Committee support

The Committee Office supports parliamentary committees by examining policy and legislation and scrutinising the executive. In 2016–17, the Committee Office comprised
10 secretariats that supported 13 House committees and 11 joint committees (see Table 7).

Expenditure on these services in 2016–17 was $7.431 million, which was $1.679 million less than the budget allocation of $9.110 million. Results against performance criteria are summarised in the annual performance statement (page 17); staff levels are shown in Appendix 1.

Table 7 Committees of the Forty-fifth Parliament supported by the Committee Office, 2016–17

House committees

Joint committees

  • Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation (from 1 June 2017)
  • Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources
  • Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts
  • Standing Committee on Economics
  • Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
  • Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy
  • Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport
  • Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs
  • Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources
  • Standing Committee on Infrastructure, Transport and Cities
  • Standing Committee on Petitions
  • Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs
  • Standing Committee on Tax and Revenue
  • Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audita
  • Joint Select Committee on Government Procurement (from 1 December 2016)
  • Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
  • Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
  • Joint Standing Committee on Migration
  • Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
  • Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia
  • Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth
  • Joint Standing Committee on Treaties
  • Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Securitya
  • Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Worksa

 

Committee Office activity

In 2016–17, the Committee Office’s support for the diverse work of committees involved:

  • facilitating committees’ private meetings, public hearings and site inspections
  • providing procedural and inquiry-related advice for committees and stakeholders
  • fielding inquiries from interested stakeholders about the purpose and progress of inquiries
  • promoting committee inquiries and reports
  • conducting research and analysing evidence received by committees
  • drafting chairs’ reports
  • facilitating the adoption and tabling of committee reports.

The committees supported by the Committee Office held 541 meetings in 2016–17. Appendix 3 provides a breakdown of that activity by committee. Figure 5 shows the number of meetings held by committees over the past five years.

Figure 5 Number of committee meetings supported by the Committee Office, 2012–13 to 2016–17

 

a. The Forty-fourth Parliament opened on 12 November 2013.
b. The Forty-fourth Parliament ended with the dissolution of both Houses on 9 May 2016.
c. The Forty-fifth Parliament opened on 30 August 2016.

The Committee Office tabled 46 reports in 2016–17. Appendix 4 provides a breakdown of that activity by committee. Figure 6 shows the number of reports tabled by committees over the past five years.

Figure 6 Number of reports presented by committees, 2012–13 to 2016–17

 

a. The Forty-fourth Parliament opened on 12 November 2013.
b. The Forty-fourth Parliament ended with the dissolution of both Houses on 9 May 2016.
c. The Forty-fifth Parliament opened on 30 August 2016.

Government responses to committee reports

The government is obliged by resolution of the House to respond to recommendations contained in a report by a House or joint committee within six months of the report’s tabling.

During 2016–17, 18 of the 46 tabled reports contained recommendations that required a government response. Government responses to two reports were received within the six-month timeframe; the other 16 reports are awaiting responses.

Support for public administration—biennial conference

The chair and deputy chair of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA), joined by Committee Office staff, attended the biennial conference of the Australasian Council of Public Accounts Committees held in Brisbane in April 2017. The conference was an opportunity to exchange ideas and knowledge about public accounts committees and public administration issues. The chair gave a jurisdictional update on the committee’s work during the Forty-fifth Parliament, and the deputy chair presented on the theme ‘Parliamentarians versus politicians’. During the conference, Committee Office staff met with secretariat staff from other jurisdictions to discuss ideas specific to supporting public accounts committees. The council’s next biennial conference will be hosted by the JCPAA in Canberra in 2019.

 

Delegates to the Australasian Council of Public Accounts Committees conference, Parliament House, Brisbane, April 2017.

High-level committee business—Parliamentary Budget Office

The JCPAA has an important oversight role of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO), which includes reviewing the PBO’s annual budget and work plan. In 2016–17, the JCPAA approved the appointment of Ms Jenny Wilkinson as the next Parliamentary Budget Officer, commencing 24 July 2017, and commissioned an independent review of the PBO. In accordance with the legislative requirements (section 64XA of the Parliamentary Service Act 1999), the Presiding Officers wrote to the committee seeking its approval of Ms Wilkinson’s appointment. The independent review focused on the operations of the PBO since its establishment in 2012 and made 16 recommendations, including on accuracy of policy costings; transparency and public understanding of budget and fiscal policy settings; and governance and resources.

Forward-looking committee inquiries—driverless vehicles inquiry

The first inquiry in the Forty-fifth Parliament for the Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources Committee was into the social aspects of driverless vehicles in Australia. The secretariat supported the inquiry by organising 10 public hearings and four site inspections held around the country—in Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra. Committee members rode in a highly automated car in Canberra and in a driverless bus in Perth. The committee heard from more than 30 witnesses across its hearings and received approximately 50 written submissions from a broad range of stakeholders, including Commonwealth and state government agencies, vehicle manufacturers, academics, industry groups, representatives of legal and insurance firms, and road safety experts. The committee’s report is expected to be tabled in September 2017.

 

Members of the Industry, Innovation, Science and Resources Committee during a ‘drive experience’ as part of the inquiry into driverless vehicles, Canberra, March 2017. Left to right: Mr Tim Wilson MP; Mr Peter Kahlil MP; Mr Ted O’Brien; Ms Michelle Landry MP (chair); Mr Luke Gosling MP (deputy chair); Mr David Littleproud MP; Mr David Pickett, Technical Manager, Volvo; Mr Brian Mitchell MP; Dr John McVeigh MP; Mr Greg Bosnich, Director Corporate, Volvo.

