For the sitting period 26 February – 1 March 2007
Parliamentary control and accountability of public
Two highly significant reports of the Finance and Public
Administration Committee, relating to parliamentary control and
accountability of public finance, were presented.
The first report, presented on 27 February, related to the
Senate’s continuing order for the publication on the Internet
of lists of departmental and agency contracts. The Department of
Finance and Administration had suggested that the order be revoked
on the basis that contracts would be listed in a new database
called the AusTender system. This listing, however, would cover
only procurement contracts. The committee did not agree with this
suggestion, but recommended that the Senate’s order be
strengthened to take account of AusTender and to improve the
transparency of contracting. Two recommendations of the committee
were adopted by the Senate on 1 March, one to give the committee
continuing oversight of the operation of the order, and the other
to request the Department of the House of Representatives, the only
department which does not comply with the order, to voluntarily
list its contracts. Another recommendation, that the order be
amended to cover bodies established under the Commonwealth
Authorities and Companies Act, was left over. The government in the
past has resisted this step.
The second report, presented on 1 March, followed the reference
to the committee on the transparency and accountability of public
finance. The report analyses the situation which has been allowed
to develop whereby government has multiple sources of large amounts
of funds not subject to regular parliamentary approval and can
spend the available money on virtually anything without the vaguest
parliamentary approval in advance. The report makes a series of
radical recommendations to claw back parliamentary control and
oversight of appropriations. Implementation of the recommendations
will require the cooperation of government, and as the current
system gives governments maximum flexibility in spending money
without parliamentary approval, this will be difficult.
Committee scrutiny of bills
The Australian Citizenship Bill 2006, considered in the Senate
on 26 February, was subject to a large number of government
amendments mostly arising from scrutiny by the Legal and
Constitutional Affairs Committee last year. As with other bills in
recent times, many of the amendments were made in the House of
Representatives before the bill was received in the Senate, and
only a few amendments were added in the Senate.
Many committee reports on bills were presented during the
period. Almost half of the committee reports on bills presented
since the last sittings recommend amendments of the bills, taking
account only of majority recommendations.
Recent criticism of the tight deadlines set for committees to
report on bills may be having some effect. Committees now seek
extensions of times to report on bills; two such extensions were
granted to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee
on 26 February.
A bill introduced by Senator Fielding to stop Qantas
“exporting” jobs overseas in the event of its takeover
was referred to the Economics Committee through the report of the
Selection of Bills Committee on 1 March.
Although the procedures under standing order 115 for the
consideration of bills by committees require that debate on the
committees’ reports on bills be deferred until the bills are
considered, reports on bills presented during the hour allowed for
debate on Wednesdays and Thursdays under standing order 62 may be
debated during that time. The standing order 62 provision is
regarded as a special exception to the general prohibition on
debate without notice, which in any event applies to all committee
reports under standing order 39.
Documents other than reports presented by committees are
generally treated as reports under the standing orders. This
applied, for example, to a transcript of evidence presented by the
Economics Committee on 28 February.
Other committee references
The government continues to reject, however, other references to
committees except those of which it approves. Thus the Rural and
Regional Affairs and Transport Committee received a reference on 26
February on water in south east Queensland. Proposed references
from the Greens on climate change and agriculture and from the
Democrats on exemptions of religious organisations were rejected on
1 March (the latter reference was intended to be a more acceptable
substitute for the Greens’ proposal for an inquiry into the
activities of the Exclusive Brethren, which remains on the Notice
The Regulations and Ordinances Committee tabled on 1 March a
very large volume of correspondence with ministers, illustrating
how the committee requires ministers to further explain and justify
many of the thousands of legislative instruments which are made by
government each year.
Government responses to committee reports
Several government responses to committee reports were
presented. In debate on the response to the report of the Community
Affairs Committee on gynaecological cancer senators expressed their
astonishment, with some tones of irony, that the response had been
presented on time and that all 34 recommendations of the committee
Orders for documents
The first use of the amended provisions under standing order
164, whereby a senator can ask for an explanation of the failure to
respond to an order for documents and then initiate a debate on the
explanation, occurred on 28 February. Senator Bob Brown’s
request for an explanation in relation to long-outstanding orders,
however, did not bear fruit: the government response, not given
until 1 March, was simply that the government would not comply with
the orders. The documents in question related to a proposed pulp
mill in Tasmania and the deductible gift recipient status of
Another proposed order, relating to a mining project, was
rejected on 27 February.
