What are parliamentary committees?
A parliamentary committee is a group of Members or Senators (or both in the case of joint committees) appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament to undertake certain specified tasks. Committees have both government and non-government members on them and considerable powers to undertake work on behalf of the parliament. The Senate also has its own committee system and much of the following information is relevant to Senate committees too.
There are also other types of committees such as party (e.g. ALP, Liberal Party) committees, government committees or inquiries (e.g. Productivity Commission inquiries) and judicial inquiries. This infosheet only deals with parliamentary committees.
What do committees do?
Most parliamentary committees investigate specific matters of policy or government administration or performance. Other parliamentary committees are responsible for matters related to the internal administration of the parliament.
Committees are able to do things which would not be possible to undertake in the large, formal environment of the House Chamber, or the second debating chamber, the Federation Chamber, such as finding out the facts of a case or issue, gathering evidence from expert groups or individuals, sifting evidence and drawing up reasoned conclusions. This kind of work is more effectively carried out by small groups of parliamentarians.
An advantage of committees is that several of them can operate at one time enabling many investigations to be conducted. Each committee has its own defined area of operation so that it is able to specialise and build up a body of expertise among its members.
Why are committees important?
Parliamentary committees are one mechanism the House uses to keep a check on the activities of the government. Because they have extensive powers to call for people, including public servants, and documents to come before them, committees can thoroughly investigate questions of government administration and service delivery. Committees may oversee the expenditure of public money and they may call the government or the public service to account for their actions and ask them to explain or justify administrative decisions.
Committees can contribute to better informed policy-making and legislative processes. They help Members to access a wide range of community and expert views so that through the committee process, the parliament is able to be better informed of community issues and attitudes. Committees provide a public forum for the presentation of the various views of individual citizens and interest groups.
A public hearing for a committee inquiry
In a sense committees take parliament to the people and allow direct contact between members of the public and groups of Members of the House. Because they can travel extensively throughout Australia and have flexible procedures, they provide opportunities for people to have their say on the issues being investigated. By simply undertaking an inquiry a committee may promote public debate on the subject at issue.
Most Members of Parliament, except Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, serve on committees—even the Speaker is a member of certain committees. Committees vary in size and may have as few as seven or as many as 32 members. They are normally composed of aligned and non-aligned parliamentarians—the latter in proportion to the numerical strength of each group in the House. Thus government members are generally in a majority on each committee.
In practice most committees are chaired by a government member and have an opposition member as deputy chair. The members of each committee are selected or elected within the political parties and their names are then put forward by the respective party whip. Non-aligned parliamentarians may be nominated by the opposition whip or, in some cases, may nominate themselves to the Speaker. The nominated members of a committee are then formally appointed by resolution of the House.
Committee work is an important part of the duties of a parliamentarian and generally makes considerable demands on their time, both when parliament is meeting and at other times. When the House is not sitting committees hold public hearings, meetings, inspections and other activities around Australia.
Taking parliament to the people—a parliamentary committee hearing in an Indigenous community
Powers of committees
Committees have considerable powers, usually delegated to them by the House(s) appointing them. Committees established by law (statutory committees such as the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit) have particular powers set out in the relevant Act of Parliament. To enable them to carry out their functions effectively, investigatory committees are normally given the power to order people to attend by summons to give evidence and produce documents.
To support and enforce such powers, each House is able to punish offences which interfere with the work of its committees. A person summoned to appear before a committee but who refuses to attend, or a witness who refuses to answer a question or produce a document, or who lies to or misleads a committee, may be punished for contempt by reprimand, fine or imprisonment. A person attempting to influence a witness or to prevent a witness from giving evidence, or persecuting or injuring a witness for having done so, would also be guilty of contempt, and may be prosecuted under the provisions of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.
Committee proceedings are considered to be ‘proceedings in parliament’, and therefore ‘privileged’. Members and others participating, such as witnesses giving evidence, are thereby protected from being sued or prosecuted for anything they may say during such proceedings. Written evidence received by a committee is similarly protected. For more information on parliamentary privilege see Infosheet No. 5 Parliamentary privilege.
The powers of committees to compel the giving of evidence and the rights of witnesses to be protected ensure that committees are able to get comprehensive, factual and truthful information.
