Eligibility to serve on committees

Committee service is considered to be one of the parliamentary duties of private Members. Office holders and Ministers have not normally served on committees except in an ex officio capacity on committees concerned with the operations of the House or the Parliament (see below).[74] It has been considered inappropriate for Ministers to serve on investigatory committees, given the committees’ role of scrutinising the Executive, and the standing orders now provide that any Member appointed as a Minister (by definition including Parliamentary Secretary or Assistant Minister) immediately ceases to be a member of all committees.[75] It is also considered that a Member may not participate in committee proceedings until he or she has been sworn in, even though the Member may have been appointed to the committee.[76]

Except with their consent, or as specified in a standing or other order, the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker or the Second Deputy Speaker may not be appointed to serve on any committee.[77] In the case of some statutory committees, for example the Public Works Committee, the Acts establishing them provide that certain office holders, such as the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker, or a Minister, are not able to be appointed to the committee.

Pecuniary and personal interest

A Member may not sit on a committee if he or she has a particular direct pecuniary interest in a matter under inquiry by the committee.[78] The interest concerned has been interpreted in the very narrow sense of an interest peculiar to a particular person. If, for example, a Member were an owner of bank shares he or she would not, for that reason alone, be under any obligation to disqualify himself or herself from serving on a committee inquiring into the banking industry, as the interest would be one held in common with many other people in the community. In the first instance it is a matter for individual committee members to judge whether they may have a conflict of interest in an inquiry.

Before 1998 the relevant standing order prevented a Member from serving on a committee ‘if personally interested in its inquiry’. The former provision was observed in 1955 when a member of the Committee of Privileges took no active part during an inquiry in which he was personally interested in that he was the Member who had raised the complaint. The House has resolved that a member of the Committee of Privileges be discharged from attendance on the committee during its consideration of particular matters. Another Member has been appointed to the committee in such cases.[79] In the 37th Parliament a member of the Committee of Privileges did not participate in an inquiry concerning the unauthorised disclosure of information from another committee on which he served.[80] In another inquiry by the committee in the same Parliament a Member who had spoken in the House when the matter was raised withdrew from the committee for the duration of the inquiry.[81]

On the appointment of members to the Select Committee on Grievances of Yirrkala Aborigines, a Minister on a point of order asked whether a Member who had been nominated to serve on the committee should be excluded from the committee because the Member was a litigant in related court proceedings. The Speaker stated:

… the Chair is not able to determine whether or not a member is personally interested in a committee’s inquiry and cannot properly be called upon to so decide. A member must be guided by his own feelings in the matter and by the dictates of respect due to the House and to himself. Having regard to the existence of the standing order and its terms, it is likely that if a matter of this kind is brought to issue it will be one for the House to decide.[82]

The Member served on the committee.

In other instances members of committees have decided not to participate in an inquiry or a facet of an inquiry because of conflict of interest considerations. In 1977 a member of the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory chose not to take part in proceedings of the committee whilst items in which that member had an investment interest were under discussion. In 1981 a member of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts did not take part in that part of an inquiry dealing with the ACT Schools Authority because the member had chaired the Authority in the past.[83]

Where there may be the possibility of a conflict of interest of some kind, or of the perception of such a conflict, Members have made an oral declaration in the form of a statement or a written statement on the matter at a meeting of the committee at an early stage of the particular inquiry, even though, technically, there may have been no question of an infringement of the standing order.[84]

If the right of a Member to sit on a committee is challenged, the committee may report the matter to the House for resolution.[85]

Suspension from the House

A Member suspended from the service of the House may take part in committee proceedings (other than of the Federation Chamber) during the period of suspension.[86]

Ex officio members

The Speaker is ex officio a member and chair of the Selection Committee and of the House Appropriations and Administration Committee, and a member of the House Committee. The Deputy Speaker is ex officio a member of the Selection Committee in the Speaker’s absence. The Speaker (together with the President of the Senate) is ex officio a member of the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings. The Deputy Speaker (together with the Deputy Senate President) is ex ;officio a member of the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories. Ex officio members of the Joint Standing Committee on the New Parliament House included the Speaker and President of the Senate and the Minister responsible for administering the Parliament House Construction Authority Act.[87]

The Chief Government and Opposition Whips and the Third Party Whip, or their nominees, are ex officio members of the Selection Committee. The Leader of the House and the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, or their nominees, are ex officio members of the Committee of Privileges and Members’ Interests.

