The following sections describe procedures applying to committees of the House, although particular considerations applying to joint committees are also covered. It should be noted that, by convention, joint committees have followed established Senate committee practices and procedures to the extent that these differ from those of the House. Senate committee procedures are outlined in Odgers.
The first meeting cannot be held until the Members have been formally appointed by the House. If, as is normally the case, it is left to a committee to elect its own chair, the committee secretary must call the first meeting. It is the secretary’s responsibility to inform the members in writing of the time and place of the first meeting. If the chair is appointed, for example by the Prime Minister, it is technically the chair’s responsibility to call the first meeting.
Unless the chair has been appointed, the committee secretary takes the chair at the commencement of the first committee meeting. The first item on the agenda is the formal announcement by the committee secretary of the formation of a duly constituted committee and of its membership. The second item is the election of a chair, which is conducted by the committee secretary, as described at page 902. The chair, upon election, takes the chair and conducts the election, if required, of the deputy chair. The remainder of the agenda is at the committee’s discretion.
Time and place of meeting
A committee or a subcommittee may conduct proceedings at any time or place as it sees fit, and whether or not the House is sitting. Some committees have regular meeting times, but others may meet only as required by the work at hand. Formal notice of each meeting is issued by the committee secretary. The time and place of the next meeting is routinely included on the agenda for each meeting.
Committees normally adjourn to an agreed date or to a date to be fixed by the chair or presiding member. If the committee adjourns to a specific date, and a change in the date is subsequently found to be necessary, it is incumbent upon the chair to ensure that members are notified and given reasonable notice of the new date which is fixed by the chair. If a meeting is expected to be the committee’s last, it adjourns ‘sine die’.
If there is disagreement within a committee concerning the appropriateness of adjourning at a particular time, the matter should be determined by resolution of the committee. However, in circumstances of grave disorder, the chair may suspend or adjourn the meeting without putting a question. These practices reflect those of the House itself.
The following provisions of Senate standing order 30 for the convening of meetings apply to joint committees:
Notice of meetings subsequent to the first meeting shall be given by the secretary attending the committee (a) pursuant to resolution of the committee, (b) on instruction from the Chair or (c) upon a request by a quorum of members of the committee.
Meetings during sittings of the House
A House committee may sit during any sittings of the House. Committees of the House make much use of meetings during sittings of the House (although meetings may be interrupted from time to time by calls for divisions or quorums in the House).
Joint committees—meetings during sittings of the Senate
Senate standing order 33, providing for circumstances in which Senate committees may meet during sittings of the Senate, also expressed to apply to joint committees, states:
- A committee of the Senate and a joint committee of both Houses of the Parliament may meet during sittings of the Senate for the purpose of deliberating in private session, but shall not make a decision at such a meeting unless:
all members of the committee are present; or a member appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Government in the Senate and a member appointed to the committee on the nomination of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate are present, and the decision is agreed to unanimously by the members present.
- The restrictions on meetings of committees contained in paragraph (1) do not apply after the question for the adjournment of the Senate has been proposed by the President at the time provided on any day.
- A committee shall not otherwise meet during sittings of the Senate except by order of the Senate.
- Proceedings of a committee at a meeting contrary to this standing order shall be void.
Until 1987 the Senate imposed a general prohibition on committees meeting during its sittings (the view being held that the primary duty of Senators was to the plenary), although leave to sit during sittings of the Senate had been granted on motion. The attitude was taken that leave was required only of the Senate because House of Representatives committees are permitted to meet during sittings of the House. Occasionally resolutions of appointment have authorised joint committees to sit during the sittings of either House of the Parliament.
The Joint Committee of Public Accounts has reported on the issue of whether it was able to sit while the Senate was sitting, and maintained that it had a statutory right to meet contrary to the provisions of Senate standing orders and the wish of the Senate. However, more recent practice has been for the committee to seek the permission of the Senate to take evidence while the Senate is sitting.
