House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

18 - Parliamentary committees

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House standing committees

General purpose standing committees

In 1987 the House established a comprehensive committee system by setting up eight general purpose standing committees. At the same time, the functions of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence were extended, thus giving the House the capacity to monitor or to ‘shadow’ the work of all federal government departments and instrumentalities.

The committees are appointed at the beginning of each Parliament pursuant to standing order 215. The numbers,[17] names and subject areas of the committees have varied. In the 43rd Parliament the following were appointed:

  • Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs;
  • Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry;
  • Standing Committee on Climate Change, Environment and the Arts;
  • Standing Committee on Economics;
  • Standing Committee on Education and Employment;
  • Standing Committee on Health and Ageing;
  • Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications;
  • Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs; and
  • Standing Committee on Regional Australia.

The general purpose standing committees are so called because they are established (or stand) for the duration of the Parliament and have the power to inquire into and report on any matter referred to them by the House or a Minister. Matters referred may include any pre-legislation proposal, bill, motion, petition, vote or expenditure, other financial matter, report or document.

In addition, annual reports of government departments and authorities and reports of the Auditor-General presented to the House are automatically referred to the committees for any inquiry they may wish to make.[18] Reports are referred to particular committees in accordance with a schedule presented by the Speaker recording the areas of responsibilities of each committee. The Speaker is empowered to determine any question should responsibility be unclear or disputed in respect of a report or a part of a report. The period during which an inquiry concerning an annual report can be commenced ends on the day on which the next annual report of the department or authority is presented to the House.[19]

Committees concerned with the operations of the House

The standing orders provide for the appointment of the following committees at the beginning of each Parliament:

Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests (S.O. 216)

The formerly separate Committee of Privileges and Committee of Members’ Interests were amalgamated in 2008.

The Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests is appointed to inquire into and report on complaints of breach of privilege or contempt or on any other matters which may be referred to it. The committee has no power to initiate inquiries. The House has referred to the committee matters of a general nature, such as the use of House records in the courts, the issue of public interest immunity, and the legal status of the records and correspondence of Members.[20] The committee also considers applications from citizens for the publication of responses to statements in the House referring to them.

The procedure for raising and dealing with questions of privilege and details of the functions and procedures of the committee are discussed in detail in the Chapter on ‘Parliamentary privilege’.

The other function of the committee concerns the arrangements for the compilation, maintenance and accessibility of a Register of Members’ Interests, and various related matters. The committee’s functions in relation to Members’ interests are discussed in more detail in the Chapter on ‘Members’.

Library Committee (S.O. 217)

While the standing order establishing the Library Committee has been retained, the committee is inoperative and no members have been appointed since mid 2006. (See also ‘Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library’ at page 649).

House Committee (S.O. 218)

The House Committee is concerned with the provision of services and amenities to Members in Parliament House. The Speaker is a member of the committee.

Historically, this committee has had an advisory role only—executive responsibility has rested with the Speaker and the President, who have not been bound by the decisions of the committees.

The House Committee may confer with the similar committee of the Senate. When the two House committees are sitting together as the Joint House Committee, they should, generally speaking, only consider those matters which affect joint services, as each House is responsible for its own affairs. Recommendations affecting only one House should properly be made by the appropriate House Committee independently. In 1956 and in 1959 the House of Representatives House Committee considered and reported informally on Members’ accommodation. Reports are seldom made to the House.[21]

Publications Committee (S.O. 219)

The Publications Committee of each House when conferring together form the Joint Committee on Publications which has the dual role:

  • to recommend to the Houses from time to time as to which documents presented, that have not been ordered to be made a Parliamentary Paper by either House, ought to be made a Parliamentary Paper;[22] and
  • to inquire into and report on the publication and distribution of parliamentary and government publications, and on matters referred to it by a Minister.

The committee is discussed in more detail in the Chapter on ‘Documents’.

Petitions Committee (S.O. 220)

The Standing Committee on Petitions is appointed to receive and process petitions and to inquire into and report to the House on any matter relating to petitions and the petitions system. The committee’s functions are discussed in more detail under ‘Petitions’ in the Chapter on ‘Documents’.

Procedure Committee (S.O. 221)

The Standing Committee on Procedure is appointed to inquire into and report on the practices and procedures of the House and its committees. As a result of reports of the Procedure Committee a number of initiatives have been taken relating to the business of the House, including significant developments relating to private Members’ business and procedures for the consideration of legislation, including the establishment of the Main Committee (renamed Federation Chamber in 2012). In 1998 the committee undertook a review of the House of Representatives committee system, resulting in extensive changes to the standing orders relating to committees.[23] In the 40th Parliament the committee undertook a complete review of House standing orders with a view to making them more logical, intelligible and readable. The committee’s recommendations for revised standing orders were adopted by the House with effect from the first day of the 41st Parliament.[24]

Selection Committee (S.O. 222)

The Selection Committee arranges the timetable and order of committee and delegation and private Members’ business on Mondays; recommends items of private Members’ business to be voted on; selects bills for referral to committees; and sets speaking times for second reading debates.[25] The committee’s functions are discussed in detail in the Chapter on ‘Non-government business’.

House Appropriations and Administration Committee (S.O. 222a)

The committee considers estimates of the funding required for the Department of the House of Representatives and reports to the Speaker or the House on matters referred to it. It also considers proposals for works in the parliamentary precincts that are subject to parliamentary approval. The committee’s functions are discussed in detail in the Chapter on ‘The Speaker, Deputy Speaker and officers’.

17. Nine from 1996; thirteen from 2002; twelve from 2008; and nine from 2010 following Procedure Committee recommendation to reduce the number of committees—see Standing Committee on Procedure, Building a modern committee system: an inquiry into the effectiveness of the House committee system, PP 144 (2010) 80–85.
18. The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit must be notified in writing of any inquiry into an Auditor-General’s report—S.O. 215(c)(iv).
19. S.O. 215(c).
20. VP 1978–80/975; VP 1993–95/1107; VP 1998–2001/483.
21. But see report by Joint House Committee on accommodation for Members of Parliament at Canberra, VP 1926–28/181; see also reports by the Senate House Committee concerning Senators’ dress in the Senate Chamber, PP 235 (1971), and provision of staff and other facilities for Members of Parliament, PP 34 (1972), and the Joint House Department. The Joint Library Committee reported regularly until 1926.
22. Senate standing orders (and former House standing orders) use the term ‘ordered to be printed’ instead of ‘ordered to be made a Parliamentary Paper’—the two terms may be treated as synonymous.
23. Standing Committee on Procedure, 10 years on: A review of the House of Representatives committee system, May 1998.
24. Standing Committee on Procedure, Revised standing orders, November 2003.
25. S.O. 222.