House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

18 - Parliamentary committees

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Standing order 232(a) provides that: ‘Before the start of business a committee shall elect a member as its Chair’. In conducting the election of the chair, the committee secretary, having drawn attention to any special provision in the standing orders or resolution of appointment (such as a requirement that the committee elect a government member as chair—see below), should call for nominations, each of which must be seconded. If only one member is nominated, as is usually the case, the secretary declares the member elected as chair and invites that member to take the chair. If more than one member is nominated, the election is conducted by secret ballot in accordance with the procedures set down by the standing orders for the election of Speaker, Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker, as far as they are applicable.[115]

A Member may be elected chair in absentia. It is considered that the requirements for election of chair of a committee should not be more stringent than those applying to election of the chair of the Federation Chamber (that is, the Deputy Speaker).[116]

Chair required to be government member

Standing order 232(a) provides that ‘Except as otherwise provided, the Chair shall be a government member’. In the 43rd Parliament, standing order 215(e) provided that ‘as an exception to standing order 232 the Chair of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia need not be a government member’.

In the past some resolutions of appointment provided that the Prime Minister ‘nominate’ or ‘appoint’ one of the government members of the committee as chair.[117] In the case of joint standing committees, the resolutions of appointment[118] or the resolutions supplementing statutory provisions[119] usually provide that committees elect either a government member or a member nominated by the Government Whip or Leader of the Government in the Senate as chair, but this practice has not always been followed. For example, the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege had such a provision in its first resolution of appointment in 1982. The provision was omitted when the committee was re-established in 1983 following a change of government, thus allowing the previous chair, by then an opposition Member, to be re-elected.[120]

Chair appointed

In 1941 the chairs of several joint committees were appointed by name in the resolution establishing the committees.[121] In some instances the House requested the Senate to appoint a Senator as chair of a joint committee, which it did.[122] Such a request was again made and agreed to in 1957 in relation to the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review.[123]

In some cases the chair of a committee is appointed ex officio; for example, in the 43rd Parliament the Speaker was ex officio chair of the Selection Committee and the House Appropriations and Administration Committee. In respect of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House, the resolution provided for the Speaker and President to be joint chairs.[124]

Procedural authority

The formal powers of a chair of a select committee were traditionally viewed as being substantially the same as those of the chair of a committee of the whole House. Although the committee of the whole no longer exists in the House, relevant precedents are considered to continue to apply, where appropriate. As, under the former procedures, no appeal could be made to the Speaker regarding the decisions and rulings of the Chairman of Committees in a committee of the whole, it was considered that no appeal could be made regarding the decisions and rulings of a chair of a select or standing committee. Within the framework set by the House (in terms of the provisions of the standing orders and any resolution of appointment), formal authority over select and standing committee procedures therefore lies with the chair and the committee itself, and the Speaker may not take formal notice of committee proceedings in so far as purely procedural matters are concerned. During a committee meeting a chair’s procedural authority is as exclusive as that of the Speaker in the House.

While the Speaker’s advice is occasionally sought on complex procedural matters, there is rarely any scope for the Speaker to intervene on committee procedures. The Speaker would normally interfere in such matters only if they were of general significance or affected the allocation of resources to a committee, which is largely the Speaker’s responsibility. Nevertheless, Speakers’ rulings on procedural matters are significant as precedents. Further, committee chairs must have regard to the practice of the House where this is applicable to committee proceedings—for example, in respect of the sub judice convention (see page 689).

Any concern about committee procedure or authority can be brought to the attention of the House in a special report, a dissenting report or in a debate on a motion that the House take note of a report.

While these courses have been adopted, no formal action has been taken by the House.[125] It is doubtful as to whether the Speaker, rather than the House, could exercise any authority in such a situation. In 1955 the Speaker replied to questioning on the extent of the powers and functions of the Committee of Privileges:

Such questions should not be directed to the Speaker; they are matters for the House, not for me. I am not a member of the Committee of Privileges. As the House appointed the committee, the House must answer questions in relation to it.[126]

Unlike the Speaker, the chair of a committee takes part in the substance of discussions, as well as playing a procedural role at hearings and deliberative meetings. A chair’s rights to take part in proceedings are no less than those of other members, except that in divisions the chair may only exercise a casting vote.[127] However, the chair exercises a dual role, for example in ensuring that rights of witnesses are observed.

