Committee office

Output

Provision of secretariat support to the Senate legislative and general purpose standing committees, select committees and certain joint committees.

Performance information Performance results

The degree of satisfaction of the President, Deputy President, committee members and senators, as expressed through formal and informal feedback mechanisms, with the quality and timeliness of advice and support and the achievement of key tasks.

Formal and informal feedback mechanisms show that senators consider the support provided by the Committee Office to be effective.  In August 2011, the Chairs' Committee formally recorded the committee's appreciation of the commitment and teamwork shown by the staff of the Committee Office in supporting the work of Senate standing, select and certain joint committees.

Advice, documentation, publications and draft reports are timely, accurate and of a high standard. Tabling deadlines met in all but extraordinary circumstances.

Accurate advice, documentation, publications and draft reports were provided to committees in accordance with committee requirements.  Reports were drafted and presented to the Senate in accordance with the timeframes set by committees and deadlines set by the Senate.

Documentation is sufficient for committee purposes and material available to the public is available promptly, online or in hard copy.

Committee staff provided committee members, witnesses and others with documents in accordance with secretariat procedures, orders of the Senate and committee requirements.

On tabling, reports were promptly made available to senators and others both online and in hard copy.

Overview

The Committee Office is led by the Clerk Assistant (Committees), who also performs duties as a clerk at the table in the Senate chamber and as a committee secretary. He is a member of the department's executive responsible for a range of governance matters, including this year as one of two management representatives nominated by the Clerk to negotiate a new enterprise agreement for the department. In 2011–12, the Clerk Assistant (Committees) was a coopted member of the Australia and New Zealand Association of Clerks-at-the-Table (ANZACATT) education committee. The administrative structure of the office is outlined in figure 14, including the secretaries of individual committees.

Committee Office secretariats support legislative and general purpose standing committees, select committees and certain joint statutory committees. This role includes:

  • giving accurate and timely procedural advice and administrative support to facilitate and expedite the work of committees
  • arranging meetings and hearings in accordance with committee decisions
  • providing comprehensive and timely briefings and research papers
  • drafting high-quality reports which accurately canvass and analyse the evidence from submissions and hearings and reflect the requirements of committees
  • assisting in the drafting of minority reports
  • communicating effectively with witnesses and members of the general public
  • being proactive in anticipating requirements of committees and chairs.

The full-time equivalent staffing level for the Committee Office in
2011–12 was 59 (58 in 2010–11).

A typical standing committee secretariat comprises a committee secretary, a principal research officer, a senior research officer, a research officer and an administrative officer. Depending on the workload allocated to a committee, additional resources are often provided or shared to assist with administration or with research, analysis and report writing.

The cost of the Committee Office in 2011–12 was $8.8 million ($8.3 million in 2010–11). While overall the workload this year was less than in 2010–11, it remained at high levels, often with intense inquiries being managed and tight reporting deadlines being met. Senate committees conducted inquiries into numerous matters, including proposed amendments to the Marriage Act, former forced adoptions policies, the dairy industry, Australian privacy principles, procurement procedures for defence capital projects, live animal exports and, as part of joint committee activities, immigration detention and gambling reform.

Figure 14 Elements and responsibilities of the Committee Office

Executive

Chris Reid, Clerk Assistant

Jackie Morris, Senior Clerk of Committees

Procedural advice and training

Planning and coordination

Secretariat staffing and resources

Statistics and records

Legislative and general purpose standing committee secretariats Joint statutory committee secretariats Select committee secretariats

Community Affairs

Ian Holland

Economics

Tim Bryant

Education, Employment and Workplace Relations

Tim Watling

Environment and Communications

Sophie Dunstone (A/g)

Finance and Public Administration

Christine McDonald

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

Kathleen Dermody

Legal and Constitutional Affairs

Julie Dennett

Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport

Stephen Palethorpe

Corporations and Financial Services

Richard Grant (A/g)

Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity

Fiona Bowring-Greer

Law Enforcement

Fiona Bowring-Greer

 

