Australian Senate committees

"This article is about committees of the Senate. For consideration of bills 'in committee', see Committee of the Whole"

The committees of the Australian Senate are committees of Senators, established by the Australian Senate, for purposes determined by that body. Parliamentary committees are essential to the operation of modern parliaments, and Australian Senate committees have for some decades been pivotal to the maintenance of government accountability to the Australian parliament, particularly through hearings to scrutinise the budget, and through public inquiries on policy questions.

History of the committees

The existence of parliamentary committees was anticipated in the Constitution of Australia, in which section 49 makes reference to 'The powers, privileges, and immunities of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, and of the members and the committees of each House...' However, the Senate had few committees, engaged in limited activities, until 1970. [J.R. Odgers, "Australian Senate Practice" (11th edn), Department of the Senate, Canberra, p. 347] A number of "domestic" committees have operated since the establishment of the parliament, however prior to 1970 the only significant committee to be established was the Regulations and Ordinances Committee in 1932, one of the "legislative scrutiny" committees (see below).

1970 saw the creation of what would be regarded as the modern committee system, with a series of standing (permanent) committees established that mirrored the portfolio activities of government. [J.R. Odgers, "Australian Senate Practice" (11th edn), Department of the Senate, Canberra, p. 347] These reforms significantly enhanced the expertise and power of the upper house:

The Senate is now undergoing the most fundamental and dramatic changes witnessed in the Commonwealth Parliament since the States decided to federate 70 years ago. The introduction of a wide-ranging committee system will make the red-carpeted Upper House potentially the most powerful parliamentary chamber in Australia. ["Sydney Morning Herald", 3 November 1970]

These reforms were also significant in that they gave to committees of the Senate the role of examining the budget (what is referred to as the "estimates process" or "estimates hearings"), which had hitherto been confined to the Senate and its committee of the whole. The role of the committees was enhanced by three subsequent developments. First, in 1982 the Scrutiny of Bills Committee was established, which, in examining all bills, played a role that complemented that of the examination of all delegated legislation by the Regulations and Ordinances committee. Second, in 1989 the Senate adopted procedures for the systematic referral of bills to committees, increasing the level of legislative scrutiny taking place within parliament. [Vander Wyk, J. and Lilley, A., (2005), 'Reference of Bills to Australian Senate Committees', "Papers on Parliament", no. 43, Department of the Senate, Canberra] Third, in 1993, the committees adopted a more extensive procedure for consideration of the budget, creating a second opportunity each year for Senators to follow up issues identified during the initial budget estimates hearings. These second hearings are referred to as "supplementary budget estimates". The committee system was restructured in 1994 and again in 2006, however the range of functions remains essentially the same.

Purposes of committees

The functions of committees depend on the type of committee and on the work it is undertaking. Most of the committees are established under the Senate's Standing Orders.

tanding committees

The eight Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees (often referred to simply as 'standing committees') are established by Standing Order 25. [ [ Senate Standing Order 25] , retrieved September 2007] From 1994 to September 2006 the eight standing committees were actually made up of pairs of committeesndash a legislation committee and a references committee. The legislation committees were responsible for scrutinising bills referred to them by the chamber; examining the government's budget and activities (in what is called the budget estimates process); [Department of the Senate, [ 'Consideration of Estimates by the Senate’s Legislation Committees'] , "Senate Brief" number 5, February 2005 ] and for examining departmental annual reports and activities. The references committees were responsible for conducting inquiries into topics referred to them by the chamber. From 11 September 2006 each of these pairs of committees was integrated, however their functions remained unchanged.

elect committees

Select committees are temporary committees, established by the Senate to deal with particular issues. This may happen when a particular group of Senators wants to pursue an issue in depth, or there is no existing committee that is suited to addressing a particular topic. Recent select committees include ones examining the [ Administration of Indigenous Affairs] , and [ Mental Health] . Select committees usually examine an issue and upon reporting back to the chamber, cease to exist. One exception to this was the [ Senate Select Committee on Superannuation] which in various guises existed for a decade. [Department of the Senate, [ "A Light of Reason: The Work of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation"] , Papers on Parliament No. 45, Department of the Senate, August 2006]

Domestic committees

Domestic committees are responsible for administering aspects of the Senate's own affairs. The selection of bills committee meets each sitting fortnight to consider which of the bills coming before the Senate will be referred to committees for detailed consideration. The procedure committee considers "any matter relating to the procedures of the Senate referred to it by the Senate or by the President". [ [ Senate Standing Order 17] , retrieved September 2007.] This committee thus regularly examines and reports back to the chamber on suggested changes to the operation of the Senate and its committees, such as what times of day the chamber will sit and what rules should govern its order of business.

