50th anniversary of the establishment of the modern Senate committee system

Senate chamber

Fifty years ago, on 11 June 1970, the Senate agreed to establish seven legislative and general purpose standing committees, and five estimates committees. While the Senate had made use of committees since Federation, this was a significant step in the development of its modern committee system. This system, which has continued to develop since 1970, has greatly enhanced the Senate’s ability to inquire into topical issues, gather evidence from the public, and scrutinise proposed legislation.

Establishment of Senate legislative and general purpose standing committees, and estimates committees

On 11 June 1970 the Senate concluded a debate, begun a week earlier on 4 June 1970, on three different motions relating to the establishment of a number of new Senate standing committees. The first motion, moved by the then Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Senator Lionel Murphy (ALP), sought to establish a system of seven legislative and general purpose committees, each of which would cover certain subject areas and ‘be empowered to inquire into and report upon such matters as are referred to it by the Senate, including any Bills, Estimates or Statements of Expenditure, messages, petitions, inquiries or papers.’

The second motion, moved by the then Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Kenneth Anderson (Lib), sought to establish five estimates committees to examine and report on the ‘particulars of proposed expenditure’ prior to the passage of appropriation bills through the House of Representatives (the Senate had undertaken this scrutiny process in the chamber in committee of the whole since 27 September 1961). The third motion, moved by the then leader of the Democratic Labor Party, Senator Vince Gair, also sought to establish a number of standing committees, including a committee dedicated to exercising oversight of statutory corporations, but over a longer timeframe.

The motions of senators Murphy and Anderson were both agreed to in close divisions (27 to 26 and 26 to 25 respectively). Senator Gair’s motion was defeated in a tied vote following debate over whether it was compatible with the two motions already agreed to. Senator Ian Wood (Lib) crossed the floor to support Senator Murphy’s motion, did not vote on Senator Anderson’s motion, and voted against the motion of Senator Gair.

Following these votes, the Senate moved slowly to establish the new standing committees, agreeing on 19 August 1970 to a motion moved by Senator Anderson that the full complement of seven standing committees would be established over a 12-month period, with two committees—the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare and the Standing Committee on Primary and Secondary Industry and Trade—being established initially and their operation assessed. The appointment of members to these two committees, and the five estimates committees, was announced to the Senate on 16 September 1970, and the Standing Committee on Health and Welfare presented the first report produced under the new standing committee system on 5 May 1971. The five estimates committees received their first reference of the particulars of proposed expenditure on 17 September 1970.

Senate committees prior to 1970

It is important to note that, while the establishment of the new system of standing and estimates committees in 1970 marked a new phase in the Senate’s use of committees, committees had been a feature of the Senate’s work since Federation. On 5 June 1901 the Senate established its very first committee, which was tasked with recommending which state legislature’s standing orders should be adopted pending development of permanent Senate standing orders. A day later a range of domestic committees was established.

On 26 July 1901 the Senate established its first select committee to inquire into ‘Tasmania and Australia Steamship Communication’. In December 1929 a select committee was tasked with investigating the advisability of establishing a standing committee system. In its report of 9 April 1930 this committee recommended that standing committees on regulations and ordinances and external affairs be established immediately. However, the prospect of a Senate committee investigating sensitive matters concerning external affairs met with concern in the Senate, and the select committee was asked to reconsider this recommendation (it did not appear in the committee’s second report of 10 July 1930). The Senate established the Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances in 1932 (now the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation) following controversy over the repeated remaking of regulations the Senate had disallowed. Despite this early consideration of the establishment of a standing committee system, the Senate continued to use select committees to investigate topical issues until the developments of June 1970.

Changes since 1970

The structure and practices of the Senate committee system have continued to evolve since 1970. For example, the Senate established the Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills in November 1981 to complement the legislative scrutiny work of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee. In February 1988 the Senate agreed to a number of resolutions setting out procedures for the protection of committee witnesses, and in December 1989 a scheme was developed for the systematic referral of bills to committees including the establishment of the Selection of Bills Committee.

Perhaps the most significant alterations to the system established in 1970 occurred on 24 August 1994, when the Senate adopted a system of paired references and legislation committees in eight subject areas with overlapping memberships intended to be proportional to party representation in the Senate. The legislation committees have government chairs and undertake the estimates functions previously fulfilled by dedicated estimates committees, as well as examining annual reports and the performance of government agencies. The references committees have non-government chairs and inquire into matters referred by the Senate. This system has operated without fundamental changes to the present day, except for a brief return to the earlier system of government chaired legislative and general purpose committees between September 2006 and May 2009.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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