Meetings outside Parliament House
Standing order 235(c) provides standing authorisation for committees of the House to conduct proceedings ‘at any place’. Without such authorisation, in the past it was considered that a committee could only meet outside Parliament House, Canberra, by special order of the House. In 1968 two such orders had to be made by both Houses in relation to the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory whose resolution of appointment did not contain this authorisation. Each motion passed by the Houses limited the authorisation to the committee’s current inquiry. The committee’s resolution of appointment was amended soon afterwards to avoid the need for these cumbersome procedures.
On occasion committees or their subcommittees have been permitted to travel overseas in relation to their inquiries. The main principle to be considered, in relation to a committee travelling overseas, is that the House, and therefore its committees, has no jurisdiction outside Australia, and in visiting other countries a committee cannot formally meet or formally take evidence. Where approval has been given, it has been considered proper for members of a committee, as a group, to make inquiries and conduct informal discussions abroad and to have regard to the results of those inquiries and discussions, provided they do not purport to exercise the powers delegated by the House.
It would appear that provided a committee did not attempt to exercise its powers to administer oaths, compel the giving of evidence, and so on, it could sit as a committee overseas and, with the consent of witnesses, have proceedings transcribed and published. As proceedings would almost certainly not be privileged (in terms of the law of the country concerned), witnesses would need to be informed accordingly. In addition, committees would be unable to have orders enforced and to protect witnesses against intimidation or penalty. It would seem improper for a committee to sit, as a committee, in a foreign country without first seeking the consent of that country’s government. Committees which are allowed to travel overseas are therefore more likely to conduct inspections and hold meetings and discussions of an informal nature.
Subject to the provision of additional funding by the Government, the Speaker has supported travel to regional countries, such as New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Thailand, and, with parliamentary funding, South America. These visits (apart from an annual committee exchange with New Zealand) have been directly related to inquiries by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Generally it has not been considered appropriate for other committees to travel internationally as part of an inquiry.
In 2006 members of the Standing Committee on Procedure travelled together to various overseas Parliaments, using their individual study leave entitlements, to study developments in parliamentary practice and procedure. In 2009 the Presiding Officers approved an annual visit by one parliamentary committee to Asia–Pacific countries to explore issues relevant to its work. The inaugural visit was by the House Standing Committee on Health and Ageing to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
House committees have taken evidence in Australian external territories on several occasions, sometimes on oath.
The proceedings of a committee which meets in public or in private without a quorum are invalid. Consequently, decisions taken are not binding and, more seriously, words spoken by members and witnesses are not assumed to be privileged. Any order by committee members has no legal authority in this circumstance.
In the absence of a quorum at the commencement of a meeting the following procedures provided for in the standing orders are followed:
If a quorum is not present within 15 minutes of the time appointed for the meeting of a committee, the members present may retire, and their names shall be entered in the minutes. The secretary of the committee shall then notify members of the next meeting.
The reference to ‘entered in the minutes’ is in practice taken to mean the committee secretary’s rough minutes. If, after a committee has proceeded to business, the number of members present falls below a quorum, the chair must suspend the proceedings until a quorum is present or adjourn the committee. This requirement is applied with common sense, and a meeting is not suspended if the quorum lapses when members leave the room for short periods. However, no vote can be taken during these periods.
The quorum of a committee of the House is three (unless otherwise ordered). The standing orders are silent on the quorum for meetings at which a committee of the House confers (sits jointly) with a similar committee of the Senate. In the absence of any provision, the House and Publications Committees, when conferring, have fixed their quorums at five, provided that each House is represented in the quorum.
The quorum of a subcommittee of a House committee is two.
The House may set the quorum of its members required for a sitting of a joint committee. A joint committee may set its own quorum, subject to any requirement of the House . Normally the quorum is stated in the resolution of appointment and no specific provision is made as to the number of Senators or Members, respectively, required to form a quorum. The effect has been that a quorum may be maintained by Members of one House only. This has not prevented some joint committees, such as the Joint Committee on Publications, from maintaining an informal quorum arrangement where the committee agrees that it is not properly constituted unless there is at least one representative from each House.
