Types of committees and terminology

Parliamentary committees

Committees appointed by the House, or by both Houses, can be categorised as follows (a particular committee may fall into more than one category):

Standing committees are committees created for the life of a Parliament and are usually re-established in successive Parliaments. They have a continuing role.

General purpose standing committees are a specific type of standing committee. They are investigatory or scrutiny committees, established by the House at the commencement of each Parliament to inquire into and report upon any matters referred to them, including legislation. These committees specialise by subject area, between them covering most areas of federal government activity (see page 643).

Select committees are created as the need arises, for a specific purpose, and thus have a more limited life which is normally specified in the resolution of appointment. Once a select committee has carried out its investigation and presented its final report, it ceases to exist.

Joint committees draw their membership from, and report to, both Houses of Parliament, enabling Members and Senators to work together (see page 648). Joint committees may be standing or select, and may be statutory committees.

Statutory committees are those established by Act of Parliament, that is, by statute. All existing statutory committees are joint committees (see page 650).

Domestic or internal committees are those whose functions are concerned with the powers and procedures of the House or the administration of Parliament (see page 644).

The Federation Chamber (until 2012 named the Main Committee) is a committee of the House established to be an alternative venue to the Chamber for debate of a restricted range of business. It is not an investigatory committee and does not hear witnesses or take evidence. (See Chapter on ‘The Federation Chamber’ for more detail)

Different definitions of standing and select committees

In contrast to the Australian usage, until recently in the United Kingdom the distinguishing feature of a standing committee was that it proceeded by debate, as opposed to a select committee, which proceeded by taking evidence, deliberation and report.[4] Since 2006 the former House of Commons standing committees have been known as general committees.[5] These committees (public bills committees and other general committees) ‘proceed in the same way as the House by debating and deciding upon questions’.[6] The House of Representatives does not have committees which ‘proceed by debate’ (other than the Federation Chamber), but has used them in the past for the detail stages of legislation—that is, legislation committees and estimates committees between 1978 and 1981 (see first edition).

Unofficial committees

In addition to the parliamentary committees described above there are further categories of committees consisting of Members and Senators which operate within the Parliament. However, although their members are Members of Parliament, these committees are not appointed by either House. They are therefore not committees of the Parliament, and do not enjoy the special powers and privileges of such committees, nor do they necessarily operate in accordance with parliamentary procedures and practice.

In the early years after Federation unofficial committees consisting of Members and Senators were appointed by the Government of the day. Membership included members of the Opposition. The committees’ reports were submitted to the Government and subsequently presented to one or both Houses. The practice of appointing such committees was not continued with the establishment by the House of formal committees and a formal committee structure.

Informal committees consisting of Members and Senators have been established to advise the Presiding Officers in respect of accommodation matters in the provisional Parliament House and, in more recent years, in respect of the information systems needs of Members and Senators and in respect of the Parliamentary Education Office. In the 36th and 37th Parliaments a group of Members and Senators, including the Presiding Officers, formed a working group to consider issues relating to standards of conduct for Members of Parliament, including Ministers (see Chapter on ‘Members’).

The chairs and deputy chairs of the investigatory committees supported by the Department of the House of Representatives meet together as an informal Liaison Committee of Committee Chairs and Deputy Chairs to discuss matters of mutual concern and advise the Speaker on matters affecting committees. The Deputy Speaker chairs the group.

The government and opposition parties each have committees of private Members to assist them in the consideration of legislative proposals and other issues of political significance allied to each committee’s function. These party committees are referred to in the Chapter on ‘House, Government and Opposition’.