Procedure Committee First Report of 2012
The committee reports to the Senate on the following matters considered at its meeting of 21 June 2012.
Consideration of private senators’ bills
The committee continues to keep under review the operation of the temporary order for the consideration of private senators’ bills, first agreed on 22 November 2010. In its second report of 2011, the committee recommended the adoption of various administrative practices to ensure adequate notification of bills to be debated at this time. The committee notes that the process is generally working although with some modifications to the recommended scheme.
The committee recommends that the temporary order be renewed in its current form until the end of the first sitting week in 2013.
Routine of business
Historically, when procedures have operated on a temporary basis for a period of time, the committee generally recommends that they be incorporated into the standing orders, with or without modifications. In this case, however, the committee believes that there are several aspects of the routine of business, including consideration of private senators’ bills and the use of government documents consideration on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, that would benefit from examination as part of a broader review of the routine of business. Accordingly, the committee will seek from the President under standing order 17 terms of reference that will enable it to conduct such a review, seeking input from all senators, with a view to reporting to the Senate by the end of 2012 or early 2013.
Consideration of non-controversial legislation
In the meantime, the committee agrees that it would assist senators to plan their week if the traditional time for consideration of non-controversial legislation were restored to Thursdays at 12.45 pm. It recommends that the following temporary order be agreed to, in addition to the current temporary order relating to private senators’ bills, to operate from the first sitting week in August 2012 until the end of the first sitting week in 2013:
That standing order 57(1)(d) be modified as follows to provide for the consideration of non-controversial government business on Thursdays:
(d) On Thursday:
(ii) Notices of motion
(iii) Postponement and rearrangement of business
(iv) Formal motions – discovery of formal business
(v) Consideration of committee reports under standing order 62(4)
(vi) Government business
(via) At 12.45 pm, non-controversial government business only
(vii) At 2 pm, questions
(viii) Motions to take note of answers
(ix) Any proposal to debate a matter of public importance or urgency
(x) Not later than 4.30 pm, general business
(xi) Not later than 6 pm, consideration of government documents under general business
(xii) Not later than 7 pm, consideration of committee reports and government responses under standing order 62(1)
(xiii) At 8 pm, adjournment proposed
(xiv) At 8.40 pm, adjournment.
By the term “non-controversial”, the committee intends that the business to be dealt with at that time is business that senators agree may be dealt with without divisions. It does not preclude debate and amendment of bills but it involves an understanding that divisions will not be called during the period 12.45 to 2 pm. The committee further indicates that the requirement for the Senate to proceed to non-controversial government business only at 12.45 pm does not preclude other business being conducted after such bills have been dealt with, subject to the usual consultations amongst senators and the necessary motions to rearrange business.
The committee appreciates that the time between completion of the consideration of private senators’ bills and the proposed time for non-controversial legislation is short and draws attention to its previous encouragement of committees to consider presenting reports other than on Thursdays (see Second report of 2011).
Raising matters of privilege
On 22 March 2012, the Senate adopted the following recommendation made by the Committee of Privileges in its 150th Report:
That the Procedure Committee review the processes for raising and referring matters of privilege, as set out in paragraphs 2.23 and 2.24.
The essence of the Privileges Committee’s concern was that matters which had been given precedence for debate were not, because of a somewhat artificial interpretation of the standing orders applying to the routine of business, considered at the earliest opportunity.
The committee considered a discussion paper examining the issues but, after deliberation, agreed not to recommend any change at this stage but to reconsider the matter in the context of the proposed review of the routine of business referred to earlier in this report.
The discussion paper, which is published as Attachment A to this report, also canvasses the broader issue of the decision-making process by the President once a matter of privilege has been raised under standing order 81. Recent events have demonstrated that there is a widespread misunderstanding of this process. In making a determination to grant a matter precedence, the President applies criteria which have been developed by the Senate and which are contained in Privilege Resolution 4. The purpose of this process is to ensure that a matter which meets those criteria is given an appropriate opportunity to be dealt with as an item of business so that the Senate may then make a decision on the merits of the case. The decision by the President to grant precedence is not a recommendation that the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee for inquiry, simply that the Senate should be given the earliest opportunity to make that decision for itself.
The background and rationale of the procedures is explained in the discussion paper to which the committee draws the attention of senators.
Changes to the printed Notice Paper and related matters
The committee considered proposals from the Clerk to reduce the size of the printed Notice Paper, make savings in printing costs and take greater advantage of online publishing technologies. For many years the printed Notice Paper has been an abridged version of the complete Notice Paper which is published on the Senate website. These proposals involve further abridgements and are listed in the paper published as Attachment B to this report.
The committee supports these changes and the rationale for them, but agrees that it would be useful for one or two copies of the full Notice Paper to be available for consultation at the table each sitting day.
Publication in Hansard of answers to questions on notice
Historically, answers to questions on notice have been printed in Hansard. This practice is mandated by standing order 74 (although answers are authorised for publication when received by the Clerk). This results in delays to publication of answers to the general public if the answer is provided in a non-sitting period. If answers awaiting publication are lengthy or numerous, it may be necessary for Hansard to stagger publication over several days.
The Clerk has advised the committee that future plans include an online-only publication, sitting behind the Notice Paper, containing questions on notice and answers. In itself, this requires no change to the standing orders because publication of the answers is already authorised. However, removal of the requirement to print the answers in Hansard would result in savings for the responsible department. Questions would continue to be emailed to departments, and answers would still be provided directly to the senator asking the question.
The committee therefore recommends that the Senate agree to the following change to standing order 74(3), to take effect at the commencement of the 2013 sittings, but effectively applying to all answers received after the final daily Hansard for 2012 is printed:
(3) The reply to a question on notice shall be given by delivering it to the Clerk, a copy shall be supplied to the senator who asked the question, and the publication of the reply is then authorised
, and the question and reply shall be printed in Hansard.
Microfilming of tabled papers
The Clerk also raised with the committee another administrative matter.
Microfilming of all tabled papers from 1901 commenced in 1995 as a Centenary of Federation project. From 2004, work began to digitise all tabled papers. This involved:
- conversion of microfilmed papers from 1901 to 2001 to digitised images
- digitisation of original tabled papers from 2002 onwards
- generation of microfilm from the digitised images from 2002 onwards.
The rationale for maintaining conversion to microfilm was one of business continuity, to insure against loss of access to one or more formats (paper, digital, film). Given the cost of replacing capital equipment, particularly the microfilm reader, the Senate Department proposes to cease the digital-to-microfilm conversion henceforth, but this has an implication for the order of the Senate of 6 October 2005 which allows storage of original tabled papers off site provided microfilm copies are available in Parliament House. Although it has not yet proved necessary to move any original tabled papers off site, the committee agrees that it would be prudent to update the resolution as follows:
Storage of Senate documents
The Senate authorises the storage outside Parliament House by the National Archives of Australia of documents laid before the Senate, provided that the storage of those documents is under the control of the Department of the Senate and microfilm or digital copies of them are available within Parliament House.
The committee recommends accordingly.
Senator Stephen Parry