Quorum requirements may vary between committees and for the same committee in different Parliaments. In the 37th Parliament the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, with 32 members, had a quorum requirement of 10, while the joint standing committees on Electoral Matters and Migration, each with a membership of 10, had quorum requirements of four. In later Parliaments these committees, with the same number of members as before, had quorum requirements of six, three and three, respectively. In the later Parliaments the quorum provisions also included a requirement for the presence of one government and one non-government member (from either House) at deliberative meetings. The resolution of appointment of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House provided that five members of the committee, one of whom was either the Speaker or the President, constituted a quorum of the committee. The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories has had a quorum of three, one of whom must be the Deputy Speaker or the Deputy President when matters affecting the parliamentary zone are under consideration.
Senate practice is that a committee meeting may continue without reference to the number of members present until a committee member draws attention to the lack of a quorum, in which case the proceedings are suspended until a quorum is present. If a quorum is not present after 15 minutes the meeting must be adjourned.
Presence at meetings of Members who are not members of the committee
Other Members, who are not members of the committee, may be present when a committee or subcommittee is examining a witness, or gathering information in other proceedings. Other Members must leave when the committee or subcommittee is deliberating or hearing witnesses in private, or if the committee or subcommittee resolves that they leave. When present at a hearing the Member cannot put questions to witnesses or take any other part in the formal proceedings unless authorised by a resolution of the committee. These restrictions can also be removed by a provision in the committee’s resolution of appointment or by special order of the House. The relevant Senate standing order relating to its legislative and general purpose standing committees allows Senators to be nominated as ‘participating members’ of committees, although while such members have all the rights of committee members and may participate in the hearing of evidence and deliberations, they may not vote on any question before the committee. Resolutions of appointment of joint committees have also provided for participating members.
A Senator appointed to the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit with effect from a future date, was permitted by resolution of the committee to attend and participate in a public hearing held prior to the effective date of his appointment, but not counted for a quorum or vote.
Standing order 215(d) allows a general purpose standing committee to be supplemented by up to four additional members for a particular inquiry, with a maximum of two extra government members and two extra opposition or non-aligned members. The supplementary members have the same participatory rights as other members but may not vote. In addition, when a committee is considering a bill referred to it under the provisions of standing order 143, one or more members of the committee may be replaced by other Members. In this case, however, the Members in question become full members of the committees for the purposes of those inquiries, and are not to be regarded as ‘observers’ or ‘participating Members’.
Standing order 240 provides:
A committee or subcommittee may admit visitors when it is examining a witness or gathering information in other proceedings. All visitors must leave if:
- the Chair asks them to;
- the committee or subcommittee resolves that they leave; or
- the committee or subcommittee is deliberating or hearing witnesses in private.
Committee members’ personal staff are regarded as visitors for the purposes of this standing order and are not entitled to attend private meetings of a committee. In 1976 the Speaker wrote to all chairs of committees discouraging the attendance of members’ staff at other than public meetings of a committee or at committee inspections. The Speaker indicated that the provisions of the standing orders concerning the confidentiality of committee proceedings militated against any person, other than a member of a committee or an employee of the House, being involved in committee proceedings which are not open to the public. Although a nominated member of the personal staff of a committee chair may be entitled to receive travel allowance to accompany the chair on committee business, this does not empower the staff member to attend any but public meetings of the committee.
Senate standing order 36, which is relevant to joint committees, states that persons other than members and officers of a committee may attend a public meeting of a committee, but such persons shall not attend a private meeting except by express invitation of the committee and they must be excluded when the committee is deliberating.
Procedures at hearings
Hearings are normally held in public but at the committee’s discretion they may be held in private. The authority to conduct public hearings is contained in standing order 235(a), which provides that a committee or a subcommittee may conduct proceedings by hearing witnesses, either in public or in private. This authorisation is reflected in the standing order which provides that a committee or subcommittee may admit visitors when it is examining a witness or gathering information in other proceedings. Hearings are frequently attended by the general public and by media representatives. It is standard practice for the committee secretariat to notify the media in advance of proposed hearings and to advise individuals or organisations who have asked to be informed.
