House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

18 - Parliamentary committees

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Committee administration — staff and advisers

Committee secretariats have three basic functions:

  • advising on committee procedure and practice;
  • providing administrative and clerical support; and
  • undertaking research and analytical work related to the terms of reference and content of particular inquiries.

The Department of the House of Representatives provides secretariats for committees of the House, and some joint committees. The standing committees concerned with domestic or internal matters are usually staffed on a part-time basis by staff with other duties.

Under the Parliamentary Services Act the Clerk of the House has the duties and powers of an employer in relation to departmental employees. Within the framework set by the Act committees are supported by small groups of employees. The detailed arrangements for secretariat support provided to investigatory committees serviced by the Department vary. A typical arrangement might comprise a committee secretary, perhaps two or more project/research officers (depending on the number of committees to be supported) and one or more support staff. Committee secretariats are usually required to support more than one committee. Allocation of additional staffing depends on the availability of funds and personnel, each committee’s terms of reference, the number of inquiries a committee is conducting, the nature of its operations, its reporting targets and the incidence of subcommittee operations.

Committees may be assisted by specialist advisers who are remunerated at agreed rates and receive reimbursement for travelling and incidental expenses. While witnesses are rarely paid a fee, this may be approved if a committee seeks from an expert witness evidence which, because of the time and effort required for its preparation, the committee could not reasonably expect the witness to produce without remuneration. However, it is more likely that a committee will employ specialist advisers, whose function equates more closely to that of the committee secretariat than to that of witnesses. Most are engaged only for the duration of a particular inquiry or even to perform a specific task of limited scope and they normally work on a part-time basis as required. Proposals to employ and pay expert witnesses or advisers must be submitted to a House employee authorised to approve such expenditure, who may approve them subject to the availability of funds. Many committees have employed expert advisers from time to time. Staff from the public service or the defence force may also be seconded to the Department on a full-time or part-time basis to provide specialist advice to committees and this form of support is frequently utilised.

In 1984 the Senate Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge and Senate Select Committee on Allegations Concerning a Judge appointed legal counsel to advise them (see page 694). In the latter case the resolution of appointment provided that two Commissioners Assisting the Committee be appointed by resolution of the Senate. Each Commissioner was a recently retired Supreme Court judge, and they were permitted to be present at meetings of the committee and able to participate in the committee’s deliberations and examine witnesses before the committee.[134]

General principles for the administration of parliamentary committees

In June 2007 the Speaker presented to the House the following principles which had been endorsed by the Liaison Committee of Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs:

General principles for the administration of parliamentary committees

Parliamentary committees are established under the authority of one or both Houses of the Parliament. They may be established by resolution, under a standing order or by statute.

Role and responsibilities of committees

Committees are appointed to carry out certain functions of the House. Their powers derive from those of the House and the House has implemented a set of rules (standing orders) to govern the way in which committees must operate. It is incumbent upon each committee to ensure that it operates in accordance with the standing orders and any other instructions from the House.

The committee’s prime duty is to report the results of its activities to the House, or both Houses in the case of a joint committee. In order to enhance flexibility and efficiency the House has delegated to the Speaker the power to receive and authorise publication of committee reports when the House is not sitting (SO 247). A committee should take into account any views expressed by the Speaker when considering whether to exercise this option instead of reporting first to the House.

Within the standing orders committees have flexibility to manage their work as best suits the committee. It is the responsibility of the committee as a whole to agree on priorities, work programs and the direction and management of the conduct of inquiries.

The committee is required by the House to elect a chair and a deputy chair to assist it to manage its business effectively.

Support provided to committees

The Department of the House of Representatives is responsible for providing resources and services to support the operations of the House and its committees. A portion of the funds appropriated for the House of Representatives is allocated by the Clerk of the House to each committee on an annual basis to enable it to carry out its agreed program of work. Staff of the department are allocated by the Clerk to work with the committee to assist it in achieving its objectives.

Staff are employed under the Parliamentary Service Act. The department, through its managers, is responsible for the welfare of its staff, ensuring that conditions of service and legal obligations to staff are met and that staff uphold the parliamentary service values and code of conduct and meet service standards.

The chair, deputy chair and secretariat staff work in partnership with each other and the committee to achieve the best outcomes for the committee. The responsibilities of each to achieve this goal are set out below.

Responsibilities of the chair—

  • undertake a leadership role in achieving committee effectiveness;
  • conduct proceedings in an orderly and fair manner;
  • ensure the standing orders and any other relevant requirements of the House or the Parliament are applied appropriately;
  • on behalf of the committee, and subject to its direction, direct such administrative tasks as are necessary for the effective operation of the committee;
  • in giving administrative directions the chair should have cognisance of the possible views of committee members and consult with other committee members as necessary. Strategic planning decisions affecting the conduct of the committee’s business such as selection of witnesses, timetabling of hearings and report presentation arrangements must not be made without consulting the committee;
  • ensure that witnesses before the committee are treated fairly and respectfully;
  • as far as possible, ensure all committee members have equal opportunity to contribute to the proceedings of the committee;
  • ensure equal and timely access to evidence, correspondence and information provided to, or commissioned by, the committee for all committee members;
  • respond promptly and comprehensively to any concerns raised by committee members;
  • ensure that the committee receives advice from the secretary in relation to matters of procedure and availability of resources to meet the proposed work plans of the committee.

Responsibilities of the deputy chair—

  • assist the chair in achieving committee effectiveness;
  • in the absence of the chair, conduct proceedings in an orderly and fair manner;
  • assist the chair with administrative action when called upon;
  • canvass the views of, and represent, non-government members of the committee when requested to do so by the committee, the chair or the non-government members of the committee. Liaise, as necessary, with the chair and the secretary to assist effective decision making and coordination of committee activities.

Responsibilities of the secretary—

  • provide impartial, non-partisan advice and support services to the committee. The secretary must provide advice and services to assist the committee as a whole and not so as to favour an individual member or members of the committee;
  • consult appropriately and as necessary with senior staff of the Department of the House of Representatives or written authorities to ensure the highest quality of advice is available to the committee;
  • provide equal and timely access to evidence, correspondence and information provided to, or commissioned by, the committee to all committee members;
  • manage resources responsibly to enable the committee to carry out its functions effectively. Provide advice to the committee on the availability of resources to meet its proposed work plan;
  • uphold the parliamentary service values and code of conduct;
  • with the support of the senior managers of the Department of the House of Representatives, uphold the department’s obligations to its staff and ensure their welfare.

134. Senate Select Committee on the Conduct of a Judge, Report to the Senate, PP 168 (1984); Senate Select Committee on Allegations Concerning a Judge, Report to the Senate, PP 279 (1984).