Information and communications technology

The Committee Office continued to expand its use of ICT to increase the efficiency of the office’s work and provide greater access for stakeholders interested in engaging with committees.

Using multimedia to improve accessibility

As part of its inquiry into the hearing health and wellbeing of Australia, the Standing Committee on Health, Aged Care and Sport piloted live remote captioning for 10 of the 11 public hearings held. The pilot enabled participants to follow committee proceedings remotely in real time using their own electronic devices. The inquiry received 42 submissions and 17 exhibits, three of which were communicated in Auslan via video. The inquiry is just one example of the growing move towards improving accessibility of parliamentary proceedings.

Crowdsourcing questions for a public hearing

The Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories used Facebook for the first time to call for questions from the Canberra community at its biannual briefing with the National Capital Authority held on 24 November 2016.

While parliamentary committees have had a longstanding practice of accepting submissions from the public, this was the first time a committee used Facebook (specifically, the department’s About the House page) to take questions directly from the public. The Facebook post calling for input ahead of the hearing generated 22 individual responses.

At the hearing, the committee discussed community concerns raised via Facebook in addition to a range of other issues. The success of the trial has led the committee to crowdsource suggested questions again for its biannual hearing in June 2017.

Introduction of e-petitioning

At the start of the Forty-fifth Parliament, an e-petitions system and website were introduced to the House. The Speaker informed members that several changes were to be agreed to in standing orders to facilitate the new system.

The e-petitions system is designed to make it easier to petition the House. It enables members of the public to enter and sign petitions online, and to track the progress of any petition as it is presented, referred and responded to by the relevant minister. The introduction of e-petitioning shows that parliamentary processes can be modernised to the benefit of the House and the community.

The establishment of the e-petitioning system and website has proven to be a valuable enhancement for the public, the members of the House and the secretariat supporting the Petitions Committee. Since the system was introduced, the committee has received 75 per cent of its petitions as e-petitions. This figure is a positive reflection on the new system and a clear indication that the general public is receptive to petitioning the House online.

Shared Committee Information Database and Report Builder

The Committee Office continued to collaborate with the Department of the Senate on the Shared Committee Information Database (SCID), a data management and publishing tool. Report Builder, a new template for drafting committee reports, is closely integrated with SCID. Through SCID, Report Builder links committee and inquiry information, and enables web publishing of reports in PDF, HTML and e-book formats.

After several months of testing the new template, the Committee Office officially started using Report Builder in the Forty-fifth Parliament. A number of Report Builder defects continued to be resolved throughout 2016–17.

Committee report success story—country-of-origin labelling for food

In October 2014, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Industry tabled the report A clearer message for consumers: report on the inquiry into country of origin labelling for food.

In early 2015, the country-of-origin food-labelling issue was brought to national attention after more than 20 Australians contracted hepatitis A from imported frozen berries. In response to that incident, and essentially ending more than 10 years of discussion and debate, the government accepted the committee’s report as a whole (a government response to the report was tabled in June 2015). A policy working group was formed and the Minister for Industry invited the committee chair to participate. The minister gave three briefings to the committee on the progress of the policy reform, and the committee consulted widely with consumer and industry groups.

On 1 July 2016, the new program of country-of-origin labelling for food commenced. It includes a two-year implementation period to give Australian food producers time to change over their product packaging to meet the new labelling standard. Products featuring the new food labels are now appearing on supermarket shelves.

This is just one example of the positive impact that committee work has on government policy, and the valuable influence and relevance that committee work has in the lives of Australians more generally.

Facilitating international visits

In April 2017, the secretariat supported an additional parliamentary delegation from the Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. The delegation visited London as part of its inquiry into whether to introduce legislation in Australia similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015.

The delegation attended the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK’s Asia–Pacific Regional Workshop on Modern Slavery at Westminster from 26 to 28 April, joining parliamentarians and officials from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. During the visit, the delegation met with UK parliamentarians involved in the introduction and implementation of the Modern Slavery Act. They also met with officials from the UK Home Office, organisations working to support victims of slavery in the United Kingdom, and businesses required to report under the Modern Slavery Act on how they ensure their global supply chains are free of slavery and human trafficking.

A delegation from the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security travelled to Washington DC in January 2017 to meet with US security agencies and counterpart congressional committee members. Committee members spoke with officials from the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon about cooperative approaches to domestic and international threats of terrorism.

The committee has continued its close alliance with the United States, conducting private meetings with Senator John McCain and Professor James Clapper when they were recently in Australia.

Delegation from the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in Washington DC, January 2017. Left to right:
the Hon Dr Mike Kelly AM MP, Senator the Hon Penny Wong, the Hon Anthony Byrne MP, Mr Andrew Hastie MP (chair),
US Senator John McCain, Senator David Fawcett, Senator Bridget McKenzie, the Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Mr Julian Leeser MP, Senator Jenny McAllister.

Outlook

The Committee Office is currently supporting several ongoing inquiries and, given the high level of committee activity over the reporting period, it is expected that a heightened level of activity will continue through 2017–18.

In the coming year, committee members will continue to be professionally supported by the Committee Office. Continuing to invest in our staff, in important areas such as procedural knowledge and leadership skills, will remain a key priority.

In the latter part of the year, the Committee Office will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the House committee system. A seminar and other activities are being planned to reflect on the history, and celebrate the achievements, of the House committee system.

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