Clerk's review

In compiling our recent Corporate Plan, a natural focus was Australia’s still-evolving response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the unpredictable trajectory of that crisis. Quite apart from the tragic consequences of the virus for so many in the community, public health imperatives have recast our interactions around unfamiliar risks and rewritten the rules on working together. As we noted in that plan, these factors will have long-term consequences for the operations of the Senate and parliamentary committees, and for the way we support them. Some of these represent challenges; requirements to recognise and mitigate risks. But there are also opportunities, among them the embrace of technology to expand participation in proceedings of parliamentary committees and enable remote participation in Senate proceedings.

Unsurprisingly, the changes to our operations during the onset of the pandemic and the need to support the Parliament in formulating its response overshadow much of the year just gone. However, this review begins, as the year did, with the escalation of legislative and committee activity following the Opening of Parliament on 2 July 2019. The demand for the advice and support that are the mainstay of our work primarily flows from this activity.

To tease that out a little, the Senate determines its own schedule of meetings and its agenda, and delegates to its network of committees a range of scrutiny, accountability and investigative functions. We succeed in our work when the Senate and its committees can meet in accordance with their decisions, and when senators and others have the advice and support they need to participate in those meetings. In turn, the decisions senators make in connection with those meetings determine the scope of our work and our workload. Their decisions about the Senate’s legislative work drive demand for procedural advice and legislative drafting. Their decisions about committee work determine the number of operative committees and the nature and scope of their inquiries, driving demand for the advice, administrative support, research and writing undertaken by our committee staff.

Our work is also affected by broadly predictable cycles in the parliamentary calendar. Legislative and committee activity falls away during the election period, then ramps up over the first months of a new parliament. This is generally followed by a busy second year, with often intense levels of activity and demand, tailing off as the next election looms. These cycles map imperfectly to financial years but help us to estimate the resources – in essence, the complement of staff – required to meet forecast levels of activity.

The election period occurred in the previous financial year. Last year’s review noted that our activities during that time included delivering an orientation program for new senators as well as preparing two large logistical exercises: the swearing-in of a new Governor-General on 1 July 2020; and the Opening of Parliament the next day. The current session – the 46th Parliament – began, unusually, with three sitting weeks in July, a consequence of that election timing. With the momentum of this early start, legislative and committee activity rapidly returned to the elevated levels seen in recent years, although that trend was interrupted when the pandemic curtailed the parliament’s customary committee work from mid-March 2020. The effect of this is clear in the indicators of activity we use to assess performance.

For instance, looking at the Senate’s committee work, 74 new references were made to committees supported by our Committee Office in 2019–20, compared with 70 in the previous year. Secretariat staff processed around 7,300 submissions, many more than the 5,400 received in 2018–19. On the other hand, committees heard from around 4,300 witnesses in the course of 225 hearings (respectively, 6,000 and 290 in the previous year). This reflects the pause in interstate hearings in the latter part of the reporting period and the deferral of the Budget estimates round – typically involving 40 or so hearings and more than 1,000 witnesses – from May to October 2020.

At the same time, responding to the pandemic introduced wholesale changes to the operations of parliamentary committees, requiring staff to adjust numerous aspects of their work. The most obvious effect has been the move to videoconferencing. The Senate first authorised its committees to meet “by electronic communication” more than 2 decades ago, however it has been rare until now for committees to meet with multiple senators and witnesses participating remotely. For a time this became the predominant means by which committees took evidence, and it is certain to remain a feature of their operations into the future. We have supported, and been appreciative of, the efforts of our colleagues in DPS to scale up the parliament’s capacity to operate this way. However, the significant logistical challenges in organising so many virtual hearings and ensuring they run smoothly added significantly to the work of our secretariats.

Staying with committees, a particularly telling indicator of the demand for our services during 2019–20 can be seen in the appointment of nine Senate select committees and two joint select committees. Select committees are committees of senators (and, for joint committees, members) that sit outside the Parliament’s established committee system. For many years, there was an agreement among parties in the Senate that no more than three or four select committees would operate at any one time. The average number running concurrently in the 45th Parliament was five. At the end of the financial year the department was supporting twice that number.

