50 years of government responses to Senate committee reports

Senate committee reports

In just over 6 months, the 47th Parliament has established close to 70 committees and tabled more than 70 reports across the Senate and House of Representatives committees. However, once a committee tables a report with recommendations, what’s next? This question was raised 50 years ago and led to a resolution requiring the Government to respond to Senate committees’ recommendations, as will be discussed in this Flagpost article.

Committee makes recommendations, government responds

On 14 March 1973, the Senate resolved that the Government is required to respond within 3 months to Standing or Select Senate Committee reports requiring action. Just over 20 years later, the Senate Procedure committee recommended amendments to the Standing Orders, to allow the inclusion of additional matters/comments, dissenting and minority reports by members or participating members in committee reports. Consequently, the initial 1973 resolution was amended so that the Government ‘shall’ respond to these additional inclusions.

In 1979 the Senate agreed that the President should identify in regular reporting where the government had not responded to committee reports within the prescribed time, as a compliance mechanism (see Senate Odgers). During the debate it was broadly agreed that time and resources have gone into the inquiry and report, therefore its recommendations deserve serious consideration (Hansard, pp. 207–211).

President’s report

When a committee’s report makes a recommendation requiring a government response, it is included in the President’s report (the report)—with some exceptions:

  • Recommendations that could only be addressed during consideration of the Bill
  • Reports on Estimates or scrutiny of annual reports
  • Reports of certain domestic committees and Selection of Bills committees
  • Reports of scrutiny committees, the Joint Committees of Public Accounts and Audit and the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (alternative arrangements)

In 2022, the Senate tabled 149 committee reports (Senate Register of Reports) with approximately half included in the report.

The report’s format has developed over time; for example in 1981 it was a list of 9 reports not responded to in time. Whereas now the biannual report includes the date the report was tabled/presented, response received and if the response was provided within 3 months.

Given the 3 month timeframe for providing a government response, it seems reasonable to infer that responsibility for providing a government response primarily lies with the Government of the day at the deadline.  While both the previous Morrison government and current Albanese government presented government responses in 2022, the majority of reports tabled that year already have overdue final responses (although this is slightly complicated by the May election). The oldest committee report recorded without a government response is the 2002 Report on a Certain Maritime Incident. For a collated record of government responses to committee reports, see Senate Register of Reports.

The graph below shows the number of outstanding government responses for reports that are outside of the 3 month response window, as at 31 December 2022 by Ministry at the time the report was tabled (on occasions the 3 month deadline extends into the next Parliament and new Ministry).

Government responses outstanding to Senate and joint committee reports

Source: President’s report, 31 December 2022.

Note: Interim* means ‘The Government’s response is being considered’.

Government responses

The government’s responses to committee reports can vary in content and delivery. The content usually includes a one sentence response to each recommendation, indicating whether the Government supports, accepts, agrees, partially agrees, agrees in principle, notes or does not support/accept the recommendation. This can also be followed by explanatory text. If the committee inquiry relates to a Bill, government responses can also be provided during the legislative debate.

Most government responses to inquiries have limited visibility, with only the most topical being accompanied by a press release or spoken on in the chamber. For example, the responses to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia’s reports Never Again and A Way Forward (in relation to the Juukan Gorge) received a press release, Ministerial statement and debate in the House of Representatives, Federation Chamber and Senate when tabled in November 2022.

Odgers notes ‘[s]ince 2016 a practice has emerged of senators proposing orders for the production of documents directed at speeding up the government’s responses to committee reports … [and] occasionally multiple orders have been made in respect of the same tardy response’. There appears to be no implications for a government failing to respond to recommendations. For example, the list of Ministers that have been censured by the Senate does not include any instances of failing to provide a government response (see Odgers).

An important and enduring accountability monitor

As the above graph highlights, successive governments regularly fail to respond to recommendations in Senate committee reports within 3 months. This also extends to House committee recommendations, where a similar practice has been in place since 1978 with 6 rather than 3 months to respond (see House Practice for further information). So while the President’s report provides an accountability mechanism to encourage committee’s recommendations receive due consideration, it is significant that its substantial list of overdue responses continues to be maintained.


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

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