For Inquiry and Report
On the evening of 11 June l970 the Australian Senate passed an historic
resolution to establish two groups of committees - the Legislative and
General Purpose Standing Committees and the Estimates Committees. That
decision has been described as having 'revolutionised the Parliament as
a whole'.(see Footnote 1) At
the time, the Sydney Morning Herald, peering confidently into the
future, stated that the 'introduction of a wide-ranging committee system
will make the red-carpeted Upper House potentially the most powerful parliamentary
chamber in Australia'.(see Footnote 2)
While the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees and the
Estimates Committees were by no means the first Senate committees, it
is true to say that from 1970 onwards the Senate had a comprehensive set
or system of committees covering almost every area of public policy and
administration. The decisions made in June 1970 brought the Senate into
the company of other modern legislatures, ultimately influencing the development
of a similar committee system in many other houses of parliament.
Parliamentary committees are as old as the federal Parliament itself,
dating back to 190l, the first year of federation, when a Senate select
committee reported on steamship communication between Tasmania and the
mainland of Australia.
What led to the 'revolutionary proposals' passed in the Senate in June
1970 which resulted in the establishment of the Standing Committee system?
The first significant event occurred in 1932, with the appointment of
the first Senate standing committee, the Regulations and Ordinances Committee,
which had the task of scrutinizing regulations made by the Government
under Acts of Parliament. The establishment of the committee followed
a dispute between the Scullin Government and the Senate over certain controversial
Government regulations. Over the years to 1970, the work of energetic
and independent chairmen and committee members helped the Regulations
and Ordinances Committee to develop a reputation for effective scrutiny
of executive law-making and demonstrated the potential that a standing
committee had to enhance the role of backbench parliamentarians.
In 1948 the adoption for Senate elections of a system of voting known
as proportional representation changed party representation in the Senate.
With party numbers more evenly balanced political behaviour in the Senate
came to reflect a greater flexibility and hence independence than existed
in the more rigidly party-dominated and disciplined House of Representatives.
It was to this changed Senate that the following recommendation was made
on l5 May 1956:
that an additional function for the Senate is a standing committee
system ... to watch and appraise the administration of the laws and
to inform public opinion in relation to certain defined fields of governmental
The recommendation was included within a report made to the Senate by
a senior Senate officer, Mr J.R. Odgers, who had recently returned from
three months in the United States of America studying the American Congress.
The Senate of that era was not averse to Odgers' recommendation for a
standing committee system, but ultimately the proposal lacked a significant
Senate champion and no action was taken. Speaking during the debate in
the Senate following the tabling of the Odgers' report, Senator N.E. McKenna
(ALP), spoke of Odgers' 'burning ambition to see the Senate play a major
role in this Parliament'. 'I merely say to him', continued Senator McKenna,
'that, whilst he need not despair, he must be patient. Speaking from an
experience of politics extending over a considerable time, I know that
it takes at least five years to secure the acceptance of a new idea.'
Senator McKenna miscalculated. It was another fourteen years before Odgers'
vision of a permanent committee system for the Senate became a reality.
Nevertheless in 1956, Odgers had planted the seed of the idea and subsequent
events assisted its propagation.
During the 1960s and early 1970s an increasing number of well-informed
and active Senators served on select committees. The reports of these
committees attracted wide attention. Particularly notable were the reports
on the container method of handling cargoes, the metric system of weights
and measures, air and water pollution and off-shore petroleum resources.
One of the best-known of the select committees of this time was the Select
Committee on Securities and Exchange, under the Chairmanship of Senator
Peter Rae (LP, Tasmania), whose public hearings attracted considerable
By 1967 public interest in Senate committees was such that in his policy
speech for the Senate election for that year, the then Leader of the Opposition,
Mr Gough Whitlam, M.P., announced that the Australian Labor Party in the
Senate would seek to establish a Senate committee system.
When Parliament resumed after the 1967 election, Senator Lionel Murphy,
later Attorney-General and High Court judge, became Leader of the Opposition
in the Senate. Odgers was now Clerk of the Senate and both he and the
government backbench Senators who were keen to expand the committee system
had their Senate champion in Senator Murphy.
Senator Murphy saw both the political and the parliamentary advantages
of the proposed committee system, and lent his considerable political
weight to the idea. The success of past select committees and the knowledge
that comparable legislatures in other parts of the world were ahead of
Australia in this particular area of parliamentary reform, contributed
to the widely held view amongst the Senators that the time had come for
the Senate to establish its own standing committee system.