The department has generally sought to absorb support for select committees within its standing committee secretariats. This is not possible when large numbers of select committees run concurrently, without affecting the level of support available to legislation and references committees. To that end, the President obtained the endorsement of the Senate Appropriations, Staffing and Security Committee to seek additional funds for committee secretariats. One-off supplementation was provided in the October 2020 Budget, a welcome recognition of the resources required to support the level of activity determined by the Senate. Similar resources will be required on an ongoing basis if committee activity – and more to the point the number of committees we are required to support – remains at its current levels.

Looking beyond our committees, the government response to the pandemic introduced a stop-start element to the sittings toward the end of the financial year. While it was widely reported that sittings were suspended, in the end only a handful of scheduled sitting days did not take place. Again, the indicators we use to measure our performance demonstrate the extent to which business-as-usual held sway, notwithstanding the unusual circumstances.

The Senate sat for 58 sitting days, a little above the average of recent non-election years. For non-government senators, procedural and legislative support is principally provided through the Procedure Office. During 2019–20 that office continued to assist senators by drafting bills and legislative amendments. Thirty-two private senators’ bills were prepared and introduced, comparable to recent years, while more than 600 legislative amendments were prepared and circulated in the Senate (473 last year). The office also provides procedural advice and documentation, preparing more than 970 procedural scripts for senators’ use, around 17 per day, compared with 19 last year. Similar procedural support was provided by the Table Office for the President and Deputy President, and for ministers and committee chairs, with around 1,286 procedural scripts provided, or around 22 per sitting day, somewhat lower than the average of around 30 last year. The Senate Public Information Office provided a range of information resources supporting each sitting week, while the Table Office maintained formal records of the Senate’s work.

In addition, the department supported the three legislative scrutiny committees in holding meetings and producing reports each sitting week, analysing bills and instruments. These committees also initiated an additional schedule of meetings and reports from March, particularly to examine regulations made in aid of the government response to the pandemic, which sometimes involved the use of sweeping powers with limited opportunities for parliamentary oversight.

Outside of business-as-usual, the response to the pandemic also necessitated the adoption of new approaches to much of our work. This has included rapid adjustment to working from home, where practical, and the introduction of new technologies and new approaches to teams collaborating and keeping in touch. We proposed and managed procedural changes for the Senate and changed our chamber support processes to minimise the risk of transmission. Similarly, our staff have been involved in implementing public health advice on hygiene practices and social distancing in their own work.

For the first time since its inception in the late 1980s, the Parliamentary Education Office had to suspend its onsite educational experience, as school visits came to a halt. The PEO typically hosts more than 90,000 students each year, however, that number was reduced by a third. A great deal of time and effort has been directed to reconfiguring our education programs to focus on resources for dispersed groups of students, including a significant increase in delivery of programs by video conference, and to reset onsite experiences to meet distancing advice. Inevitably this will be an area of continued evolution for the office.

Several long-term projects came to fruition during the year, although delivery of some projects and programs was disrupted by the pandemic. On 11 June 2020 the President made a statement in the Senate to mark 50 years since the inception of the current Senate committee system, but an event to launch new web resources presenting the history, significance and work of committees has been deferred until later in the year. The department also suspended its program of occasional lectures, while moving its seminar and training programs online. Several new information resources were delivered, including a new Procedural Hub for senators and staff and a new website for the PEO, as well as enhancements to corporate systems and shared databases. The groundwork for a digital division system for the Senate was completed in March 2020, but it was held over while procedural and practical changes to the Senate’s operations necessitated by the pandemic were implemented. Work continued on projects to receive and publish digital copies of tabled documents and to enhance the estimates questions on notice process, and it is expected that these will be completed in the next reporting period.

The achievements of each office, and their experiences adapting to the circumstances of the year, are recorded in more detail in the report in the chapters on their performance. The annual performance statements beginning on page 15 chart the demand for our services across the board and detail our performance in meeting planned outcomes. An innovation this year is a case study, providing a narrative to help describe how all the moving parts of our operations combine to support senators in their work.