Investigations by committees
The scope and purpose of each inquiry undertaken by a committee is set out in the terms of reference for the inquiry. Depending on the type of committee these may be referred to the committee by the House, by a Minister, or by a law, or be developed by the committee itself. In practice the terms of reference for a new inquiry are often developed by negotiation between the committee and the Minister who is responsible for the subject area of the inquiry.
The first step in an inquiry is to advertise its terms of reference and invite people and organisations to send in their opinions and proposals (submissions). People or organisations known to be interested in the subject or thought to have specialist knowledge may be approached directly to make submissions. An analysis of existing material on the subject matter of the inquiry is made by the committee staff and information is usually sought from the relevant government departments or agencies.
Having considered the submissions received, committees may then invite some of those who have lodged submissions to come to a meeting with the committee (public hearing) to discuss their submissions and answer questions. Public hearings are often held away from Canberra, in state and territory capitals and regional centres and sometimes by videoconference and teleconference. As well as formal hearings, committees may also conduct seminars, public meetings, focus groups, round table discussions and other less formal gatherings to hear the opinions and ideas of experts and the community. They may also inspect facilities and other places of relevance to the inquiry.
After examining all the evidence, the committee prepares a report setting out its conclusions and making recommendations. This report is presented to the House, or to both Houses in the case of a joint committee. On occasions some members of a committee do not agree to all recommendations in the report and they may add a minority or dissenting report. A feature of most committee work, though, is the ability of Members from all parties to work constructively together to develop proposals they can all agree on.
Depending on the scope of the subject matter, inquiries may take only a few weeks, or may last many months when wide community input is required.
How to have your say
Lodging a submission
It is open to anyone to lodge a submission with a committee on the subject of an inquiry. A submission should state clearly the name and address of its author and, if relevant, the organisation the person represents. They can be sent to the committee on paper or uploaded electronically via the committee’s website.
There is no particular format required—a submission may be in the form of a letter, a short document or a substantial paper; it may contain facts, opinions, arguments and recommendations for action. It is important that submissions be relevant to the terms of reference of the inquiry, as these define what the committee can consider, but it is quite acceptable for a submission to be directed to a specific aspect of the terms of reference, rather than the whole. A committee’s terms of reference are usually advertised at the start of each inquiry, but copies of it and any necessary clarification may be obtained from the secretary to the committee.
Once a submission has been formally received by a committee, it cannot be withdrawn or altered without the committee’s permission nor can it be published or disclosed to another person unless the committee has authorised its publication. Any uncertainties in this area should be clarified with the committee secretary.
What happens at a public hearing?
The purpose of a public hearing is to provide an opportunity for the committee to clarify and test the evidence already provided and to examine other points of view with a witness. The hearing of evidence by committees usually takes place in public and such meetings are often attended by members of the general public and by media representatives.
The chair usually opens a hearing with a brief statement of its purpose and background and outlines the procedures to be followed. Witnesses are normally heard individually or in groups representing a single organisation. Witnesses are required to tell the truth and occasionally they may be asked to make an oath or affirmation to confirm this. The witnesses sit at the table and are asked to identify themselves and to state the capacity in which they are appearing before the committee—for example, as representatives of a particular organisation or as private individuals. If witnesses have supplied a written submission to the committee, they may be asked what part they played in the submission’s preparation and if they wish to amend it. Before being questioned, witnesses are usually invited to make a short statement to the committee.
Usually the committee chair first asks a series of questions before calling on other members to ask any other questions they might have. A witness or a member of the committee may object to a question but the committee can insist on it being answered. Where a witness declines to answer a question to which the committee has required an answer, the committee may report the facts to the House. Only members of the committee may question a witness. Sometimes witnesses may request that their evidence be taken ‘in camera’, that is, in private, and that documents submitted be regarded as confidential. Such requests are usually, but not necessarily, granted.
A transcript of evidence taken at public hearings is prepared by Hansard and is normally published. Witnesses are provided with copies of their evidence and afforded the opportunity to request corrections.
Committees sometimes provide other opportunities for members of the public to speak to the committee in relation to an inquiry. This might be in the form of a public meeting where a general invitation is issued for people to attend and make comments, or perhaps at the end of a formal public hearing a committee may invite members of the public who are present to make short statements about the inquiry.
In November 2013, the House passed a resolution to provide committees of the House with ‘Procedures for dealing with witnesses’.
