House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

18 - Parliamentary committees

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Joint committees

Joint committees are established by resolution or legislation agreed to by both Houses, and membership consists of both Members and Senators.

It is essential to an understanding of joint committees to recognise that they are the creatures of both Houses. Neither House may give instructions to a joint committee independently of the other unless both Houses expressly agree to the contrary. However, it is often provided in resolutions appointing joint committees that either House may refer matters for investigation by those committees.[45]

The standing orders of both Houses are largely silent on the procedures to be followed by joint committees. It has become the established practice for such committees to follow Senate committee procedures when such procedures differ from those of the House,[46] subject to any particular variations, necessitated for example by the provisions of the resolutions appointing them and any further instructions agreed to by both Houses. However, chairs of joint committees, when seeking procedural advice, may approach the Presiding Officers or the Clerks of both Houses.

Joint committees appointed by resolution

Joint committees may be described as ‘joint standing committees’ or ‘joint select committees’. Like select committees of the House the latter are seen to have an ad hoc role and generally cease to exist upon reporting, while the former have a longer-term role and members hold office for the life of a Parliament. Some committees have simply been called ‘joint committees’ (for example, the former Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory) but could equally have been called joint standing committees. While members of the Joint Committee on Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament were appointed for the life of the Parliament, the committee was strictly a joint select committee in that it had a definite and limited purpose and was required to report ‘within the shortest reasonable period, not later than 90 days after the members of the committee are appointed’.[47]

The number and names of joint standing committees appointed by resolution varies from Parliament to Parliament. The following joint standing committees were appointed by resolution at the start of the 43rd Parliament in 2010:

  • Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
  • Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
  • Joint Standing Committee on Migration
  • Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
  • Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library (see below)
  • Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

Joint select committees may also be appointed for a specific purpose by resolutions of both Houses—for example, the Joint Select Committee on the Republic Referendum established in 1999, and the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety, the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform and the Joint Select Committee on the Parliamentary Budget Office established in 2010. The functions, membership, powers and procedures of these committees are determined by the resolutions establishing them.

Joint Standing Committee on the Parliamentary Library

The committee was first established by resolution of both Houses in December 2005. The terms of reference of the committee are to:

  • consider and report to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives on any matters relating to the Parliamentary Library referred to it by the President or the Speaker;
  • provide advice to the President and the Speaker on matters relating to the Parliamentary Library;
  • provide advice to the President and the Speaker on an annual resource agreement between the Parliamentary Librarian and the Secretary of the Department of Parliamentary Services; and
  • receive advice and reports, including an annual report, directly from the Parliamentary Librarian on matters relating to the Parliamentary Library.[48]

Joint statutory committees

The following committees are required by Acts of Parliament to be established at the commencement of each Parliament. In some cases the establishing Acts leave the detail of the membership, powers and procedures of the committees to the Parliament to determine. This is done by resolution of each House at the start of every Parliament.

Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit

The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit[49] is established by the Public Accounts and Audit Committee Act 1951. The functions of the committee are set out in sections 8 and 8A of the Act. In general terms they are to:

  • examine the financial affairs of authorities of the Commonwealth to which the Act applies;
  • review all reports of the Auditor-General that are presented to each House of the Parliament;
  • consider the operations and resources of the Australian National Audit Office;
  • approve or reject the recommendation for appointment of the Auditor-General or Independent Auditor;
  • determine the annual audit priorities of the Parliament and advise the Auditor-General of those priorities; and
  • increase parliamentary and public awareness of the financial and related operations of government.

Pursuant to section 53 of the Auditor-General Act 1997, the committee reviews the draft budget estimates for the Australian National Audit Office each year, and reports on them to the House on Budget day, prior to the presentation of the Budget.[50] The committee is also responsible, under the Public Service Act, for approving annual report requirements of Commonwealth departments.

