Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees
The First 20 Years 1970 - 1990

Table of Contents


The Committee and its Predecessors

Since the establishment of the Senate Standing Committees in 1970, matters presently covered by the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration have fallen, formally, within the areas of interest of the following Committees:


Current Membership

The membership of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration in December 1990 was as follows:

A full listing of membership and Committee Chairpersons on the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration and other related committees are listed in an attachment to this section. Other attachments to this section include lists of committee secretaries and reports tabled by the committees.


The Work of the Committees

As of 1 December 1990, this Committee had tabled 72 reports, 57 as the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations and 15 as the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration. The reports ranged in length from one page to 377 pages, and averaged 63 pages; they took from three days to three years to finalise.

The Committee's inquiries have focused, at the express wish of the Senate, on the accountability of Commonwealth bodies, frequently involving an examination of the relevant annual reports of the bodies; on matters referred by Estimates Committees; and to a lesser extent on aspects of legislation. A breakdown of reports by category is provided in Table 1.

Table 1: Reports by (non-exclusive) category*

*Many reports on statutory authorities were based on the annual reports of those authorities and hence have been placed in both categories. Similarly, there is overlap between the reports on statutory authorities and the lists of Commonwealth bodies.


Reports on statutory authorities

An unusual aspect of the Committee's reference concerning statutory authorities is that it provides for 'continuing oversight'. That is, the Committee does not have to go back to the Senate to move that matters be referred to it concerning statutory authorities, but can initiate its own inquiries under this standing reference.

The Committee's first report on statutory authorities was tabled on 20 February 1979. In his tabling statement, the Chairman, Senator Peter Rae, made clear why the Committee and the Parliament should view the proliferation of statutory authorities with interest and concern:

The Committee found that as Commonwealth statutory authorities have proliferated, they have acquired an extraordinarily diverse set of characteristics. They are often outside the standard departmental structure with its safeguards of ministerial responsibility and accountability. Little or no attempt has been made to achieve uniformity in the justification for their original creation, in the degree of operating independence granted to them or in the strictness and form of their accountability requirements (Senate Hansard 1979, p. 19).

In that first report, the Committee noted that no comprehensive list of statutory authorities was maintained. The Committee was obliged to compile its own by a painstaking examination of each piece of Commonwealth legislation, identifying at the time 241 authorities. Despite the fact, which the Committee reiterates regularly, that it is axiomatic that the existence of a body must be known if it is to be held accountable for its actions, no comprehensive and accessible register of Commonwealth bodies is maintained even now, except, by default, by the Committee.

In an attempt to overcome the dearth of information concerning the statutory officers and authorities which it had identified, the Committee surveyed them by mailed questionnaire in 1978 and on subsequent occasions. The survey unearthed authorities which, inter alia, could not or would not answer questions about their funding, even when they received a Parliamentary appropriation; authorities which failed to make provision for superannuation; authorities which failed to keep records of their assets, or depreciation figures; and authorities to whom the notion that they might be held accountable to Parliament for their activities was clearly foreign.

In its subsequent reports on statutory authorities, and in more recent years on Commonwealth bodies generally, the Committee continued to update its register of authorities, to produce it in categorised form, and as well to undertake case studies of selected agencies. Those agencies were self-selecting in so far as the attention of the Committee was generally drawn to them by the tardiness or blatant inadequacy of their annual reports, or by adverse press comment.

Unarguably the most significant work conducted by the Committee in relation to individual statutory authorities was its inquiry into Asia Dairy Industries (ADI) and its parent company, the Australian Dairy Corporation (ADC). A 377-page report, entitled 'The Australian Dairy Corporation and its Asian Subsidiaries', was tabled in the Senate on 17 September 1981 and provoked considerable press coverage and debate in both houses of Parliament. The Committee alleged that improper management and accounting arrangements had existed within the ADI and ADC, and that the actions of the ADC led to a breach of the then applying GATT skim milk powder minimum pricing arrangement. A subsequent inquiry by the Auditor-General supported this view, which was acknowledged by the government in a ministerial statement on the issue in the House of Representatives on 16 September 1982 (House of Representatives Hansard 1982, p. 1570).

The report was more significant, however, for the fundamental issues of general principle it raised: the degree of ministerial control of statutory authorities, including power of direction; the development of appropriate guidelines for the establishment, operation and accountability of statutory authorities and subsidiary companies; the duties and responsibilities of members of such authorities and companies; and reporting requirements.