The chair or presiding member may open a hearing with a brief statement of its purpose and background, and may also outline the procedures to be followed by the committee. The first witness or witnesses are called to the table and may be required to swear an oath or make an affirmation (see page 938). The witness then sits at the table and is usually asked to state his or her full name and the capacity in which he or she is appearing before the committee, the part the witness played in preparation of the submission on which the examination is occurring, and whether the witness wishes to propose any amendment to the submission (see page 935). Before questions are put by committee members, it is usual for the chair to invite the witness to make a short statement to the committee.
The examination of witnesses before a committee or a subcommittee is conducted according to the procedure agreed on by the committee. While procedures vary to some extent between committees, all operate on the principle that questions are asked and answered through the chair and in an orderly manner. All members should be given an equal opportunity to put questions to a witness. Questions put to witnesses are normally substantially focussed on the witnesses’ written submissions, but it is considered that committees are not confined to questioning witnesses only about matters raised in their submissions.
A member of the committee or a witness may object to a question, in which case the chair decides whether the witness should be required to answer. If there is any dissent by a Member from the chair’s decision, the chair may suspend the public hearing and have the witness (and other visitors) leave while the committee determines the matter in private, by vote if necessary. The committee may insist on the question being answered (see page 919).
The Standing Committee on Procedure has proposed the adoption of the following provisions to be observed by committees of the House:
The Chair of a committee shall take care to ensure that all questions put to witnesses are relevant to the committee’s inquiry and that the information sought by those questions is necessary for the purpose of that inquiry.
When a witness objects to answering any question put to him or her on any ground, including the grounds that it is not relevant, or that it may tend to incriminate him or her, he or she shall be invited to state the ground upon which he or she objects to answering the question. The committee may then consider, in camera, whether it will insist upon an answer to the question. The committee shall have regard to the relevance of the question to the committee’s inquiry and the importance to the inquiry of the information sought by the question. If the committee determines that it requires an answer to the question, the witness shall be informed of that determination, and of the reasons for it, and shall be required to answer the question in camera, unless the committee resolves that it is essential that it be answered in public. When a witness declines to answer a question to which a committee has required an answer, the committee may report the facts to the House.
Other parts of the proposed provisions are quoted elsewhere in this chapter, although four particular provisions should be noted here:
A witness shall be given notice of a meeting at which he or she is to appear, and shall be supplied with a copy of the committee’s terms of reference, an indication of the matters expected to be dealt with during the appearance and a copy of this resolution or a summary of its provisions. Where appropriate, a witness may be supplied with a transcript of relevant evidence already taken in public.
A witness may be given the opportunity to make a submission in writing before appearing to give oral evidence.
A witness shall be given reasonable access to any documents or records that the witness has provided to a committee.
Witnesses shall be treated with respect and dignity at all times.
During a hearing a witness may be asked to provide information or a document which is not immediately available. In such cases the witness may be asked or may volunteer to provide the information later in writing or, less often, at a subsequent hearing.
No person other than a member of the committee may question a witness during examination. No witness may question a member or any other person present, but a witness may ask for clarification of a question. In 1971 the Speaker made a private ruling that (like committee staff) specialist advisers must not be permitted to question witnesses, comment on the evidence or otherwise intervene directly in formal proceedings at a public hearing.
Documents provided to a committee, including maps, diagrams, or other illustrated and written material, are normally included in the committee’s records as exhibits (see page 933). Historically, where it was thought necessary to incorporate material in the transcript and there was no objection to this course, the chair usually so ordered, although modern practice is that the transcript is regarded as a record of oral evidence only, and the incorporation of material is kept at a minimum. Hansard prepares a written transcript of evidence taken at hearings. Witnesses are given an opportunity to make corrections to the transcript. However, suggested amendments are acceptable only insofar as they provide a true record of what the witness said; the meaning cannot be changed.
