’ in Ch. on ‘Legislation’.
33. New arrangements for treaties were announced in May 1996: the Government undertook to table treaties at least 15 sitting days before taking binding action; treaties were to be tabled with a national interest analysis, to facilitate community and parliamentary scrutiny; and a Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was created to consider tabled treaties and related matters. H.R. Deb. (2.5.1996) 231–5.
34. Guidelines for the presentation of documents to the Parliament (including government documents, government responses to committee reports, ministerial statements, annual reports and other instruments), Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, October 2009.
35. Former S.O. 319. Documents were recorded in the Votes and Proceedings as being presented by command until 1983.
36. Standing Orders Committee, Report, H of R 1 (1962–63) 57.
37. Acts Interpretation Act 1963, s. 34B; H.R. Deb. (7.5.1963) 1066–7.
38. S.O. 199(b).
39. H.R. Deb. (9.10.1979) 1724; H.R. Deb. (3.6.1999) 5947.
40. VP 1998–2001/1350; and see S.O. 53.
41. VP 1978–80/1597; VP 1996–98/162. Speaker Hawker held that a request from a private Member for leave to present a document during Question Time would not be put to the House where the document was already on the public record, H.R. Deb (17.11.2004) 73. In the 43rd Parliament Speaker Jenkins would not permit private Members, other than the questioner, to seek to table a document during Question Time, H.R. Deb. (22.2.2011) 913; H.R. Deb. (24.3.2011) 3206.
42. S.O. 63.
43. S.O. 199(b). VP 1976–77/183; VP 1978–80/178; VP 1996–98/276.
44. VP 2004–07/63.
45. H.R. Deb. (20.3.2002) 1702.
46. VP 1993–95/1972; VP 1996–98/491.
47. Lord Campion, An introduction to the procedure of the House of Commons, 3rd edn, London, MacMillan, 1958, p. 197.
48. H.R. Deb. (1.4.1976) 1239. In most cases Speakers have accepted the Minister’s word as to a document’s confidentiality. Speaker Sinclair insisted that documents should be marked confidential, H.R. Deb. (9.3.1998) 736, but subsequent Speakers have not continued this approach.
49. H.R. Deb. (28.8.1913) 646–7.
50. H.R. Deb. (23.2.1949) 612.
51. H.R. Deb. (23.2.1972) 110; and see May, 24th edn, pp. 445–7.
52. H.R. Deb. (20.9.1973) 1385.
53. Sankey v. Whitlam and others (1978) 142 CLR 1.
54. VP 1978–80/529, 541; H.R. Deb. (14.11.1978) 2715; H.R. Deb. (15.11.1978) 2867 (references to former S.O. 321).
55. S.O. 200.
56. See also May, 24th edn, p. 133.
57. The order was by way of a government amendment to a motion censuring a Minister. The document involved was apparently a ‘leaked’ copy of a cabinet submission, the content of which was the ground of the attempted censure. The Member stated that he did not acknowledge the right of the House to order him to produce the document. The Speaker later stated that the comments, although contemptuous, did not constitute a prima facie case of contempt, and that the House might be best advised to consult its own dignity and not take any further action in the matter. VP 1998–2001/957–63, H.R. Deb (13.10.1999) 11479–510. The Speaker had earlier been asked to rule the amendment out of order on the grounds that the House did not have the power to order a private Member to produce documents. The Speaker’s response was that it was not his intention to limit the power of the House to determine what could or could not be produced.
58. The last return to order was laid on the Table of the House on 25 July 1917, VP 1917–19/20.
59. S.O. 236; and see Ch. on ‘Committees’.
60. Odgers, 13th edn, pp. 560–6.
61. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 353(1); and see Ch. on ‘Elections and the electoral system’.
62. E.g. VP 1996–98/72, 109; VP 1998–2001/205; VP 2002–04/17; VP 2004–07/130, 143; VP 2010–12/174–5.
63. E.g. VP 1993–95/176, 1106; VP 1996–98/428–30; VP 1998–2001/717; VP 2002–04/328.
64. E.g. VP 2008–10/133.
65. Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918, s. 369.
66. S.O. 4(e); E.g. VP 2004–07/2–6; VP 2010–12/2–6.
67. S.O. 39. For a detailed discussion of committee reports see Ch. on ‘Parliamentary committees’.
68. S.O. 39(d).
69. S.O. 247(a).
70. E.g. VP 1978–80/1584.
71. E.g. VP 1977/367–9; VP 1996–98/535; VP 1998–2001/1625.
72. S.O. 247(c), see page 851 and Ch. on ‘Parliamentary committees’.
73. S.O. 34.
74. S.O. 202(a).
75. Guidelines for the presentation of documents to the Parliament (including government documents, government responses to committee reports, ministerial statements, annual reports and other instruments), Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, October 2009, pp. 12–13.