Senate select

Australia's Food Processing Sector

Tim Bryant/Richard Grant (A/g)

Joint select

Gambling Reform

Lyn Beverley

Ceased during 2011–12

Senate select

Scrutiny of New Taxes

[ceased to exist 1 November 2011]

Shon Fletcher

Joint select

Australia's Immigration Detention Network

[ceased to exist 30 March 2012]

Tim Watling

Overwhelmingly, the major cost of supporting a committee is staffing, with a typical secretariat costing about $490,000 this year. The other costs relate to administration and include items such as advertising, venue hire, refreshments at hearings, transport (including flights and taxis for departmental staff), accommodation for staff at interstate hearings and report printing. The administrative costs of a typical secretariat for the reporting period were about $60,000. Overall, expenditure on salaries accounts for almost 90 per cent of the Committee Office budget expenditure, making the Government's additional efficiency dividend a significant impost on the Committee Office.

No specialist advice was obtained by Senate committees during 2011–12.

Senators' salaries are not included in the costs of committees, as it is not possible to establish the proportion of a senator's salary that should be attributed to committee work. The flight and accommodation costs of senators attending hearings are paid by the Department of Finance and Deregulation.

Hansard and broadcasting services for public hearings are provided by the Department of Parliamentary Services. The office works with the Department of Parliamentary Services to coordinate and enhance the provision of those services.

Procedural advice and administration

In 2011–12, committee secretaries provided procedural and administrative advice to committee chairs and members as well as to the public, including people seeking information about committee activities or participating in committee inquiries. Higher level advice was also provided by the Clerk, Deputy Clerk, Clerk Assistant (Committees) and Senior Clerk of Committees.

The advice, oral and written, again covered a wide variety of procedural issues, such as:

  • the establishment of inquiries, the drafting of terms of reference and the membership of committees
  • the interpretation of standing orders relating to the operations of committees
  • issues relating to parliamentary privilege, including the unauthorised disclosure of committee information and dealing with witnesses
  • the powers of committees to summon witnesses
  • matters arising from estimates hearings—for example, potentially misleading evidence from witnesses, the common but false assertion that 'advice to government' cannot be provided to committees and a self-imposed restriction on questions relating to matters that are sub judice.

Committee secretaries met regularly throughout the year to discuss management and procedural issues encountered by secretariats, and to discuss issues raised in the Procedural Information Bulletin. Officers from other areas of the department also met with committee secretaries during the year to share information and coordinate activities.

Under standing order 25(10), the chairs of the committees may meet to discuss any matter relating to the operations of the committees. The Chairs' Committee is chaired by the Deputy President. The Clerk Assistant (Committees) is the secretary. During 2011–12, the committee met on three occasions and considered issues such as the accessibility of online documents and video-conferencing facilities in Australia. The committee also monitored the output and activity levels of Senate committees.

Activity levels

As was the case in 2010–11, the Senate referred a large number of matters to committees for inquiry in 2011–12.

Legislative and general purpose standing committees

The Senate has eight pairs of legislation and references committees established pursuant to standing order 25 as standing or permanent committees. Standing committees continue for the life of a parliament and are re-established at the commencement of each new parliament.

During 2011–12, the Senate referred 98 matters to standing committees. As shown in table 4, the committees tabled 148 reports, compared with 192 reports in 2010–11 and 174 reports in 2009–10.

Table 4 Reports presented by standing committees, 2009–10 to 2011–12

Report type 2009–10 2010–11 2011–12
Reports on bills 83 82 73
Interim reports on bills 9 10 2
Reports on other references 33 41 26
Interim reports on other references 18 29 14
Reports on annual reports 15 15 16
Reports on estimates 16 15 17
Total 174 192 148

Figure 15 also shows the consistently high volume of matters referred to standing committees by the Senate in the past three years.