Reports on non-statutory bodies (NSBs)

From its inquiries into statutory authorities, the Committee became aware of the existence of another ill-defined group of bodies, which consumed not insignificant amounts of government funds and which acted as semi-independent and unscrutinised policy and administrative advisors - the non-statutory bodies. Given its interest in enhancing parliamentary scrutiny, the Committee sought and obtained from the Senate on 17 November 1983 another ongoing reference, this time to oversee the establishment, operation, administration and accountability of Commonwealth non-statutory bodies.

By the time of its first comprehensive report on NSBs in August 1986, the Committee had identified 598 of them, ranging in size and influence from the National Health and Medical Research Council to the more modest Antarctic Animal Care and Ionising Radiation Usage Ethics Committee. Amongst its recommendations, the Committee called for the establishment of a central NSB register, to be held by a co-ordinating department such as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; and for Ministerial approval for the establishment of any NSB.

The government's response maintained that 'information regarding NSBs be provided in annual reports either of NSBs themselves or of their parent bodies'. It rejected the Committee's central register proposal because of its `concern to streamline and devolve administrative functions, while also responding to the Committee's concerns by ensuring that public sector accountability extends to the activities of NSBs' (Senate Hansard 1987, pp. 2645-47). However, the majority of the Committee's specific recommendations concerning the information required to be made publicly available on NSBs was accepted.

In May 1988, the Committee tabled a further report on NSBs, consisting in part of an examination of departmental annual reports from 1985 to 1987 to ascertain the degree of compliance with the government's decision concerning the publication of information on NSBs. It found that for the year 1986-87, for example, only 15 out of 28 departments listed NSBs, and the information provided often fell far short of that required. The Committee further observed that the government itself had taken no steps to ensure the observance of its requirements. More recent reports of the Committee have confirmed these observations.


Reports on companies

In November 1989, the Committee tabled its first report on government companies and their reporting requirements - another report in the series aimed at improving the accountability of the non-departmental area of public administration, under the standing reference of 8 October 1986. Again the Committee noted that '[t]he absence of any comprehensive and readily accessible index of Commonwealth bodies is a potentially serious flaw in the accountability system' and recommended the establishment of a central register, this time of companies and incorporated associations which the Commonwealth controls or in which it has a substantial interest.

Reports on annual reports

Recognising the importance of the annual report as an accountability document, the Senate had empowered its legislative and general purpose standing committees to report on annual reports as early as 1976, and referred all reports to appropriate committees for their perusal. Not all committees chose to exercise this option, but this Committee most certainly did.

By December 1989, the Committee had examined in some detail the annual reports of 73 individual Commonwealth bodies, selected as indicated above on the grounds of excessive lateness in their presentation to the Parliament or inadequacy of content and had tabled 18 reports partly or wholly on annual reports, covering from one to fifteen individual inquiries per report.

In most cases, the Committee found that its initial inquiry served to remind the Commonwealth bodies concerned of their reporting obligations. However, it did examine the annual reports of 14 bodies on more than one occasion.

To clarify and standardise reporting requirements, and to encourage expeditious reporting, the Committee recommended the passage of an annual reports act, which would apply to all Commonwealth statutory authorities and government businesses. The government rejected this recommendation. However, it has been the policy of successive governments since 1982 to require major statutory authorities to submit annual reports. Also, the amended Acts Interpretation Act requires all statutory authorities which do present annual reports to submit them within six months of the period to which the report relates. The government further tabled in the Senate on 11 November 1982 a set of guidelines for the content, preparation and presentation of annual reports by statutory authorities and more detailed guidelines for departmental annual reports (Senate Hansard 1982, pp. 2260-63).

Along with other Parliamentary committees, this Committee continued to press for tighter standards and effective monitoring of annual reports. Some progress was made in 1985, when amendments to the Public Service Act made reporting in accordance with the approved guidelines compulsory for Commonwealth departments. Revised departmental guidelines were prepared by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, in consultation with the Department of Finance and the Public Service Board, cleared by the Joint Committee on Public Accounts and tabled in the Parliament on 18 November 1987 (Senate Hansard 1987, pp. 1921-24). (Updated again in 1991). Revision of the reporting guidelines for statutory authorities was, however, not attempted.

Following these changes to departmental reporting guidelines, the Committee again investigated the timeliness and quality of departmental annual reports. In its report tabled in June 1989, the Committee found there had been a steady improvement in the reporting process, and the current standard was relatively high. However, it concluded that there was still room for improvement. On the negative side, it felt impelled to comment yet again that the development of the guidelines was being managed unsystematically, that the guidelines for statutory authorities were 'outdated and inadequate', and that proactive co-ordination was lacking. It recommended, inter alia, the development of a consolidated handbook of reporting requirements, proactive co-ordination by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, the clarification of the requirement to present performance information, and regular scrutiny by legislative and general purpose standing committees of the Senate.