As I have often said, the department is nothing without its people. Their expertise, their dedication and their gumption underpin our capacity to serve the Senate and senators. It has been a year in which their resilience has come to the fore. Many were affected by last summer’s bushfires; returning to work after fighting fires at the edges of their properties or volunteering with the rural fire service. They experienced the same apprehension at the onset of the pandemic as their colleagues across the public sector, and found ways to introduce the now-familiar public health and hygiene measures into their everyday work. Some of the adaptations they were required to make have been mentioned above and elsewhere in this report. I thank them for their commitment to supporting the essential activities of the parliament despite that apprehension, and for the many innovations introduced along the way. It would be remiss of me not to mention the tireless work of our Human Resources team in advising and supporting staff during this time, and the creativity of the department’s staff social club in devising virtual and distanced activities to engage their colleagues. I know how much staff appreciated these contributions to their well-being.

Finally, there was a significant change in personnel this year, with the retirement of Maureen Weeks, after many years of exemplary service to the Senate and to the ACT Legislative Assembly. Maureen led the Senate’s Committee Office, its Table Office and Procedure Office, before her appointment as Deputy Clerk in 2017. She had long experience as secretary to numerous parliamentary committees, culminating in her stint as Secretary of the Senate Privileges Committee. Maureen was held in high esteem by senators and staff alike, and by her colleagues, past and present. She will be remembered as tutor, mentor, and inspiration to scores of Senate staff, undertaking her myriad duties with good grace, with great humour and with aplomb.

Jackie Morris was promoted to Deputy Clerk in February, having recently undertaken roles as Senior Clerk of Committees and Clerk Assistant (Procedure). A partial rotation of senior officers saw Rachel Callinan move to lead the Procedure Office and the PEO, and Tim Bryant move to lead the Table Office and SPIO. John Begley continues to lead our corporate services teams as Usher of the Black Rod, while Toni Matulick joined our SES ranks late in the year, after serving as Director, Procedure and Research, and brings considerable experience to her new role as Clerk Assistant (Committees). Our policy of rotating officers at different levels through new duties serves to build and sustain the department’s capabilities. This is particularly important in maintaining our expertise and institutional continuity, as an adjunct to our objectives of recruiting well and enhancing the skills and knowledge of our staff through targeted learning and development activities, and by mentoring them in the specialised work we undertake.

May I quickly thank my colleagues who lead the other parliamentary departments, for their counsel and support during the year. It has been wonderful working with the Clerk of the House, Claressa Surtees, on numerous matters throughout the year, none more than in our virtual networking with colleagues in parliaments in other jurisdictions seeking to innovate in the face of the same challenges. My thanks to Rob Stefanic and his team in DPS, particularly for their rapid and effective retooling of the computing network to accommodate our need to work from home, and for taking the lead in implementing COVID-safe arrangements in Parliament House. And finally, we farewelled Parliamentary Budget Officer, Jenny Wilkinson, a formidable colleague who moved on to greater challenges in January. I also thank Acting PBO Linda Ward for her collegiality and good humour for the balance of the year.

Looking ahead

Each office sets out its aims and expectations for the next year in their reports on performance. Common to most will be managing the continuing challenges of the pandemic, but also embedding innovations introduced this year. While this report was being compiled, the first sittings for the new reporting period were set aside following health advice connected to the ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 cases that emerged in Victoria, and evidence of community transmission elsewhere.

This prompted the agreement of each House to adopt procedures for senators and members to participate in their proceedings by video link; a practice implemented in sittings from 24 August 2020. This built on work initially undertaken in March and April to devise the technological, practical and procedural means of delivering this outcome. The use of videoconferencing technology to participate in the Senate and its committees has quickly become second nature, with the next looming test being its use in support of the 2020 Budget estimates hearings. At the same time, tentative moves to reinstate interstate hearings and site visits also brought additional logistical complexity, not least because of remaining travel restrictions applicable to senators and secretariat staff and the need to implement social distancing and manage other risks in hearing venues to ensure the safety of senators, witnesses and staff.

The backdrop to our work will doubtless include continuing elevated levels of legislative and committee activity. As has been mentioned, our capacity to support an unprecedented number of committees depends on our ability to recruit and maintain a workforce of commensurate size and skill, and will require additional funds if the level of activity continues beyond the new financial year.

Let me finish where I started, with an observation echoing our Corporate Plan. Many of the factors discussed above will significantly influence our planning and risk management, how we support our staff, and how we do our work. No doubt, when we report on our performance next year, we will have more to say about the adaptability required to navigate them, of the resilience of our people and teams, and also of the lasting innovations they have driven.

Richard Pye
Clerk of the Senate