Figure 15 Number of Senate standing committee references, 2009–10 to 2011–12

Figure 15   Number of Senate standing committee references, 2009–10 to 2011–12

In 2011–12, of the 98 matters referred to standing committees 78 were bills or packages of bills. The bills referred to committees had an average reporting deadline of 44 working days. This is the same average reporting deadline as in 2010–11.

Table 5 provides data about the activities of Senate committees for
2009–10, 2010–11 and 2011–12, and table 6 provides data about the referral of bills to committees for those years.

Table 5 Activities* of standing committees, 2009–10 to 2011–12

  2009–10 2010–11 2011–12
Meetings (number)
Public hearings 227 118 142
Private meetings 435 350 414
Inspections/other 9 6 9
Meetings (hours)
Public hearings 979 507 641
Private meetings 104 79 100
Submissions received 9,116 4,898 5,734
Witnesses 2,659 1,482 1,993
Extensions of time to report granted 95 61 81

* not including estimates activities – see table 7 for those activities.

Table 6 Referral of bills to committees for inquiry, 2009–10 to 2011–12

  2009–10 2010–11 2011–12
Number of bills introduced into parliament 226 224 281
Number of individual bills referred 114 83 118
Proportion of total individual bills referred 50% 37% 42%
Packages of bills referred 96 68 78

Figure 16 shows the number of estimates hearings and the number of other hearings held. The number of public hearings held in relation to matters other than estimates increased compared to 2010–11. In addition, a record number of submissions and form letters were received in relation to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2010.

Figure 16 Number of Senate standing committee hearings, 2009–10 to 2011–12

Figure 16   Number of Senate standing committee hearings, 2009–10 to 2011–12

As shown in table 7, the usual cycle of estimates hearings was conducted during the year, commencing in October 2011 with a week of supplementary hearings for the 2011–12 Budget. A week of additional estimates hearings was held in February 2012. The initial estimates hearings for the 2012–13 Budget took place between 21 May and 1 June 2012.

The Community Affairs Legislation Committee continues to hold an additional day of estimates hearings into Indigenous matters, which involves several portfolios with budget expenditure or responsibility for Indigenous issues. These cross-portfolio hearings are now well established and allow senators to more effectively scrutinise this policy area.

Table 7 Activities of standing committees considering estimates, 2009–10 to 2011–12 budget cycles

Budget cycle Hours of budget estimates hearings Hours of additional estimates hearings Total hours Witnesses Pages of evidence
  May–Junea October–Novemberb February      
2012–13 322 322 2,195 3,712
2011–12 334 185 179 698 4,241 8,162
2010–11 329 178 174 681 3,910 8,507
2009–10 332 189 177 698 3,156 7,119

a Main hearings.

b Supplementary hearings.

Overall, the 2011–12 budget cycle estimates involved 698 hours of hearings, a slight increase compared to the 2010–11 budget cycle. Committees prepared and tabled 17 reports on estimates including the Community Affairs Legislation Committee 2011–12 budget estimates report tabled in July 2011, eight reports tabled following the additional estimates held in February 2012 and eight after the 2012–13 budget estimates hearings held in May 2012.

The activity of committees considering estimates generates considerable administrative effort for committee secretariats. Scheduling the hearings is particularly complex because:

  • all departments and statutory bodies of the Commonwealth are involved
  • ongoing coordination is required to ensure that ministers are in attendance to take responsibility for answering questions
  • many senators wish to attend hearings of more than one committee, and so secretariats spend much time coordinating and adjusting programs and timetables to facilitate this.

Senate select committees

A select committee is an ad hoc committee established by the Senate to inquire into and report on a specific matter or matters. A select committee ceases to exist when it presents its final report. Often, select committees also present interim reports.

Two Senate select committees operated during 2011–12. One of those, the Senate Select Committee on the Scrutiny of New Taxes, presented its final report on 1 November 2011.

During 2011–12, Senate select committees held 55 meetings (public and private), for a total of 113 hours. They received 107 submissions and heard 183 witnesses. The corresponding figures for 2010–11 were 59 meetings (public and private), for a total of 84 hours of meetings, 174 submissions and 142 witnesses.