While the Government has not yet provided a final response to the report, the Senate itself acted on the recommendations of this Committee, by passing a motion on 14 December 1989 referring the annual reports tabled in the Senate to the relevant standing committees, which would be required to report to the Senate as to whether each report was 'apparently satisfactory'. Each committee would be further required to report in more detail on unsatisfactory or late reports, or reports selected for whatever reason for closer examination. In other words, reporting on annual reports by standing committees has changed from being an optional exercise to a compulsory one. Under this new requirement, this Committee has tabled one report, in May 1990.


Reports on legislation

As a legislative and general purpose committee, this Committee had had referred to it ten pieces of legislation, representing only 14 per cent of the Committee's total number of reports, until December 1989.

One of the pieces of legislation investigated by means of inspections and public hearings was the Honey (Export Inspection Charge) Bill 1982. The Committee concluded, and the government agreed, that inspection to ensure compliance with import country requirements was not necessary. In its summing up, the Committee noted that its most valuable contribution had been in facilitating consultation between the parties involved.

The issue of the retrospective application of legislation was a key element in the referral of the Income Tax Assessment Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1984 to the Committee. The Committee concluded that retrospectivity was justified to counter tax avoidance practices associated with employee superannuation funds. However, the report was not unanimous, with all three Opposition Senators providing separate dissents to the retrospectivity provision.

Following the adoption by the Senate on 5 December 1989 of recommendations of the Select Committee on Legislation Procedures, more bills have been referred to committees for examination and report. This Committee examined four bills referred to it in 1990 and tabled two reports on them.


Matters referred by estimates committees

One of the reasons for the re-establishment of the Committee in 1977 was to provide a forum for the follow-up of matters recommended for further investigation by estimates committees. Fifteen such matters have been referred, ranging in significance from the relatively modest (departmental expenditure on pot plants) to matters of high principle (the use of the Advance to the Minister for Finance). The accountability to Parliament of statutory authorities also figured, over issues such as the confidentiality or otherwise of ABC employment contracts.

A recommendation from Estimates Committee A resulted in the referral of the matter of the use made of the funds approved by Parliament for the Advance to the Minister for Finance. This Committee found the reference of considerable interest, because of its ongoing concern about the expenditure of moneys not appropriated for a specific purpose. It questioned whether the use of the Advance permitted the evasion of the principle of prior parliamentary appropriation of expenditure, as required by Section 83 of the Constitution.

In its report, the Committee concluded that, while a contingency fund such as the Advance was necessary to provide the government with expenditure flexibility, certain checks and balances were required. The government response indicated that 'sympathetic consideration' had been given to the Committee's recommendations, and that where it had not been able to adopt a specific recommendation, it had endeavoured to find a compromise that met the spirit of the Committee's thinking (Senate Hansard 1981, p. 2067).

The central administration of Australian government

In December 1987, the Committee sought and obtained from the Senate another standing reference, this time 'the central administration of the Australian government'. Its intention was to obtain a continuing mandate for inquiries into the departmental field of public administration.

Its first inquiry under this reference was a review of the efficiency scrutiny program. The Committee had intended to produce a progress report on the scrutiny program and to consider its effectiveness as a method for improving the efficiency of the public service. However, few scrutinies were initiated after the initial 37 and the co-ordinating unit was wound up in July 1988, so the Committee's report became more of a retrospective.

In its report, the Committee voiced its concern over the lack of central monitoring of efficiency improvement initiatives, and the lack of reporting on such initiatives by departments and agencies. In its response, the government once again advanced its managerialist policy of devolving responsibility and accountability to agencies as its reason for rejecting a centralised monitoring role. While accepting the obligation to take efficiency-enhancing opportunities service-wide, the government considered in its response that 'the development of a central monitoring mechanism would not be consistent with the policy of devolving responsibility and accountability'. However, it did promise to consider broadening departmental and agency reporting requirements to include specific efficiency improvement efforts, and to consider also a wider efficiency audit function for the Australian Audit Office.

The most recent inquiry undertaken by the Committee under this reference has been the development of the Senior Executive Service. The Committee tabled a report on one aspect of its inquiry, namely performance-based pay, in May 1990 and a full report in October 1990, recommending refinements to the Service.