The Procedure Committee has recommended that the following provisions be adopted:
Reasonable opportunity shall be afforded to witnesses to request corrections in the transcript of their evidence and to put before a committee additional written material supplementary to their evidence. Witnesses may also request the opportunity to give further oral evidence.
It is customary at the conclusion of public hearings for motions to be passed authorising the publication of the evidence taken (see page 946), thus conferring privilege on the publication of the transcript.
Witnesses may request that their evidence be taken in private and that documents submitted be treated as confidential. Such requests are usually but not necessarily granted (see ‘Private or in camera hearings’ at page 700).
Less formal proceedings
Less formal means of gathering information are provided for by standing order 235, which provides for proceedings ‘in the form of any other meeting, discussion or inspection conducted under the practice of committees of the House’.
In addition to gathering formal evidence, committees frequently undertake visits or inspections at which informal discussions take place. Such inspections permit members to familiarise themselves with places, processes, and matters which are important to their inquiries but which cannot be adequately described in formal evidence. If a quorum is present, these are formal proceedings (private meetings), and the committee’s minutes will reflect the nature of the inspections, as with private briefings.
Seminars, informal discussions, public meetings and workshops
Committees frequently decide that public meetings, seminars, workshops, discussions or other similarly informal proceedings would be more appropriate for their purposes than formal hearings. Such procedures have been used:
- to conduct preliminary discussions prior to the adoption of a formal reference;
- to permit general background discussions at the beginning of an inquiry;
- as a device for discussions on matters of interest to the committee but not the subject of a formal inquiry;
- to obtain general community views; and
- to obtain expert advice and scrutinise it with experts collectively.
Committees have made use of public meetings where there is widespread community interest in an inquiry and where, because of the large number of persons involved, the formal public hearing approach may be time-consuming and repetitive, yet still exclude many from the committee’s processes. Public meetings not only enable committee members to be exposed to community attitudes but also provide an opportunity for a large number of private citizens to put views to the committee.
As an alternative to a public meeting, some committees have followed a formal public hearing with a period during which members of the public present can seek to make a short (three to five minute) statement to the committee to express their views on the matter being investigated.
Committees also sometimes arrange discussions in a ‘round table’ format, at which committee members sit at a table with invited participants, each person being given the opportunity to speak and to contribute to the general discussion. Round table public hearings, while still formal hearings, have witnesses from different organisations at the table being examined simultaneously.
Seminars and workshops can allow committee members to question experts and others, and such persons can also question each other directly. This process provides immediate opportunities to both clarify the issues and explain particular opinions.
The Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs has followed a practice of conducting informal discussions with Aboriginal communities and groups and a range of other community organisations during field trips in connection with its inquiries. As these discussions are not conducted under standing orders they are much more informal and allow for a much freer interchange of views than is normally possible in a public hearing context. In particular, they enable people who may be unwilling to submit themselves to the more formal procedures of a public hearing to express themselves openly. Hansard produces a precis of the informal discussions which is not published by the committee.
Although alternative processes of this nature can be helpful in particular inquiries, they are not regarded as a substitute for the normal hearing process under which witnesses may be questioned as fully as necessary to allow committee members to inform themselves on a matter. The information obtained in this manner does not have either the forensic value nor the technical status of formal evidence, although it can be used in committee reports, provided that the report indicates the manner in which the information has been obtained. Depending on the circumstances, the extent to which such informal proceedings enjoy parliamentary privilege could become an issue.
Minutes or a report, or both, on public meetings or seminars can be included in the committee’s records as an exhibit. The Hansard record of such proceedings is often not authorised for publication although it may be incorporated into the committee’s records as an exhibit.
Video and teleconferencing
Committees are authorised to use electronic communication devices in order to take oral evidence from a witness who is not in attendance at a meeting of the committee, and to enable committee members not in attendance to participate in a public or private meeting. A quorum of members in one physical location is not necessary. Standing order 235(b) provides:
A committee may resolve to conduct proceedings using audio visual or audio links with members of the committee or witnesses not present in one place. If an audio visual or audio link is used, committee members and witnesses must be able to speak to and hear each other at the same time regardless of location. A committee may resolve for a subcommittee to use audio visual or audio links.