Established by Standing Order 18 of the Senate, the privileges committee is responsible for reporting on matters of parliamentary privilege referred to it by the Senate. [Department of the Senate, [ Senate Standing Committee of Privileges] , retrieved September 2007] The protections afforded by parliamentary privilege are essential to parliament and its committees to be able to operate effectively. [Department of the Senate, [ 'Parliamentary Privilege'] , "Senate Brief" No 11, September 2006, retrieved September 2007.] The bulk of the work of the privileges committee's work is associated with facilitating a 'right of reply' to people adversely named in the Senate, as well as involving investigations of unauthorised disclosures of Senate committee proceedings, [Committee of Privileges [ "Parliamentary privilege — unauthorised disclosure of committee proceedings"] , 122nd Report, 2005, retrieved September 2007.] complaints from witnesses in connection with evidence given to committees, and allegedly misleading evidence given to committees. [Committee of Privileges, [ "Parliamentary Privilege Precedents, Procedures and Practice in the Australian Senate 1966-2002"] , 107th Report, 2002, retrieved September 2007.]

Legislative scrutiny committees

The purpose of the scrutiny of bills committee is to assess "legislative proposals against a set of accountability standards that focus on the effect of proposed legislation on individual rights, liberties and obligations, and on parliamentary propriety". [Australian Parliament website, "Scrutiny of bills committee"] The regulations and ordinances committee performs a similar task, but for all subordinate legislation.

Other committees

Senators may be members of joint committees: committees jointly established by both chambers of the Australian parliament. In addition, political parties will often have parliamentary committees comprising members of the party; these committees will often have a policy focus, but are not committees of the parliament and are not bound by any of parliament's rules of procedures.

List of committees

These are the committees of the 42nd Parliament that exist within each category:

Membership and rules of committees

The Senate's committees are formed at the commencement of each new parliament, in accordance with rules set out in the Standing Orders. The committees exist until the first day of the following parliament, in contrast to the lower house committees, which cease to exist as soon as parliament is prorogued for an election.

The most important and high profile of the committees are the standing committees. These each have eight members: four drawn from amongst government Senators, three from the opposition, and one from amongst the minor parties and independents. The Chair of each committee is chosen from amongst the government members, the deputy chair from amongst non-government members. Because the Chair has a casting vote in the event of a committee vote being tied, the government effectively controls the committees. This control was a result of the reforms implemented from 11 September 2006, which were intended to streamline committee operations [Senator the Hon. Nick Minchin, [ 'Senate adopts Committee reform'] , "Media Release" 15 August 2006, retrieved September 2007] and reflect the fact that the government secured a majority of seats in the chamber at the 2004 election. [Michael Brissenden, [ 'Senate changes threaten democracy: Beazley'] , "7:30 Report" (ABC TV), 21 June 2006, retrieved September 2007] Prior to this, the chairingndash and controlndash of Senate committees had been divided amongst government and non-government parties. Under the new Standing Orders control is in the hands of the government. However, as the government is formed in the House of Representatives, the new rules mean that an opposition with a majority in the Senate would still have no control of standing committees.

The membership and rules of committees before and after the reforms implemented in September 2006 are shown below: [See "Odgers' Australian Senate Practice", 11th edition, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2004 and the standing orders from [ before the reforms] and [ after the reforms] []

Committees have two types of members: full members and participating members. In the case of standing committees, full members are the eight outlined above. In addition, however, any Senator may arrange for the Senate to agree to their being made a participating member of the committee. This gives them the same rights as full members, with the important exception of being unable to move or vote on motions in private meetings of the committees.

The committees are governed by the Standing Orders of the Senate, as well as being able to pass their own resolutions to govern certain aspects of their operations (such as the processing of correspondence and submissions to inquiries).

