Checking the fine print: committee scrutiny of annual reports

Front of Parliament House at Sunrise

It has been almost 50 years since Senate committees first began reviewing government department and agency annual reports. The overarching purpose of annual reports is to ‘inform the Parliament and the public about the achievements, performance and financial position of Commonwealth entities and companies at the end of each reporting year’. This Flagpost reflects on committees’ role in scrutinising annual reports and their less visible but important impact on promoting oversight and transparency.

Senate, House and Joint committees review annual reports

A variety of Senate, House and Joint committees scrutinise annual reports, with the Constitution (section 50) allowing each chamber to make their own rules regarding this.

According to Odgers Senate Practice, Senate Legislation Committees have sporadically reviewed annual reports since 1973, but this was formally incorporated into Standing Orders in 1997. In 2022 the eight Senate Legislation Committees reviewed 232 annual reports (an average of 29 per committee), however this number fluctuates with Machinery of Government changes.

The Speakers Schedule of annual reports allocates annual reports to House Standing committees, in accordance with Standing Order 215(c). During the 46th Parliament this included:

Additionally, some Joint Statutory committees are required to review annual reports (in accordance with their enabling legislation) whilst the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade can use its discretion. The following Joint committees reviewed annual reports in the 46th Parliament:

Committees review annual reports differently

The Senate Legislation Committees review annual reports twice yearly by a set criteria. Their aptly named Report on Annual Reports (aka ROAR) comments on if the report is ‘apparently satisfactory’, timely, mentioned in Senate debate and significant matters relating to operations and performance. Although Odgers’ Senate Practice does not explicitly state what ‘apparently satisfactory’ means, recent ROARs have articulated it as timeliness of presentation and compliance with relevant reporting requirements. These timelines include deadlines to present annual reports to the relevant Minister, and also to table them in Parliament, with each date noted in the annual report’s appendices.

In the last 50 years, annual reports have rarely been deemed unsatisfactory. However, this did occur for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's 2017–18 annual report, due to its ‘fail[ure] to comply with a small number of the PGPA Act mandatory requirements’. More commonly, Senate Legislation Committees suggest areas in which annual reports could be improved without deeming the whole report unsatisfactory. Senate Legislation Committees may also consider annual reports at estimates hearings.

Review processes for House Standing and Joint Committees are far less prescriptive and generally involve a public hearing/s. The exception is the PJC Corporations and Financial Services which usually publishes its review as a report. On occasions, the Joint Committees' reviews make recommendations to departments or agencies about their annual reporting, and the government responds to these recommendations.

Light thrown on a lesser-known avenue of accountability

Scrutiny of annual reports does not necessarily come to mind when thinking about parliamentary committees' functions, or ways the legislature can hold the executive to account. Most of a committee’s time is spent conducting inquiries or preparing for Senate Estimates hearings, usually held three times per year for multiple days at a time. While these Estimates hearings garner far more attention and commentary, they don’t necessarily cover all departments and agencies, which annual report scrutiny provides. Rather than just noting and accepting tabled annual reports, this scrutiny mechanism goes some way to ensuring that departments and agencies—currently in the process of writing annual reports for 2021–22—comply with their requirements to produce high‑standard reports, or risk being called out by a parliamentary committee.


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

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