Frequency of reporting

The frequency with which a committee may report is determined by standing or sessional orders or its resolution of appointment. Standing committees are authorised to report from time to time—that is, as the need arises. Select committees have had various limits placed on their power to report but they are usually required to report by a specified date or as soon as possible, in which case they may submit only one report (whereupon they cease to exist).

A committee without the power to report from time to time may, however, seek leave of the House to submit an ‘interim’ or ‘special’ report. A special report is one in which a committee draws attention to matters incidental to its inquiry and which relates to its powers, functions or proceedings. For example, the Committee of Privileges has submitted special reports seeking an extension of its reference[183] and recommending that the House ask the Senate to grant leave to named Senators to appear before it.[184] In 1976 the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Committee System presented a special report seeking an amendment to its powers to elect a chair and deputy chair.[185] The Joint Committee of Public Accounts has reported on the issue of whether it was able to sit while the Senate was sitting,[186] and in 1988 it reported on revised procedures for its reports.[187]

Instead of presenting a single report on a wide-ranging inquiry, a committee, properly authorised, may submit one or more interim reports. Such reports may deal with the committee’s method of inquiry, or report progress on the inquiry as a whole and/or contain the committee’s recommendations on facets of the inquiry.[188]

The Senate has referred matters to committees for report on a specified date, or not before a specified date. The Clerk of the Senate has advised that such a reference cannot negate the power explicitly conferred by Senate standing orders for committees to report when they choose to.[189]

From time to time committees have reported to the House without a formal inquiry reference or without following the normal procedures of inviting submissions and conducting public hearings. Circumstances in which committees have decided to report without following the normal inquiry processes have included situations:

  • when a need to report quickly had been identified;
  • where a committee wished to comment on aspects of the Government’s response to previous reports;
  • where the issues were felt to have little public interest;
  • where costs and other resource limitations had prevented a full inquiry;
  • where extensive published material, letters and other documents were available; and
  • where a report naturally flowed from informal briefings, seminars, round-table discussions or inspections.

This practice provides a cost and time-effective way for a committee’s views to be placed before the Parliament, but should be used with care, as the committee could leave itself open to criticism that some community, government or interest groups have been excluded from the process. In addition the committee runs the risk that its conclusions and recommendations could be based on incomplete or incorrect information.

Some committees have presented annual reports.[190] The annual report of the Department of the House of Representatives also contains some information on committees serviced by the department.

Drafting and consideration of reports

Technically, it is the duty of the chair of a committee to prepare a draft report.[191] In order to pave the way for the preparation of a report after evidence has been received and reviewed, it is normal for members to discuss possible conclusions and recommendations at deliberative meetings. This process is normally assisted by advice and documentation from committee staff. In light of such discussions secretariats are able to develop draft report material for consideration, in the first instance, by the chair. A member other than the chair may give a draft report to the committee. In this case the committee must first decide which report it will consider.[192]

The procedures for consideration of a draft report are set down in standing order 244:

  1. The Chair of a committee shall prepare a draft report and present it to the committee at a meeting convened for report consideration.
  2. The report may be considered at once if copies have been circulated in advance to each member of the committee. The report shall be considered paragraph by paragraph. When consideration of the chapters of the report is completed, the appendices shall be considered in order.
  3. After the draft report has been considered, the whole or any paragraph may be reconsidered and amended.
  4. A member objecting to any portion of the report may vote against it or move an amendment when the particular paragraph or appendix is under consideration.
  5. A member protesting about the report or dissenting from all or part of it may add a protest or dissenting report to the main report.

The committee may consider groups of paragraphs together, by leave. Amendments may be proposed by any member and are determined in the same way as amendments to a bill during the consideration in detail stage in the House. The committee may divide on any question. When all paragraphs and appendixes have been agreed to, with or without amendment, the question is proposed ‘That the draft report (as amended) be adopted’. The date which appears under the chair’s signature in the report and on the front page is the date on which the report was adopted.

The procedures for the drafting, consideration, adoption, presentation and correction of inquiry reports apply equally to all committee reports, including special and interim reports.

Protest or dissent

Committee members may add a protest or dissenting report to a committee’s report.[193] The difference between a ‘protest’ and a ‘dissenting report’ has not been strictly defined. A distinction would be to associate a protest with procedural matters concerning the conduct of an inquiry, and dissent with opposition to a committee’s conclusions or recommendations—however, in practice the term ‘dissenting report’ is generally used. A protest (which is a rarely used form) or dissenting report is attached to the committee’s report, and signed by the dissenting or protesting members.[194] Additions to reports expressing disagreement or reservation have also been described in other ways, for example, as ‘additional comments’,[195] ‘clarifying statement’,[196] ‘minority report’,[197] and ‘supplementary remarks’.[198]

A member who proposes to present a protest or dissenting report is not required to seek authorisation from the committee, as this power resides with individual members, not with the committee. Accordingly, the protest or dissenting report need not be shown by its author to the chair or other members of the committee, although not to do so would be regarded as a discourtesy. On 22 November 1995 the Senate passed a motion to the effect that prior to the printing of a committee report a member or a group of members is not required to disclose to the committee any minority or dissenting report, or any relevant conclusions and recommendations, proposed to be added or attached to the report after it had been agreed.[199] This has not been considered to preclude action by a committee to direct the circulation of dissenting reports to committee members on their receipt by the secretariat. The chair’s foreword, which is not subject to approval by the committee, has contained a rebuttal of claims in a dissenting report.[200]

A protest or dissenting report must be relevant to the committee’s reference, as the authority delegated to the committee and its members is limited to those areas defined by the terms of the inquiry. The words ‘protest’ and ‘dissent’ imply some relationship with the committee’s report.

