The Senate’s role as a house of review and as a watchdog of the executive branch of government has led to the development of a comprehensive range of committees which may investigate matters of public policy and scrutinise proposed legislation and the details of government expenditure and administration. Most senators are actively involved in the work of three or four of these committees.
Senate committees fall into two categories—Select and Standing.
A select committee is one appointed by the Senate to inquire into some specific matter and to report back to the Senate within a set time. Once a select committee has submitted its final report to the Senate its work is done and it ceases to exist.
A standing committee is a permanent committee of the Senate. It stands—or remains—for the life of the whole of any one Parliament, its members being appointed at the commencement of each Parliament. There are three groups of standing committees:
These committees deal with matters relating to the internal operations of the Senate, including publications, appropriations and staffing, procedure, privileges, library services, the provision of facilities in Parliament House and senators’ pecuniary and other interests.
Legislative scrutiny committees
All bills and subordinate legislative instruments that come before Parliament are scrutinised by either the Scrutiny of Bills Committee or the Regulations and Ordinances Committee to ensure that they conform to certain principles mainly concerned with personal rights and civil liberties.
Legislative and general purpose standing committees
These committees examine legislation, government administration and public policy. The committees are divided along subject lines and cover between them all areas of government responsibility.
In the Australian system of government, ministers and public servants are accountable to the Parliament for the use of the public resources with which they have been entrusted. Legislative and general purpose standing committees carry out the work of inquiring into and reporting on the twice-yearly estimates of proposed government expenditure. In addition, they have a specific mandate to monitor the performance of departments and agencies. At the estimates hearings senators may directly question ministers and public officials not only about the details of proposed expenditure but also about the objectives, operations and efficiency of the programs for which they are responsible.