Responses to ‘administrative’ matters raised in a report of the committee are made by way of an Executive Minute,[51] which is expected to be provided to the committee by the relevant Minister within six months of the report’s presentation. The committee authorises the publication of the Executive Minute as soon as practicable after it has been received and places it on the committee’s website. Executive Minutes received over the course of a year are then presented at the same time as the committee’s annual report to the Parliament.

Bills dealing with subjects related to the committee’s functions—for example, major changes in Commonwealth financial controls, management and audit and bills dealing with taxation law—have been referred to the committee and reported on. In each case the bills were referred by the House, standing orders having been suspended to allow it.[52]

The ability to consider and report on any circumstances connected with reports of the Auditor-General or with the financial accounts and statements of Commonwealth agencies is one of the main sources of the committee’s authority—it gives the committee the capacity to initiate its own references and, to a large extent, to determine its own work priorities. This power is unique among parliamentary committees and gives the committee a significant degree of independence from the executive arm of government.

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works is established by the Public Works Committee Act 1969. The committee’s function is to consider each public work referred to it, and report to both Houses concerning the expedience of carrying out the work. It may also report on any other matters related to the work where the committee thinks it desirable that its views should be reported to the Houses. In its report the committee may recommend any alterations to the work which it thinks necessary or desirable to ensure that the most effective use is made of public moneys.

A motion may be moved in either House that a public work be referred to the committee for consideration and report.[53] If the Parliament is not in session or the House is adjourned for more than a month or for an indefinite period, the Governor-General (in council) may refer a work to the committee for consideration and report.

If the estimated cost of a public work exceeds a specified amount, that work cannot be commenced unless it has been referred to the committee; or the House of Representatives has resolved that, because of the urgency of the work, it is expedient that the work be carried out without having been referred to the committee;[54] or it is a work of an authority that has been exempted by regulation; or the Governor-General has declared that the work is for defence purposes and reference of it to the committee would be contrary to the public interest; or it has, with the agreement of the committee, been declared to be work of a repetitive nature. A public work referred to the committee cannot be commenced unless, after the report of the committee has been presented to both Houses, the House of Representatives has resolved that it is expedient to carry out the work.[55] Motions to refer works to the committee have been rescinded.[56]

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings

The Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings is established pursuant to the Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcasting Act 1946. The committee’s function is to regulate the radio broadcast of the proceedings of the Parliament, as described in the Chapter on ‘Parliament House and access to proceedings’.

Other statutory committees

In the 43rd Parliament five other joint statutory committees operated:

  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security established by the Intelligence Services Act 2001;
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services established by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001;
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement established by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement Act 2010;[57]
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, established by the Law Enforcement Integrity Commissioner Act 2006; and
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, established by the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011.

45. E.g. VP 1993–95/80, 82; VP 1998–2001/164, 166; VP 2008–10/31–4.
46. This practice is based on that of the United Kingdom whereby joint committees follow House of Lords select committee procedures, unless otherwise agreed, May, 24th edn, p. 914.
47. VP 1974–75/173–4, 208–9.
48. VP 2008–9/36–7.
49. Formerly Joint Committee of Public Accounts.
50. E.g. H.R. Deb. (12.5.2009) 3520–3; H.R. Deb. (11.5.2010) 3118–20; H.R. Deb. (10.5.2011) 3451.
51. This replaced the Finance Minute previously prepared by the Department of Finance and Administration in response to all the committee’s reports.
52. E.g. VP 1993–95/1145, 1327; 2678; VP 1996–98/266, 389.
53. But in practice the motion is moved in the House of Representatives, e.g. VP 2002–04/1336.
54. E.g. VP 2002–04/1319; VP 2004–07/2085 (2); VP 2010–12/240.
55. VP 1987–89/985; VP 1998–2001/1140.
56. VP 1922/93 (on notice); VP 1974–75/ 521 (by leave); VP 1976–77/389 (on notice); VP 2002–04/1748 (by leave—combined rescission and expediency motion). See S.O. 120 and ‘Resolution or vote of the House rescinded or varied’ in Chapter on ‘Motions’.
57. Replaced the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission on 25.11.2010.