Alternative methods of recording dissent are:

  • moving amendments to the draft report, the voting on which is recorded in the minutes which are subsequently presented and thereby become public;[201]
  • submitting an alternative draft report to the committee (S.O. 245);
  • making a statement in the House, by leave, when the report is presented; or
  • stating the dissent or protest in debate on any motion moved in relation to the report.

(For earlier precedents see pages 612–13 of the second edition.)

In extreme circumstances members may record their dissent by resigning from the committee. In such instances members have no automatic right to explain their resignation in the House but could do so in a statement made by leave,[202] or during 90 second statements, the adjournment debate or the grievance debate.

If a committee is unable to agree upon a report, it may present a special report to that effect, with its minutes and the transcript of evidence.[203] Even if the circumstances of the committee’s inability to agree are widely known, the committee should still report the circumstances to the House, if only as a matter of form and to place them on record.

See also ‘Disclosure of in camera evidence in dissenting reports’ at page 720.

Presentation of reports

A copy of the report, signed by the chair, dissenting reports, if any, signed by the relevant members, and the committee’s minutes of proceedings are presented to the House by the chair or a member of the committee.[204] Copies of the submissions to the inquiry and the corrected copy of the transcript of evidence, other than confidential evidence, may also be presented. A supplementary CD has been presented with a report,[205] and a video explaining a committee’s report has been presented.[206] It is normal practice for the report, with or without the accompanying documents, to be made a Parliamentary Paper.[207]

Periods are reserved on Mondays in the House and the Federation Chamber for private Members’ business and parliamentary committee and delegation business, which includes presentation of reports and statements relating to inquiries—special procedures applying to these periods are described in detail in the Chapter on ‘Non-government business’. Reports can also be presented at any time when other business is not before the House.[208]

A Member presenting a committee report at times other than the period allocated on Monday may be granted leave to make a brief statement on the report and this may be followed by statements, by leave, from other Members. The Member presenting the report may then move a specific motion in relation to the report—that is, that the House take note of the report, or that the report be adopted or agreed to. Normally the ‘take note’ motion is moved. Debate on the motion is then adjourned to a future day.[209] Debate can be resumed in the House or, after referral by the House, in the Federation Chamber.

Generally, any subsequent debate on a motion to take note of a committee report is adjourned and the order of the day remains listed as House or Federation Chamber business on the Notice Paper, thus enabling further debate. If not called on for eight consecutive sitting weeks the order of the day is automatically removed from the Notice Paper.[210]

Two reports have been presented together, with the single motion moved to take note of each of the reports giving rise to two separate orders of the day (later debated together in a de facto cognate debate).[211]

In 1955 the House ordered that the Clerk read to the House the special report of the Committee of Privileges relating to the Bankstown Observer Case.[212]

See also ‘Authority for release when House not sitting’ at page 731.

Oral reports

If, having considered a bill referred to it for an advisory report, a committee finds no issues requiring a formal report, a statement to the House by the Chair or Deputy Chair to that effect, together with the presentation of the relevant minutes of proceedings, discharges the committee’s obligation to report on the bill.[213]

A committee’s chair or deputy chair (either or both) may make an oral statement to inform the House of matters relating to an inquiry.[214] To enable debate a motion to take note may be moved in respect of a presented copy of the statement.

An oral statement is made annually by the chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit on the draft budget estimates for the Australian National Audit Office and the Parliamentary Budget Office.[215]

Presentation of reports and minutes—joint committees

The standing orders provide that the proceedings of a joint committee shall be reported to the House by one of the Members it has appointed to serve on the committee.[216] The provision of the Senate standing orders is similar except that one of the Senators appointed to the committee is required to report.[217] Reports by joint committees are dealt with in the same manner as the reports of House or Senate committees except that joint committee reports are directed to, and presented in, both Houses. Senate standing orders do not require the presentation of minutes of proceedings with a committee’s report.[218]

Committees usually aim to present reports to both Houses on the same day but this is not always possible—for example, when only one House is sitting and there is an urgent need for the report to be presented and published.[219] A motion that the report be made a Parliamentary Paper (or be printed) need only be moved in one House. Special arrangements are provided if the House is not sitting when a joint committee has completed a report of an inquiry—see page 731.

Amendment of presented reports

Minor amendments to presented copies of committee reports (for example, to correct typographical errors) may be made with the approval of the Clerk of the House. Amendments are initialled by the committee secretary. The committee chair, or even the whole committee, would have to approve more substantial, even if still relatively technical, amendments. In the case of amendments of substance a corrigendum[220] or a further report[221] would have to be presented.Leave is not required for these purposes.[222] Alternatively, the chair could make a statement in the House.

