For Inquiry and Report

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

Table of Contents

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:

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 public attention.

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 3)

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 democracy.

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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 1970-1990.


Footnote 1

G.S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia's Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1988, Melbourne University Press, 1989, p. 375.


Footnote 2

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.

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