Attached to this bulletin is an updated list of all of the
documents which the government has refused to produce since it
gained its majority of one in the Senate.
The President was obliged on 28 February to reiterate the
principle that offensive words under standing order 193 are no less
offensive when applied to groups of protected office holders as
distinct from individuals. As this principle still appears to meet
with some resistance on the part of some senators, a select but
completely persuasive list of rulings of Presidents since 1901
establishing the principle is being prepared.
The record of committees in bringing about amendments of bills
and the reports of committees on other references, particularly the
two Finance and Public Administration Committee reports mentioned,
indicate that committees are still capable of making a valuable
contribution to legislative work when they are allowed to do so.
This only makes more unfortunate the routine rejection of all
references emanating from non-government senators.
The list of documents refused to the Senate since the government
majority illustrates a significant weakening of accountability.
Dynamic Red – updated continuously during the sitting day, the Dynamic Red displays the results of proceedings as they happen.
Senate Daily Summary – a convenient summary of each day’s proceedings in the Senate, with links to source documents.
Like this bulletin, these documents can be found on the Senate website: www.senate.gov.au
Inquiries: Clerk’s Office (02) 6277 3364
DOCUMENTS REFUSED TO THE SENATE
Since 1 July 2005
Communications—Telstra—Documents held by Telstra
Corporation relating to shareholder attitude surveys conducted by
Defence—Iraq—Depleted Uranium—Report of the
Australian Defence Force on the presence of depleted uranium in the
Australian area of operations in Al Muthanna province in southern
Education—Voluntary Student Unionism—Documents
relating to options for voluntary student unionism.
Employment—Community Partners Program—The review of
the Community Partners program, as commissioned by the Office of
the Employment Advocate and conducted by Deloitte Touche
Environment—Hope Downs Iron Ore Project—Briefing
packages produced by the former Department of the Environment and
Heritage for the Minister’s consideration of the Hope Downs
Iron Ore Project proposed by Hope Downs Management Services Pty
Mines—Documents relating to the Commonwealth
Government’s authority to unilaterally approve uranium mines
in the Northern Territory.
Environment—Review of Matters of National Environmental
Significance—Report on the review of matters national
environmental significance made under section 28A of the
Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
Environment—Tasmania—Styx and Florentine
Valleys—Documents relating to the implementation of the 2004
election commitment to protect 18 700 hectares of old-growth
forest in the Styx and Florentine valleys.
Family and Community Services—National Disabilities
Advocacy Program Review—The National Disabilities Advocacy
Program Review 2006, carried out by Social Options Australia.
Family and Community Services—Smartcard
Proposal—Documents relating to the smartcard proposal.
Finance—Board of the Reserve Bank of
Australia—Appointment—Documents relating to the
nomination and appointment of Mr Robert Gerard to the Board of the
Reserve Bank of Australia.
Foreign Affairs—United States of America—Military
Commissions Act—Legal advice received by the Government
relating to the legality of the United States of America’s
Military Commissions Act (2006).
Health—Better Outcomes in Mental Health
Initiative—Report from the review of the Better Outcomes in
Mental Health Initiative.
Health—Regulation of Non-prescription Medicinal
Products—Report provided by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu relating
to the regulation of non-prescription medicinal products.
Immigration—457 Visa Program—Report prepared by the
Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs relating to
T&R Pastoral and its employment of workers on subclass 457
Immigration—SIEV X—Documents detailing passengers
purported to have boarded the vessel known as SIEV X.
Law and Justice—Australian Wheat Board—The
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development foreign
bribery survey response by AWB Limited.Law and Justice—Border
Rationalisation Taskforce—Report of the Border
Rationalisation Taskforce prepared in 1998.
Science and Technology—Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organisation—Documents relating to the
research and development work to be undertaken by the CSIRO.
Science and Technology—Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organisation—Sheep Study—Documents
relating to a sheep study conducted by the CSIRO on the effect of
transgenic peas on the immune response of sheep.
Taxation—Infrastructure Borrowings Tax Offset
Scheme—Documents held by the Department of Transport and
Regional Services relating to taxation deductions under the
Infrastructure Borrowings Tax Offset Scheme.
Transport—Civil Aviation Safety
Authority—Transair—Documents relating to Lessbrook Pty
Ltd trading as Transair.