Committees are designed to assist the Senate as a whole. Thus the main formal structure of their work is that the Senate refers something to a committee for examination, and the committee reports back to the Senate on that matter. These reports are tabled during parliamentary sittings, but can also be presented when the Senate is not in session. [ [ Senate Standing Order 38] , retrieved September 2007] Committees can gather evidence and will often hold public hearings to assist this process. [ [ Senate Standing Orders 35 and 36] , retrieved September 2007] To gather their evidence committees can (with exceptions) travel from place to place to hear evidence. [The following committees are empowered to travel for meetings: privileges committee (Standing Order 18); appropriations and staffing (Standing Order 19), scrutiny of bills (Standing Order 24), legislative and general purpose (Standing Order 25)] Committees are able to order the production of documents and the appearance of witnesses (powers that are in practice used very sparingly). [ [ Senate Standing Order 34] , retrieved September 2007] [Department of the Senate, [ 'Rights and Responsibilities of Witnesses before Senate Committees'] , "Senate Brief" No 13, September 2006, retrieved September 2007] Most evidence taken by committees (both written submissions and transcripts of public hearings) is published, however committees have the power to take evidence confidentially ("in camera"), and regularly do so. [ [ Senate Standing Order 37] , retrieved September 2007] Committees hold both public hearings and conduct business at private meetings. The minutes of private meetings are confidential (in contrast, for example, to those of New South Wales parliamentary committees). [New South Wales Legislative Assembly, "Standing Orders", 21 November 2006, SO 303]

The rules governing committees are slightly different when conducting budget estimates hearings. [Department of the Senate, [ ' Consideration of Estimates by the Senate Committees'] , "Senate Brief" No 5, September 2006, retrieved September 2007] In particular, during estimates hearings,
* any Senator may ask questions of the officials appearing before the committee (normally only members can ask questions)
* no evidence can be taken on a confidential basis (normally this is an option available to a committee)
* under Standing Orders, Senators may direct questions to any government agency, but only within the portfolio areas for which the committee has oversight. The committee cannot restrict the agencies to which Senators may direct questions (although the committee can control whether this happens at the public hearing, or whether it must be done in writing afterwards).

The work of committees

A typical year in the life of a Senate standing committee will see it conduct eight days of hearings around budget estimates, in three sessions: February (additional estimates), May/June (the main budget estimates) and October/November (supplementary budget estimates). In addition, it will typically conduct several inquiries into policy issues and into some pieces of legislation being considered by the parliament. Each of these inquiries will usually result in a report tabled in the Senate (there may be exceptions if an election intervenes during the committee's deliberations). A [ consolidated list of the reports] prepared by all Senate committees since 1970 is published by the [ Department of the Senate] .

Committee inquiries typically begin with the reference of an issue or a proposed law to the committee for inquiry and report back to the Senate. [Department of the Senate, [ 'Senate Committees'] , "Senate Brief" No 4, September 2006, retrieved September 2007] The committee will make a call for submissions, seeking public input on the matter referred to the committee. It will often publish those submissions to help inform stakeholders of the views that are being put to the committee. [Ian Holland, 'Parliamentary committees as an arena for policy work', in Colebatch, H. (ed.), "Beyond the Policy Cycle: The Policy Process in Australia", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2006, pp 80-81] A committee will often hold one or more public hearings, at which committee members ask questions of key stakeholders interested in the issue under inquiry. These hearings may be held anywhere in Australia, are often broadcast, and result in a published transcript (Hansard) that records the evidence taken. The opportunity to make submissions, and the greater accessibility of the committees compared to parliament itself, can provide disadvantaged individuals and organisations valued opportunities to engage in democratic processes. [Kathleen Dermody, Ian Holland, and Elton Humphery, 'Parliamentary Committees and Neglected Voices in Society', "The Table", vol. 74, 2006] Committees also frequently ask relevant government agencies to respond to issues raised by submissions or evidence given to the inquiry. Once evidence has been gathered there usually follows a period of research and analysis by the committee. It will then deliver a report to the Senate, which will generally include recommendations. The Commonwealth government is then expected to table a response to the report, stating responses to any recommendations the committee may have made. [ [ Resolution of the Senate 14 March 1973] , retrieved September 2007]