Joint committees (including joint select committees)

Joint committees comprise senators together with members of the House of Representatives. They are established by resolution of each House and, in the case of statutory committees, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant Act.

During 2011–12, the Committee Office supported three joint statutory committees: Corporations and Financial Services, the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity, and Law Enforcement.

A joint select committee is an ad hoc committee established by both Houses to inquire into and report on a specific matter or matters. A joint select committee ceases to exist when it presents its final report. Often, joint select committees will also present interim reports.

Two joint select committees operated during 2011–12. One of those, the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention Network, presented its final report on 30 March 2012.

In total, joint statutory and joint select committees held 168 meetings (public, private and inspections) for a total of 267 hours. They received 523 submissions and heard 581 witnesses. The corresponding figures for 2010–11 were 77 meetings, 115 hours of meetings, 193 submissions and 224 witnesses.

The Committee Office continues to provide secretariat support for:

  • the Senate Select Committee on Australia's Food Processing Sector—this committee is due to present its final report on 16 August 2012
  • the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform—this committee is due to present its final report on 30 June 2013.

Community engagement

Committee members place considerable value on engaging with a broad range of people as they conduct each committee inquiry. Committee secretariats assist committees to achieve this, through a variety of strategies:

  • advertising inquiries in the national media and online
  • corresponding directly with groups known to be interested in the subject matter of an inquiry
  • travelling interstate, including to regional centres and remote areas, to have hearings with witnesses and visit the sites of matters under investigation
  • conducting hearings through telephone and video conferences, including with overseas witnesses.

Figure 17 Committee meetings and hearings by location, 2011–12

Figure 17   Committee meetings and hearings by location, 2011–12

Senate committee secretariats supported 857 meetings and hearings during the year, an increase compared with 685 in 2010–11. These statistics include estimates hearings held by committees. A breakdown by location of the committee meetings and hearings in 2011–12 appears in figure 17.

Use of technology

The Senate Centralised Information Database (SCID) assists committee secretariats to quickly and accurately handle the large volumes of information used to support committee inquiries. The database includes capacity:

  • for members of the public to enter submissions directly
  • for secretariats to rapidly collate data, such as addresses for mail-outs
  • for information to be transferred electronically from witnesses to secretariats.

The database, completed in May 2010, continues to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the office by saving staff time, enabling staff to transfer seamlessly between secretariats, and enhancing the office's management of the large numbers of submissions received by committees.

Other technology-related developments in 2011–12 included:

  • The completion of the trial of a document handling system called CommDocs (developed and used by the House of Representatives). It is a series of private searchable websites for each committee, accessible only to members of the committee and their authorised staff. CommDocs contains documentation for each committee (agendas, minutes, briefing papers, meeting timetables etc) in one location for each committee, and is a better alternative to emailing the documents to all the members of a committee. Following the endorsement by the Chairs' Committee, CommDocs was being rolled out from June 2012 to all relevant Senate-administered committees.
  • Live audio broadcasts of almost every interstate public hearing held across Australia were available. As was reported last year, the introduction of full telecast and webcast of committee hearings from anywhere in Australia remains a priority.
  • Following its first use in 2010–11, Skype was used on many occasions by several committees (to facilitate a senator joining a public hearing, mainly, but also by witnesses) and, together with other video and teleconferencing facilities, is an important step in improving the efficiency with which committees transact business.
  • The office also continues to investigate strategies to support committee inquiries by enhancing accessibility to committee material on the Senate website. The content and presentation of committee material on the newly released Parliament of Australia website will be further developed, and usage monitored, in 2012–13.

Improving the access to online material for the vision impaired was an area of continuing interest and development during the year. The Environment and Communications References Committee completed the trial to convert to HTML a selection of submissions received by the committee for its inquiry into the status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population (which tabled its report on 22 September 2011). The report on the trial from the secretariat was presented to the Clerk, who referred it to the Chairs' Committee for consideration. At its meeting of 23 November 2011, the Chairs' Committee endorsed the Clerk's view that the Department of the Senate should arrange and fund the conversion of documents, on request.