The following guidelines have been issued by the Procedure Committee to assist committees in deciding whether to conduct meetings using audio visual or audio links; they are to be used by each committee as it sees fit:
- Audio visual or audio links may be used for deliberative meetings or for hearing oral evidence from witnesses or for any other proceeding described in standing order [235(b)]
- Audio visual or audio links should only be used to hear evidence in camera if the committee is satisfied that the evidence will not be overheard or recorded by any unauthorised person and that the transmission is secure.
- The following factors should be considered by a committee in deciding whether an audio visual or audio link is suitable for use in any particular circumstance:
- whether use of the link will confer any benefit not available using traditional meeting processes eg cost or time savings, access to evidence not otherwise obtainable;
- any benefit of traditional methods which may be lost. These may include the value of the committee being present at a location away from Canberra; the benefit of including regional, rural and remote areas in the work of the committee; the value of the public being able to observe the committee at work; or possible restrictions on the committee being able to interact freely with a witness;
- real cost comparisons of alternative means of evidence collection;
- the type of evidence to be heard. Specialist or expert evidence may be suited to hearing in this way. Audio visual or audio links may make it feasible to hear evidence from witnesses located outside Australia, however, the committee should take into account the fact that the protection afforded by parliamentary privilege would not extend beyond Australia; and
- whether evidence is likely to be contentious or a witness needs to be tested rigorously for truthfulness or there is any concern about the identification of the witness. If the committee wishes to administer an oath an authorised officer must be present with the witness to administer it.
- Any other factors which the committee considers relevant should be taken into account and a decision made appropriate to the particular circumstances of the proceeding, inquiry or witness.
An early example of a public hearing conducted by video conference was a hearing of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Committee on 3 November 2003—the committee meeting was in Parliament House and the witnesses in Darwin. Hearings of this kind by video or teleconference are now not uncommon.
Teleconferences are regularly held for private meetings, especially for machinery matters or for report consideration. In 2010 the House suspended standing orders to enable the first meeting of the Selection Committee of the 43rd Parliament to be held by teleconference.
Committees have also taken evidence from witnesses overseas by electronic means. For example, in 2005 the Family and Human Services Committee took evidence via teleconference from a witness in Taiwan for the inquiry into the adoption of children from overseas. The teleconference took place during a private meeting of the committee. The witness was advised that her evidence would not be covered by privilege outside Australia. After seeking agreement from the witness the committee authorised publication of the transcript.
Also in 2005 the Family and Human Services Committee gave evidence collectively via a live audio-visual link to a committee of the Scottish Parliament. The ‘witnesses’ gave evidence as a committee in a formal meeting in order to ‘bolster’ the privilege associated with the hearing for both committees. The evidence given by the members of the Australian committee was taken as formal evidence by the Scottish committee and authorised by it for publication. In 2008 the Petitions Committee took evidence by teleconference from the Public Petitions Committee of the Scottish Parliament for its inquiry into electronic petitioning.
Use of internet
The use committees make of the internet is evolving. In recent years some committees have used internet chat sites to publicise inquiries and to obtain information. Electronic comments forms on committee web pages are also being considered. Many committee hearings are webcast live or can be downloaded as video on demand or audio podcasts.
The general practice of publication of submissions on the internet has caused committees to be aware of, and to adapt to, privacy and other considerations which were of less concern when publication, while authorised, was in practice restricted by the constraints of earlier technology. Some practices have been adjusted—for example, addresses of private citizens making submissions may be omitted.
Disorderly or disrespectful conduct by visitors, including witnesses, during a public or private meeting of a committee may be considered a contempt (but see Chapter on ‘Parliamentary privilege’). In this regard a Member who is not a member of the committee is on the same footing as a visitor. Examples of disorderly or disrespectful conduct could include: interrupting or disturbing committee proceedings; remaining after visitors have been ordered to leave; appearing before a committee in a state of intoxication; or using offensive language before a committee.