The impact of the Senate's committees varies and has been the subject of debate. The work of the committees is frequently more consensual and less partisan than activity in the parliamentary chambers, and unanimous committee reports that agree recommendations across party lines are not uncommon. [Stanley Bach, "Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice", Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2003, pp 190-191] As a result, these recommendations may contribute to subsequent government policy announcements and occasionally to changes in government actions. The work of the regulations and ordinances committee has led to revisions of subordinate legislation in significant respects. [Rodney Smith, 'Parliament', in Judith Brett, James Gillespie and Murray Goot (eds), "Developments in Australian Politics", Macmillan, Melbourne, 1994, pp 126-129] Committee scrutiny of bills has contributed to them being amended [ABC News, [ Senate committee urges changes to proposed media laws] , 6 October 2006, retrieved September 2007] or withdrawn. [ABC News, [ 'Calls mount for Govt to drop migration bill'] , 14 June 2006, retrieved September 2007] The impact of committees on legislation overall has however been described as 'rather limited', [Graham Maddox, "Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice" (3rd edition), Longman, Melbourne, 1996, p. 233] particularly as the committees that review bills are controlled by a government majority.

The work of the committees can be affected by the party composition of the Senate. The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, has argued that a government majority of seats in the Senate has resulted in limitations on what the committees inquire into, and how readily governments respond to their queries and requests for information. [Evans, H. "The government majority in the Senate: A nail in the coffin of responsible government?", [ address to Victorian Chapter of the Australasian Study of Parliament Group] , 3 October 2006] Statistics published by centrist political party the Australian Democrats have been used to support the contention that committee operations have been inhibited by government control of the Senate, particularly in respect of selection of topics for committee inquiry. [Australian Democrats, [ "Senate Watch"] , retrieved September 2007.] However Senator Minchin, the leader of the government in the Senate, pointed out that their political rivals had previously cut off debate on more bills in the Senate than had the government. [Senator Nick Minchin, [ 'Senate majority used responsibly'] , media release, 26 June 2007, retrieved September 2007.]

Prominent Senate committee inquiries

One of the most high-profile Senate committee inquiries was the Senate Select Committee on a Certain Maritime Incident, which in 2002 investigated what became known as the Children Overboard Affair. The events and subsequent Senate committee inquiries were widely reported, [See for example David Marr and Marian Wilkinson, "Dark Victory", Allen & Unwin, 2003.] and the transcripts of the inquiry formed the basis of a play, "A Certain Maritime Incident". [Tanya Nolan, [ 'A Certain Maritime Incident: Pure Theatre'] , ABC Radio, "The World Today", 26 March 2004 ] Other high-profile inquiries included the Community Affairs committee's inquiry into [ Children in Institutional Care] , which brought to wide public notice the experiences of children who had been placed in care in sometimes inhumane circumstances and was directly responsible for state governments and churches making public apologies to the victims of abuse or neglect; [Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, [ "Response to Care Leavers"] , 25 October 2005, retrieved September 2007] [The Minister for Children, Sherryl Garbutt, [!OpenDocument 'Victoria to apologise to former children in state care'] , "Media Release" 27 July 2006, retrieved September 2007] the [ Select Committee on Mental Health] , which contributed to widespread discussion of mental health issues and to a major funding boost for services in 2006; [The Hon. Tony Abbott, [$File/abb042.pdf 'Commonwealth commitment to mental health services'] , Media release, 5 April 2006, retrieved September 2007.] and the 2006 inquiry into the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill, [Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, [ 'Provisions of the Migration Amendment (Designated Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill 2006 Report'] , June 2006, retrieved September 2007.] which contributed to a government decision not to proceed with controversial migration legislation.


Further reading

*Department of the Senate: Senate briefs number 4, "Senate committees", retrieved July 2007.
*Department of the Senate: "Register of Senate Committee Reports (1970-2007)",, retrieved July 2007.
*Department of the Senate: "Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees: The First 20 Years 1970ndash 1990",, retrieved July 2007.
*Dermody, K., Holland, I. and Humphery, E., (2006), 'Parliamentary Committees and Neglected Voices in Society', "The Table", vol. 74.
*Holland, I., (2006), 'Parliamentary committees as an arena for policy work', in Colebatch, H. (ed.), "Beyond the Policy Cycle: The Policy Process in Australia", Allen & Unwin, Sydney, pp 66-90.
*Vander Wyk, J. and Lilley, A., (2005), 'Reference of Bills to Australian Senate Committees', "Papers on Parliament", no. 43, Department of the Senate, Canberra.
*Vander Wyk, J., (2006), "The Senatendash Guide to Committee Procedure and Practice", Senate Committee Office, Canberra.

ee also

* Australian House of Representatives committees

External links

* [ Official website of the Australian Senate]

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