Administrative authority

The Speaker, or an official appointed by the Speaker, has exclusive authority to approve expenditure for the running of the House.[128] In 1944 three members of the Joint Committee on Social Security resigned from the committee in protest at the Speaker’s insistence that a parliamentary employee replace a public service employee who had earlier been seconded to serve as clerk to the committee (i.e. committee secretary) with the consent of the Speaker and on the recommendation of the committee. No action was taken by the House to question the Speaker’s exercise of his authority to appoint committee staff but some Members expressed disapproval.[129] (The power of employment is now held by the Clerk of the House.[130])

The Speaker is not involved in normal day-to-day funding or related decisions in respect of committees, although a continual oversight of operations, administration and expenditure is maintained, and in instances involving unusual or large expenditures the Speaker may be consulted. The Speaker’s statutory powers are clearly exclusive in these areas and a lack of a reference to the Speaker in resolutions of appointment or sessional orders does not diminish either the Speaker’s authority or obligations. In exercising these responsibilities it is considered that the Speaker would be obliged to intervene in committee operations where it was believed that a committee was using or seeking resources for activities which exceeded its delegated authority. Proposed overseas visits by the members of a committee are subject to the provision of additional funding by the Government. In such cases an approach is made to the Prime Minister and the Speaker’s support is sought—see ‘Meetings overseas’ at page 716.

The chair of a committee has a role in respect of matters arising from committee operations but the committee itself may be involved in significant decisions or actions involving matters of principle. Within the framework set by relevant regulations and directions, and subject to the ultimate authority of the Speaker, technically decisions to authorise expenditure, as well as those relating to staffing matters, fall to the responsible parliamentary staff members (see below).

Some joint committees are serviced by the Department of the Senate. In those instances the role and powers of the President of the Senate and the Clerk of the Senate are similar to those of the Speaker and the Clerk of the House, although in the case of the Senate the Appropriations and Staffing Committee may also be involved in some aspects.

Deputy chair

Standing order 232(b) and most resolutions of appointment provide for a deputy chair to be elected by each committee. In the past, it has been provided on some occasions that the chair appoint a member of the committee as deputy chair ‘from time to time’—that is, as circumstances demanded. In such cases the same member was not necessarily appointed each time.[131]

In practice the deputy chair is normally an opposition member. The resolution of appointment of the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System directed that the committee elect as deputy chair one of the members nominated by the Leader of the Opposition. The deputy chair was also to be a member from a different House from the chair.[132]

Immediately upon election at the committee’s first meeting, the chair conducts the election of a deputy chair. It is considered that the provisions of standing order 14, which provide for the filling of a vacancy in the office of Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker should be followed as appropriate.

The deputy chair acts as chair of the committee at any time when the chair is not present at a meeting. If neither the chair nor deputy chair is present at a meeting, the members present elect another member to act as chair at the meeting.[133]

115. S.O. 11. See Ch. on ‘The Speaker, Deputy Speakers and officers’. In the 32nd Parliament a ballot was conducted for the chairs of the Standing Committee on Expenditure and the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. In the 41st Parliament a ballot was held for the chair of a House standing committee when two government members were nominated.
116. Under S.O. 14(a) nominees for Deputy Speaker and Second Deputy Speaker are not required to be present or formally accept nomination.
117. VP 1973–74/123–4; see also VP 1970–72/33; VP 1961/48.
118. VP 1998–2001/164–74.
119. VP 1998–2001/160–4.
120. VP 1980–83/805–6; VP 1983–84/52–3.
121. Joint Committee on Social Security, VP 1940–43/158, 161–2.
122. Joint Committee on Profits, VP 1940–43/158–9, 162.
123. VP 1956–57/168–9 (committee originally named Joint Committee on Constitutional Change) 171, 341.
124. VP 1987–89/39–40.
125. See for example the dissent of A. J. Forbes in Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System, A proposed system of committees for the Australian Parliament, interim report, PP 275 (1975) 95–7; the dissent of G. M. Bryant and L. R. Johnson in Joint Select Committee on Aboriginal Land Rights in the Northern Territory, Report, PP 351 (1977) 72; H.R. Deb. (18.8.1977) 419, 423; dissenting reports to Committee of Privileges report on allegations by a Member, PP 498 (1989); dissenting report in Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, The winnable war on drugs—The impact of illicit drug use on families, PP 187 (2007) 313–4. See also statements at time of presentation of reports of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, critical of the operation and chair of the committee, H.R. Deb. (9.8.2004) 32425; H.R. Deb. (11.8.2004) 32768–71.
126. H.R. Deb. (7.6.1955) 1438.
127. S.O. 232(a). Chairs of joint committees may have a deliberative vote as well—see p. 996. See also ‘Powers of chair’ in May, 24th edn, p. 811.
128. Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997, s. 36.
129. H.R. Deb. (29.3.1944) 2203–24; S. Deb. (30.3.1944) 2281–91.
130. Parliamentary Service Act 1999, s. 22.
131. Standing Committee on Road Safety, VP 1974–75/51–2; Select Committee on Aircraft Noise, VP 1970–72/33–4.
132. VP 1976–77/59–60.
133. S.O. 232(b).