The manner in which a committee chooses to deal with disorderly behaviour will obviously depend upon the circumstances. If a simple direction is insufficient to restore order, the committee may order visitors to leave or suspend its proceedings. The assistance of the Serjeant-at-Arms and staff from the Serjeant-at-Arms’ office may have to be sought. On occasion the Serjeant-at-Arms has arranged for police to maintain security. If the committee is meeting outside Parliament House, it may have to adjourn its proceedings.
At a public hearing on 3 December 1981, the proceedings of the Public Works Committee were continually interrupted by interjections by members of the public attending the meeting. The chair made a plea to those persons interjecting to indicate in writing the opinions they wished to express and then suspended the meeting for lunch. During the lunch break the chair gave a radio interview where he indicated that if the interjections continued the meeting would continue in private. There were few interjections at the resumed meeting.
A committee may not punish a person considered guilty of contempt; it may only draw the circumstances to the attention of the House by special report or a statement by the chair. The House may then deal with the matter as it thinks fit.
Motions and voting
The standing orders are silent on the moving of motions and amendments and voting in committees, except to state that the chair has a casting vote only and to provide for voting during the consideration of draft reports. However, committees have regard to the practice of the House where this is applicable to their proceedings; for example, the same motion rule has been applied.
Following the procedure of the former committee of the whole, motions and amendments do not require a seconder. The one exception is the nomination of a member for election as chair (see page 902). As well as amendments being moved, an amendment may be moved to an amendment. As in the House, a division is not proceeded with unless more than one member has called for a division. In such instances the member may inform the chair that the member wishes his or her dissent to be recorded in the minutes. This request is automatically granted.
Questions are determined by a majority of votes. As in the House, pairing arrangements have operated. While the chair of a House of Representatives committee exercises a casting vote only, the voting rights of chairs of joint committees can vary.
It is common to include in the resolution of appointment of joint committees the provision that ‘In the event of an equality in voting, the chair, or the deputy chair when acting as chair, shall have a casting vote’. This is in effect a second vote which is in addition to the chair’s deliberative vote. If special provisions are not made for a casting vote, the chair of a joint committee has a deliberative vote only in accordance with Senate standing orders. Thus, when the votes are equal the question will pass in the negative. This rule is applied to the relatively few joint committees whose resolutions of appointment do not determine the chair’s voting powers. The resolution of appointment of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in the 37th Parliament did not have a provision covering an equality of voting, hence the provision in the Senate standing order applied.
The Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House had joint chairs. Its resolution of appointment provided that in matters of procedure, each of the chairs, whether or not occupying the chair, had a deliberative vote and, in the event of an equality of voting, the chair occupying the chair had a casting vote. In other matters, each of the chairs, whether or not occupying the chair, had a deliberative vote only.
Minutes of proceedings
The minutes of a committee record the names of members attending each meeting, every motion or amendment moved in the committee and the name of the mover, and the names of members voting in a division, indicating on which side of the question they have each voted. The minutes also record the time, date and place of each meeting, the names of any witnesses examined, the documents formally received and any action taken in relation to them, and the time, date and place of the next proposed meeting. The attendance of specialist advisers may also be recorded.
As far as possible the style of committee minutes conforms to the style of the Votes and Proceedings of the House. They do not summarise deliberations but record matters of fact and any resolutions resulting from the committee’s deliberations.
The chair confirms the minutes of a preceding meeting by signing them after the committee has adopted them and agreed to any necessary amendments. The committee secretary may certify as correct the unconfirmed minutes of a committee’s final meeting.
Minutes are required to be presented to the House with the relevant report. If a committee is conducting more than one inquiry, extracts from its minutes relating only to the inquiry on which it is reporting should be presented.
