The estimates process
After the introduction of the budget in May the appropriation bills are debated in the House of Representatives, usually for a number of weeks, and are thus not available for consideration by the Senate during that time. Rather than defer examination of the estimates until the bills are forwarded by the House, immediately after the budget the Senate refers to the committees documents entitled ‘Particulars of Certain Proposed Expenditure’ which reproduce the details of proposed expenditure contained in the appropriation bills. By considering these documents, rather than waiting for the appropriation bills themselves, the committees are able to complete much of their work before the bills arrive in the Senate from the House of Representatives. This process is repeated when the additional estimates are introduced into Parliament later in the year.
One of the most significant features of the procedure for examining estimates is the opportunity that senators have to question officers of the public service directly. Standing order 26(5) provides that the committees ‘may ask for explanations from ministers in the Senate, or officers, relating to the items of proposed expenditure’. The majority of questions which committee members ask are answered by officers of the department or agency proposing the items of expenditure under consideration. It is usual, however, for a minister to attend public hearings of the committee to respond to questions about policy matters, which public servants are not required to comment upon. An observer from the Department of Finance also attends each hearing but is not usually called on to give evidence. Committees may seek advice or briefings from the office of the Auditor-General.
Committees considering estimates have no power to take evidence in private (in camera) and all documents officially received as evidence by the committees become public documents accessible to all. The proceedings of public hearings are published in a transcript.
For consideration of the budget estimates in May each committee is usually allocated four days in which to conduct its hearings. A round of supplementary hearings is usually held several sitting weeks after the initial round of budget estimates hearings. Later in the financial year two days or more may be allocated for meetings to consider additional estimates. There are no supplementary hearings after the additional estimates hearings.
At a public hearing officials are questioned directly by members of a committee about the objectives, operational procedures and efficiency of the programs for which they are responsible. If an official is unable to supply an immediate answer to a question he or she may ask that the question be taken ‘on notice’, in which case a written answer must be supplied within a specified time and to a standard format. The date for submission of written answers to questions on notice and any additional information is determined by the committee. For the budget estimates this must be at least 10 days before the committee’s supplementary hearings commence.
Under standing order 26(9) committees may decide when supplementary hearings are to be held. In practice, the schedule for both the main and supplementary rounds is usually determined by Senate resolution after consultation with party leaders, whips and independent senators.
At supplementary hearings, only questions nominated at least three working days prior to the meeting may be asked. Matters must relate to the expenditure proposals, as referred to the committee, or to additional information or written answers supplied after the original meeting. Supplementary meetings have usually concluded business by the time the relevant appropriation bill is considered in the Senate, although this is not required.
Estimates hearings replace committee of the whole consideration of the appropriation bills, except where a senator has circulated an amendment or request for an amendment, in which case debate is confined to the amendment.
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee during Budget estimates at Parliament House, 2018.