Provision is rarely made for ex officio membership of committees other than committees concerned with the operations of the House or the Parliament. However, the chair of the Standing Committee on Expenditure (1976) was an ex officio member of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and vice versa.[88] This arrangement was intended to ensure adequate liaison between the two committees.[89]

Number of members and party composition

The number of members of a committee is determined by the membership provisions of the relevant standing orders, or by the resolution or Act establishing the committee.

In some cases provision may be made for numbers to be supplemented for individual inquiries, or for members to be substituted, to allow Members with particular expertise or interests to participate. Supplementary members have all the participatory rights of committee members; however they may not vote. A general purpose standing committee may be supplemented with up to four other Members for an inquiry.[90] For the purposes of the consideration of a bill referred to a committee for an advisory report under the provisions of standing order 143(b), one or more members of the committee may be replaced by other Members by motion moved on notice.[91]

From time to time the number of members of a committee may be increased. In the case of committees appointed by standing or sessional order it is necessary to suspend (or amend) standing (and sessional) orders to enable this to be done.[92]

In most cases the standing order or resolution establishing a committee of the House will also determine the party composition of its membership—that is, by specifying the numbers of Members to be drawn from government and from non-government parties. In practice each party’s representation on a committee is equated as nearly as possible to its numerical strength in the House, and consequently the relevant standing orders may change from Parliament to Parliament to reflect election results. Special provision has sometimes been made for independent Members.[93]

In the 45th Parliament the general purpose standing committees consisted of either eight or ten members. Eight member committees had five government Members and three non-government Members. Ten member committees had six government Members, three opposition Members and one non-aligned Member.

Appointment of Members

The Members to be appointed are normally elected or selected within their respective parties. The process is organised by the whips. Independent Members liaise with the opposition whips in respect of non-government positions, or may nominate themselves. Shadow ministers and shadow parliamentary secretaries often nominate for committees relevant to their shadow portfolios.

Members are formally appointed to or discharged from all committees on motion moved on notice or by leave.[94] When the House is not sitting, and not expected to meet for at least two weeks, party whips may write to the Speaker nominating the appointment or discharge of a member. The change operates from the time the nomination is received by the Speaker. The Speaker reports the change to the House at the next sitting when it is confirmed by resolution.[95]

An unusual situation arose in 1952 because of the Opposition’s declared intention not to nominate members to serve on the proposed Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. The resolution of appointment transmitted from the House was amended by the Senate to provide:

That the persons appointed for the time being to serve on the Committee shall constitute the Committee notwithstanding any failure by the Senate or the House of Representatives to appoint the full number of Senators or Members referred to in these resolutions.

The House agreed to the modification.[96]

On several occasions a resolution of appointment of a committee has specified that the membership be identical to that of its predecessor in the previous Parliament.[97]

Vacancies

A vacancy on a committee may occur for the following reasons:

  • resignation for personal reasons;
  • appointment of a Member as a Minister or Parliamentary Secretary/Assistant Minister;[98]
  • resignation on appointment to any other office that may preclude membership of a committee—for example, election to the office of Speaker or Deputy Speaker;
  • resignation due to personal interest in an inquiry;
  • resignation as a way of expressing dissent;
  • resignation from the House; or
  • death.

If a Member no longer wishes to serve on a committee, the Member informs the whip of his or her party and should advise the chair of the committee in writing. A motion is then moved in the House by a Minister to discharge the Member from attendance on the committee. A replacement is also appointed by motion. Normally, both the discharge and the appointment are moved simultaneously in the one motion.[99] A Member may not simply resign; the Member must be discharged by a motion moved in the House.[100]

In 2004 all opposition members of the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs were discharged (at their initiative) together, without replacement members being appointed.[101] It was considered that as the committee had been properly constituted, it continued to be properly constituted despite the subsequent absence of members or a class of members specified in its membership provisions.

In 2010 the House suspended standing orders to make special provision for the first meeting of the Selection Committee in the 43rd Parliament; one of the effects of the suspension was that the committee was properly constituted despite a vacancy in its membership (due to a delayed nomination) at its first meeting.[102]

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