If the minutes show disagreement or division on the content of a report, there are advantages in having them printed as an appendix to the report. Publication of minutes is one method of drawing attention to dissent, and may overcome the need for a separate dissenting report. Some reports by the Committee of Privileges and the report by the Select Committee on Pharmaceutical Benefits have exemplified this approach.
Minutes, like all documents presented to the House, are authorised for publication once they are presented. Transcripts of evidence and copies of submissions presented with the minutes are subject to the same provisions. Therefore a committee should not present evidence which it does not want to be made public.
Confidentiality of proceedings and records
The confidentiality made possible by a committee’s power to meet in private is bolstered by the provision in the standing orders that a committee’s or subcommittee’s evidence, documents, proceedings and reports may not be disclosed or published to a person (other than a member of the committee or parliamentary employee assigned to the committee) unless they have been reported to the House; or authorised by the House, the committee or the subcommittee. This provision covers private committee deliberations, the minutes which record them and committee files. Any unauthorised breach of this confidentiality may be dealt with by the House as a contempt.
The files and other records of a committee are confidential to it and may be made available to others only by order of the committee, or of the House itself or, in the limited circumstances noted below, by authority of the Speaker. Standing order 237 provides that a committee or a subcommittee may consider and make use of the evidence and records of similar committees appointed during previous Parliaments.
The Speaker has the authority to permit any person to examine and copy committee documents which have not already been published by the House or its committees and which have been in the custody of the House for at least 10 years. A 30 year rule applies to confidential documents or private evidence (see page 952).
Televising, filming and recording of proceedings
Committees of the House are permitted to allow the recording of their proceedings for broadcasting or televising. A number of conditions apply and access is on the basis of an undertaking to observe them. Among the conditions are the following:
- only public hearings may be covered;
- in all cases it is for the committee to decide whether to allow access (and approval may be withdrawn at any time);
- fairness and accuracy and a general overall balance must be observed;
- excerpts may be taken but must be placed in context; and
- excerpts may not be used for political party advertising etc. or for the purposes of satire or ridicule.
Public hearings in Parliament House are regularly televised for the House monitoring system, thus allowing them to be viewed live by occupants of Parliament House and to be webcast on the Parliament’s web site. The signal is also available to networks for rebroadcast.
Important questions of principle arise in respect of the rights and legitimate interests of witnesses and of third parties who may be the subject of comment in proceedings conducted under privilege. The atmosphere in which the televised proceedings are held might also affect a witness significantly in some cases, as experience of the televising of committee proceedings in some jurisdictions would seem to suggest. Such considerations are recognised in the conditions followed by committees: where a committee intends to permit coverage of proceedings, witnesses must be given reasonable opportunity to object and to state the ground of the objection. Committees must then consider the objection, having regard to the proper protection of the witness and the public interest in the proceedings. If the committee decides to proceed notwithstanding the objections, the witness must be informed accordingly before appearing. While the concerns of witnesses must be recognised, committees have been encouraged to permit televising of their proceedings to increase awareness of the activities of committees.
Because these matters are not covered by the Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcasting Act, the protection attaching to a television or film company may be found to be similar to that enjoyed by any person who, with the approval of the committee, published a report of its proceedings—that is, qualified privilege only may apply. Members of a committee and witnesses appearing before it would have the usual protection from action in respect of statements made by them during the proceedings. The fact that the proceedings were telecast or filmed would not alter their legal position.
Mainly because of the potential distraction to members and witnesses, photographs of committee proceedings are not permitted without the committee’s authority. Committees may agree to pose for photographs before or after a hearing or during a suspension of proceedings, or may permit photographs to be taken during proceedings.
People taking film, video or still photographs should have regard to the powers of each House to deal with any act which may be held to be a contempt or a breach of the rules applying to the taking of photographs in Parliament House.
Any person permitted by a committee to attend a hearing may make an audio recording of the proceedings. It is the responsibility of the person concerned to ensure that the recording is not used improperly or in contravention of the Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcasting Act or any other statute. Further, such a recording of proceedings has no special standing in terms of the laws governing the broadcasting of proceedings or the laws of parliamentary privilege.