Progressing the inquiry
Committees meet in private in order to discuss the progress of their inquiries, consider evidence, reach decisions and take votes, and to agree on their reports. On occasions committees may try to stimulate debate on an inquiry and encourage submissions by issuing a discussion paper or an interim report. It may use seminars, workshops or focus groups to conduct initial discussions at the beginning of an inquiry, to obtain general community views on a matter, or to test with particular groups or individuals preliminary conclusions that the committee has reached. Some of these approaches may also be used after the final report of the inquiry has been published in order to gain feedback from experts and the community.
These informal proceedings can be very valuable to a committee in giving direction to an inquiry. The information gathered using mechanisms other than the traditional public hearing process does not have the status of formal evidence but it can inform the committee and be used in its reports provided the processes used are explained. Depending on the circumstances, such informal proceedings may not be covered by parliamentary privilege. (See Infosheet No. 5 Parliamentary privilege.)
Presentation and debate
Although a committee report may be presented to the House at any time when other business is not being considered, time is reserved on Mondays specifically for the presentation and debate of committee reports and for statements concerning inquiries. Time is also reserved on Mondays in the Federation Chamber for the presentation and debate of committee reports. Committee reports may also be referred to the Federation Chamber.
Recommendations and government responses
Except in the case of committees concerned with the administration or procedures of the House itself, committee reports usually recommend government action—for example, the introduction of legislation, a change in administrative procedures or review of policy. Such action is the responsibility of the Executive Government rather than the parliament.
The government responds to such committee reports by way of a written statement to the House. In 2010 the House passed a resolution requiring the government to respond to committee reports within six months of their presentation.
The government may accept, or partially accept, a committee’s recommendations, and announce its intention to take certain action. Some recommendations may be rejected, while the government may announce that it wishes to give further consideration to others. Sometimes the government may implement recommendations made by a committee through changes in legislation or government administration or policy without a formal response having been published. The information collected by committees and their reasoned conclusions can also contribute to policy thinking and community debate.
An advisory report on a bill (proposed law) is presented in the same manner as other committee reports. If the government accepts changes to the bill recommended by the advisory report, these are incorporated into government amendments moved during the consideration in detail stage (see Infosheet No. 7 Making laws).
How to find information about committee inquiries
Lists of committees can be found on the parliament’s website (www.aph.gov.au/committees). The lists link to each committee’s own webpage, which gives information about the committee and the inquiries it is involved in. The parliament’s website provides comprehensive information about committees, their current inquiries, schedules of public hearings and other activities, how to prepare a submission, copies of submissions and hearing transcripts, reports, government responses to reports and contact details.
In recent times, committees have increasingly used social media to enhance public engagement in the inquiry process, including publicising inquiries and committee activities (see ‘For more information’ below).
Information can be obtained from the committee secretariat at Parliament House in Canberra. People with an interest in a particular committee or inquiry can register to track a committee to receive email updates whenever the committee’s webpage is updated (for example, when new hearings are listed or new submissions are uploaded).
The About the House website provides news and articles about committee activities (see ‘For more information’ below).
Types of committees—terminology
Standing committees are committees appointed for the life of a parliament and they are usually re-established in some form in successive parliaments (that is, after each election).
General purpose standing committees are a type of standing committee. They are investigatory or scrutiny committees, established by the House at the commencement of each parliament to inquire into and report upon any matters referred to them, including legislation. These committees specialise by subject area, between them covering most areas of federal government activity.
Select committees are appointed as the need arises for a specific purpose, and have a limited life.
Joint committees draw their membership from, and report to, both houses of parliament, enabling Members and Senators to work together on the same matters.
Statutory committees are those established by Act of Parliament, that is, by statute. All existing statutory committees are joint committees.
Domestic or internal committees are those whose functions are concerned with the powers and procedures of the House or the administration of parliament.
Investigatory committee is a term used to describe committees other than domestic or internal committees. However, domestic or internal committees may also have investigative functions.
For more information
House of Representatives Practice, 7th edn, Department of the House of Representatives, Canberra, 2018, pp. 641–732.
Resolution of the House, ‘Procedures for dealing with witnesses’, adopted 13 November 2013.
About the House website, www.aph.gov.au/athnews.
Images courtesy of AUSPIC.