Referral of matters for inquiry

The range of matters a committee is able to investigate or inquire into is restricted by the terms of reference contained in the relevant standing or sessional orders, resolution of appointment, or Act establishing the committee. A committee may have no power of inquiry or it may be free to determine its own inquiries within a general subject area (e.g. Procedure Committee). However, in a majority of cases, inquiries are referred by the House, a Minister, or in some cases the Speaker. A matter may also be referred to a committee by legislation.[1]

In practice committees may either take the initiative and seek a reference or at least be involved in considering and negotiating suitable terms of reference.[2] In addition, the ability of general purpose standing committees to initiate any inquiry they wish to make into annual reports of government departments and authorities and Auditor-General’s reports[3] has enabled them to conduct inquiries into a wide range of matters. In practice the need to relate an inquiry to an annual report has been interpreted as permitting committees to take evidence in relation to any subject mentioned in a report in their area of responsibility. A committee’s investigation is not limited to developments occurring during the period covered by the report. The six-monthly hearings during which the Governor of the Reserve Bank briefs the Standing Committee on Economics on current developments in monetary policy take place under the guise of the committee’s review of the Reserve Bank annual report of the previous financial year.

When a matter is referred to a committee, the committee normally formally resolves to accept the reference.[4] It has been considered that, although a Minister may refer a matter to a committee, a Minister is not able to withdraw a reference from a committee.

Avoidance of duplication of inquiries

Senate legislative and general purpose committees are prohibited from inquiring into matters that are being examined by Senate select committees.[5] There is no equivalent rule in the House. However it has generally been considered desirable for committees to endeavour to avoid duplication with the work of other committees—for example, in inquiries by the House Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and a Senate select committee in 1988, there was considerable potential for duplication, but the two committees concentrated on different matters. Such considerations also apply in respect of joint committees—for example, in the 36th Parliament the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Migration Regulations were careful to avoid duplication in their respective inquiries into the Business Migration Program and the control of visitor entry.

In the House the procedure for referral of legislation to a standing committee was designed to be used judiciously, rather than as a routine stage in the passage of a bill. This was partly for the reason of not wishing to duplicate Senate activity in this area, with the potential for the same submissions and witnesses.[6]

In 2011 a House committee reported on a bill that had been referred to it by the Selection Committee, noting that a Senate committee was currently conducting an inquiry into the bill. The report stated that the committee did not consider that it could significantly add to the work already being undertaken and that duplication was likely from a further inquiry.[7] Since House committees have been able to discharge their obligation to report on a bill referred to them for an advisory report by way of an oral statement to the House (see page 728), there have been several such statements reporting that a House committee has declined to inquire into a bill because an inquiry was considered to duplicate the work of a Senate committee.[8]

While in most instances referral of a bill to a committee of one House only, or to a joint committee, would seem preferable to separate referrals to a House and to a Senate committee, in specific circumstances it can be entirely appropriate for both a House and a Senate committee to consider the same bill. This was the case with the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commission) Bill 2012 which related to the powers of both Houses under the Constitution. However, rather than issue a call for submissions to the same stakeholders, the House committee agreed to make use of the submissions received as evidence to the concurrent Senate inquiry.[9]

To avoid duplication, if a general purpose standing committee intends to inquire into all or part of a report of the Auditor-General, the committee must notify the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit of its intention, in writing.[10]

Scope of inquiry and procedures

The standing or sessional orders or resolution of appointment define the nature and limits of the authority delegated to each committee by the House. They contain the committee’s terms of reference and powers and may contain directions which the House wishes to give, for example, in relation to procedures. A resolution may modify or extend the provisions of the standing orders and in these cases it is standard practice to include the following paragraph:

That the foregoing provisions of this resolution, so far as they are inconsistent with the standing orders, have effect notwithstanding anything contained in the standing orders.

In the case of a statutory committee, the constituting Act defines the nature and limits of the committee’s authority.

Change to scope of inquiry or procedures

Amendments to resolutions of appointment have usually been initiated directly or indirectly by the committee itself. Normally a committee seeks an amendment through the Leader of the House or the Minister associated with the committee’s field of inquiry. If the proposed amendment has the Government’s support, the Leader of the House or the Minister then moves for its adoption by the House.[11] It is rare for the chair of the committee to move such an amendment.[12] Motions for controversial or unusual amendments have occasionally been preceded by the presentation of a special report by the committee explaining the need for the amendment.[13] Amendments have included extension of time for reporting,[14] alteration of quorum size,[15] extension of powers,[16] change in the number of Members,[17] and extension of the terms of reference.[18]