Towards the end of 1969, at the direction of the Senate Standing Orders
Committee, Odgers as Clerk prepared a report which was in fact a blueprint
for a standing committee system. He pointed out that the Senate should
have committees 'standing ready to consider any Bills, Estimates, petitions,
inquiries, papers or other matters which the Senate may refer to such
committees, on motion'.(see Footnote
Odgers also envisaged such committees carrying out a 'watchdog' function
in certain fields of government. He stressed that the role of these committees
was not one of policy making 'but rather of inquiry and counsel and of
throwing light into dark corners'.(see Footnote 4)
It was this report, tabled in March 1970, which formed the basis for
the subsequent debate in the Senate early in June 1970. There was general
agreement that the time had come for a comprehensive standing committee
system, but opinions varied as to when and how the system should be implemented.
Senator Murphy commenced the debate by moving for the immediate appointment
of seven Standing Committees. The Leader of the Government in the Senate,
Senator the Hon. Kenneth Anderson, referred to 'the commonality of view'
in relation to the Clerk's report, but wished to proceed a little more
cautiously. Senator Anderson moved for the appointment of five Estimates
Committees as an initial experiment towards a wider system. The Leader
of the Democratic Labor Party, Senator Vincent Gair, was even more circumspect,
considering that the proposals should be implemented gradually over a
period of time.
In the event, the motions of both Senator Anderson and Senator Murphy
were passed on 11 June 1970. Thus, in one evening, the Senate decided
to establish seven Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees
and five Estimates Committees. These decisions would eventually have far-reaching
effects on the Australian system of parliamentary government, changing
the nature of much parliamentary activity and affecting the way in which
executive governments carried on their business.
Today, there are eight Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees
made up of equal numbers of government and non-government Senators, standing
ready, as Odgers wrote in 1970, to inquire into and report upon any bill,
petition or other matter referred to them by the Senate. In l990 the work
of the committees was extended to include the regular examination of the
annual reports of government departments and statutory bodies and the
more regular scrutiny of proposed legislation referred to them.
Because they can travel around Australia in the course of their inquiries,
the Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees literally take
Parliament to the people. In this way they gather information from interested
members of the public and from experts and specialists. To do this the
committees receive written and oral submissions. Where necessary, committees
can compel evidence to be produced. Rules of parliamentary privilege with
their sources in the common law, the Constitution, the Parliamentary Privileges
Act 1987 and Senate Resolutions of 1989, provide protection from legal
liability, harm or intimidation for persons who give evidence to committees.
Once such information has been collected and considered by a committee,
it draws up a report containing its recommendations to the Senate. If
the membership of a committee is not all of the same mind, dissenting
reports may be included within the principal report.
Committee reports are tabled in the Senate and their recommendations
debated. It is then the responsibility of the Government to respond to
the committee's recommendations. Since 1983 successive governments have
undertaken to respond formally to Senate Committee reports within 3 months
of their being tabled.
Since their establishment in 1970 the Legislative and General Purpose
Standing Committees have produced over 300 reports, covering almost every
issue of significance to Australian public policy and administration.
A Register of Committee Reports designed to help researchers and others
to access this rich source of information, was published by the Department
of the Senate in May 1991.
In May 1990 the Senate put into operation new procedures which enable
more bills to be referred to standing committees for detailed consideration.
These procedures offer new opportunities for the public and relevant experts
to make their views known on proposed legislation. Between June 1970 and
May 1990, only 39 bills or aspects of bills were referred to Senate Committees.
Under these new procedures, between May and December 1990, 17 bills were
referred to the standing committees.
After 20 years of operation, the Senate standing committees remain "standing
ready" to act on behalf of the Senate to take Parliament to the people,
obtain their views and in reporting them improve government decision-making
while preserving and enhancing the quality of Australian parliamentary
[Return to Table of
For Inquiry and Report
This introduction has been largely reproduced from the brochure "The
World of Senate Committees" which was produced by the Research Section,
Department of the Senate to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Senate
Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees and of Estimates Committees
G.S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia's Commonwealth Parliament
1901-1988, Melbourne University Press, 1989, p. 375.
Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 1970.
Footnote 3 and 4
Report from the Standing Orders Committee Relating to Standing Committees,
Parliamentary Paper No. 2/1970.
[Return to Footnote 3]
[Return to Footnote 4]