Premature disclosure or publication

Standing order 242 provides 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 their publication has been authorised by the House, the committee or the subcommittee. This is a blanket prohibition which precludes unauthorised disclosure of all or part of a report, or of its contents.

Until 1998 the rule was that such disclosure or publication had to be authorised by the House.[223] The present rule allows authorisation to be given by a committee or subcommittee, and in addition, specifically permits committees to resolve to:

  • publish press releases, discussion papers or other documents or preliminary findings;
  • divulge evidence, documents, proceedings or reports on a confidential basis to persons for comment; or
  • authorise a member of the committee to give public briefings on matters related to an inquiry. An authorised member may not disclose evidence, documents, proceedings or reports which have not been authorised for publication. The committee shall determine the limits of the authorisation.

Contravention of the rule on premature disclosure may be found to be a contempt.[224] However, committees have chosen, from time to time, to take no action on unauthorised press articles partially disclosing the contents of their reports or commenting on committee deliberations during the drafting of reports; it has sometimes been thought counter-productive to give further publicity and credence to such articles.[225]

Release to media under embargo

In accordance with the provisions outlined above, a number of committees have adopted the practice of releasing their reports, before presentation, to the media under embargo. This early release gives the media advance information about a committee’s recommendations and enables more effective questioning of the committee at press conferences held after presentation. The practice also encourages greater media coverage of committee reports. Release under embargo is authorised by resolution of the committee.

Release to Minister

On rare occasions a committee has been authorised or directed to disclose its report to Ministers before its presentation to the House. The resolution of appointment of the Joint Committee on War Expenditure provided that:

The Committee have power, in cases where considerations of National Security preclude the publication of any recommendations and of the arguments on which they are based, or both, to address a memorandum to the Prime Minister for the consideration of the War Cabinet, but, on every occasion when the Committee exercises this power, the Committee shall report to the Parliament accordingly.[226]

In 1952 the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs was directed by its resolution of appointment to forward its reports to the Minister for External Affairs. On every occasion when it did so, the committee was required to inform the Parliament that it had reported.[227] In later Parliaments the committee’s resolution of appointment added that, in the case of inquiries not initiated by the Minister, the committee was not authorised to report, either to the Minister or to the Parliament, without the Minister’s consent. It was further provided that, if opposition Members were represented on the committee, copies of its reports to the Minister were to be forwarded to the Leader of the Opposition for his confidential information.[228] It was left to the Minister to decide whether or not the committee’s reports would be published.[229] These arrangements were justified on the ground of national security.

The Intelligence Services Act 2001 provides that the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is not permitted to present a report until the advice of the responsible Minister or Ministers has been obtained as to whether the disclosure of any part of the report would or might disclose certain matters which the committee is not permitted to disclose.[230]

Authority for release when House not sitting

Special arrangements are required for times when the House is not sitting and a committee has completed a report of an inquiry. The committee may send the report to the Speaker, or to the Deputy Speaker if the Speaker is unavailable. When the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker receives the report, the report may be published; and he or she may give directions for the printing and circulation of the report. The committee must then present the report to the House as soon as possible.[231] This procedure would normally be used only during a lengthy break when the House is not due to sit for some time, or in cases where the committee has a reporting deadline which falls on a non-sitting day.[232] It has also been used for reports sent to the Speaker before dissolution, but not able to be presented until the new Parliament had met.[233] These provisions also apply to joint committees.[234]

Government responses to reports

The Government is obliged by resolution of the House to present its response to recommendations contained in a report by a House or Joint Committee within six months of the report’s presentation. If a response has not been presented within this period, the relevant Minister (or Minister representing the Minister) must present a signed statement stating the reasons for the delay, and must make him or herself available to the committee concerned to be questioned about the statement. If an explanatory statement has not been presented, and if questions on the statement have not been answered to the satisfaction of the committee, the committee may bring the matter to the attention, if appropriate, of the Auditor-General for assistance in resolving matters referred to in the report or to the Speaker for assistance in resolving the response process.[235]

There are government guidelines for departments and agencies on the procedures to follow in relation to the approval and presentation of responses.[236] These procedures do not apply to reports by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works and the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit,[237] and to advisory reports on proposed legislation.[238] Government responses are made to reports by the Joint Committee on Publications resulting from inquiries, and reports by the Procedure Committee, but not to reports by other committees concerned with ‘internal’ matters. If appropriate, the Speaker may also respond to a committee report, and both Presiding Officers may respond to reports by joint committees which relate to their shared responsibilities.[239]

Speakers have followed the practice of presenting to the House at approximately six-monthly intervals a schedule listing government responses to House of Representatives and joint committee reports as well as responses outstanding.[240] Subsequently the Leader of the House presents a list of parliamentary committee reports showing the stage reached with the government response in each case.[241] This list does not constitute the formal response, nor does correspondence from a Minister directly to a committee chair. The Government’s response to a committee report is considered to have been formally made only when presented directly to the House(s).

The first Notice Paper of each sitting period (fortnight or single week) contains a list of House and joint committee reports awaiting government response.