Conferral with committees of the Senate
All committees of the House are now empowered to confer with a similar committee of the Senate. In earlier times this authorisation was granted to individual committees on a case by case basis, with the general rule being that committees had no power to confer with committees of the Senate without leave of the House. Senate standing orders still contain similar provisions. These provide that a committee of the Senate may not confer or sit with a committee of the House except by order of the Senate; that committees permitted or directed to confer with House committees may confer by writing or orally and that proceedings of a conference or joint sitting with a House committee must be reported to the Senate by its committee.
The House and Publications Committees rely on their power to confer with their Senate counterparts to operate in practice as joint committees. Other committees of the House do not sit as joint committees with their Senate counterparts, although this has happened in the past in special circumstances following authorising resolutions from both Houses.
A procedure was followed in the early years of the Parliament in respect of some committees which were established by resolution by each House independently but which in the conduct of inquiries became in effect joint committees. For example, the House, having appointed a Select Committee in relation to Procedure in Cases of Privilege, sent a message to the Senate ‘requesting it to appoint a similar Committee empowered to act conjointly with the Committee of this House’ to which the Senate agreed; the joint select committee reported as a single entity.
In 1994 the House authorised the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs to meet concurrently with its Senate counterpart for the purposes of examining and taking evidence in connection with inquiries being held by each committee into aspects of section 53 of the Constitution. The resolution provided for meetings to be jointly chaired and for the procedures of the Senate as set out in its privilege resolution 1 of February 1988 to be followed to the extent that they were applicable. The Senate, by resolution, noted that its standing committee had power to confer with its counterpart, and directed its committee to confer accordingly. In the event no formal meetings were held between the two committees, although two informal meetings took place between their members.
When a Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory was not appointed in the 35th Parliament, agreement was reached between the Senate and House for a joint process for the consideration of proposals to modify or vary the plan of lay-out of the city of Canberra and its environs, a function previously carried out by the former joint committee. The Senate and the House resolved to refer such proposed variations to their respective Standing Committees on Infrastructure (later renamed Transport, Communications and Infrastructure), and empowered their committees to consider and make use of the evidence and records of the Joint Committees on the Australian Capital Territory appointed during previous Parliaments. The House resolution provided for its committee to inquire into and report on such proposals when conferring with a similar committee of the Senate. The Senate concurred with the House resolution, empowered its committee to sit with the House committee as a joint committee for that purpose, and also resolved to add the following provisions which were accepted by the House:
- the two committees meeting as a joint committee should either appoint the chair of the Senate committee or the chair of the House of Representatives committee as its chair;
- the quorum of the joint committee be two Senators and two Members of the House of Representatives;
- a subcommittee of the Senate committee be empowered to sit with a subcommittee of the House of Representatives committee, as a subcommittee of the joint committee, when considering the variations; and
- a Senator, who was not a member of the Senate committee be permitted to attend meetings of the joint committee or a subcommittee and participate in the proceedings and deliberations, but not vote.