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. Procedures at committee hearings are covered in the Chapter on ‘Committee inquiries’.
The first meeting cannot be held until the Members have been formally appointed by the House. If 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.
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, and of the appointment of a chair in accordance with SO 232(a). If a chair has not been appointed, the committee secretary conducts the election of the chair, as described at page 660. After the announcement of their appointment, or their election, the chair then assumes control of the meeting and may announce the appointment, or conduct the election, of the deputy chair if required. 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).
Meetings of joint committees 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.
- For the purpose of paragraph (3), a committee that seeks to meet contrary to this standing order may deliver a notice in writing to the Clerk, signed by the chair of the committee, setting out the particulars of the meeting proposed to be held. Immediately after prayers on any day, the Clerk shall read a list of such proposals and they shall be taken to be approved accordingly but, at the request of any senator, the question for authorisation of a particular meeting contrary to this standing order shall be put to the Senate for determination without amendment or debate.
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 funding, 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 the annual committee visits as part of the Parliament’s official overseas delegation program—see below) 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.
As part of the Parliament’s official overseas delegation program, there are three annual overseas committee visits: to New Zealand and the Pacific; to the People’s Republic of China; and to two countries in Asia. Each of the visits is undertaken by a House, Senate, or joint committee in rotation. In selecting committees regard is given to the reason for the travel and to how the committees’ work would benefit.
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.
House committees have taken evidence in Australian external territories on several occasions, sometimes on oath.
Meetings by means of video or teleconference
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 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.
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.
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 or statutory requirement. 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.
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 660). 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. The chair of a House of Representatives committee exercises a casting vote only. Supplementary members may not vote.
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.
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 meant that no person, other than a member of a committee or an employee of the House, could be 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.
In the 44th Parliament the House Liaison Committee of Chairs and Deputy Chairs resolved to support a practice whereby non-members do not attend private committee meetings, and briefings and inspections, unless they are expressly invited witnesses or experts directly assisting the committee with its work. The Liaison Committee also required a resolution by a committee if it was necessary for non-members to attend a private committee meeting.
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.
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; displaying banners or placards in the room or otherwise drawing attention away from formal 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.
Confidentiality of committee 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.