Education activities and other contributions

In 2011–12, Committee Office staff also contributed to the department's outcome by:

  • serving as secretaries to official parliamentary delegations and the committee exchange program
  • acting as presenters in the department's training and seminar programs
  • delivering training sessions to public service departments and agencies throughout the year
  • contributing to the redevelopment of the Parliament of Australia website
  • providing briefings about Senate committee work for visiting parliamentary delegations and visiting parliamentary officials—briefings about estimates hearings continued to be of particular interest to international visitors.

The office also continued to contribute to the implementation of the recommendations emerging from the structural review of 2010. Specifically, the office continued the significant investment in the learning and development framework, including arranging a series of training sessions and workshops for departmental staff 'at-level' specifically about committee work as well as supporting a range of non-Committee Office training opportunities. Several online resources were also updated or introduced to assist staff and senators (including new senators) and their staff.

In both the 2011 and 2012 calendar years, there was one participant in the Working in the Senate (WISE) Development Program. Those officers were attached to various committee secretariats, providing administrative and research support to Senate committee inquiries. During the year, WISE participants also undertake placements in other areas of the department. The Committee Office also hosted two officers from public service departments, each for three months, as part of the Parliament of Australia Graduate Program in 2011, and again in 2012.

Committee exchange program

As part of the annual official parliamentary delegations program, a Senate, House and joint committee is selected to visit (on a rotation basis) New Zealand, China and the Asia–Pacific region.

The President of the Senate selects a Senate standing committee following consideration of submissions received. In 2010, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Standing Committee visited Indonesia and Singapore as part of the Asia–Pacific exchange. In 2011, the (then) Rural Affairs and Transport Standing Committee visited New Zealand, and, in July 2012, the Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Standing Committee will visit China.

Factors, events and trends influencing performance

The high, and often complex, committee secretariat workloads were again the significant feature of 2011–12, though the overall volume was a little less than last year (see the 'Activity levels' section above). The Committee Office also supported four Senate select and joint select committees during the year, five less than in 2010–11, and provided support to the newly established Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The established trend by the Senate to set short reporting timeframes, often referring bills to a committee for report within a week or a fortnight, has placed considerable pressure on committee secretariats to complete the necessary administrative preparations, including arranging public hearings and calling for submissions from the public. It has also limited the resources available to secretariats to analyse evidence and draft reports. The most significant concern, however, continues to be the limit on senators' time to attend to their committee obligations, which often include much travel time, preparation for public hearings and consideration of draft reports.

The office's strategies in 2012–13 to effectively manage its workload, including during peaks and any downturns, involve:

  • managing a similar, flexible staffing structure to 2011–12, now limited to a maximum of 58 full-time equivalent staff
  • creating and managing practical expectations for committee members to keep working within available means and resources
  • deploying staff from committee secretariats experiencing lighter workloads to assist busier committee secretariats
  • requesting committee secretariat staff to work, and compensating them for working, additional hours at peak times.

Evaluation

The principal formal means of evaluating the performance of the Committee Office in supporting Senate committees and certain joint committees is the biennial senators' survey. The next survey will occur during 2012–13 with results to be presented in the next annual report.

Comments made in the chamber when a committee report is tabled or debated are another source of evaluation. Senators were particularly positive in their comments during the year. Informal feedback from senators, and also witnesses, indicated high levels of satisfaction with their dealings with secretariat staff.

Performance outlook

The key resource that the Committee Office provides to committees is its people. The office will continue to provide excellent service in an environment of great change, including financial constraint, and high workload. A workforce staffed by increasingly experienced officers is a priority and continues the focus on enhancing procedural and administrative capacity in the office at all levels. As was the case last year, the office will also continue to support the learning and development framework and other priorities emerging from the structural review of 2010, including contributing to the growing presence of the Senate Public Information Office and better engagement with technology.