This Factsheet concentrates on House of Representatives committees and joint committees on which Members of the House serve. The Senate also has an extensive committee system to which much of the following comment is relevant.
A parliamentary committee consists of a group of Members or Senators (or both in the case of joint committees) appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament.
The purpose of parliamentary committees is to perform functions which the Houses themselves are not well fitted to perform, such as carrying out investigations, hearing witnesses, sifting evidence, discussing matters in detail and formulating reasoned conclusions. This kind of work is more effectively carried out by small groups of Members. A further advantage of committees is that several of them can operate at the one time, which enables many more matters to be dealt with. Committees, by concentrating on specific tasks or subjects, also offer the benefits of specialisation.
Through its committees the Parliament obtains information from the Government and is able to receive advice from experts on the matters under investigation.
Public input is also important. Committee inquiries bring Parliament to the people by promoting public awareness and debate on matters being considered by the Parliament. Through its committees Parliament is able to be better informed of community problems and attitudes. Committees provide a public forum for the presentation of the various views of individual citizens and interest groups.
As well as serving to inform Members on various issues, committees can contribute to better administration and policy making through their reports and recommendations. Even if a committee's recommendations are not implemented directly, the information collected by the committee and its reasoned conclusions are not necessarily ignored by the Government, and may also have a wider value to the community.
An important function of committees is to scrutinise government activity. 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 be categorised in several ways and a particular committee may fall into more than one category.
Standing committees are committees created for the life of a Parliament and they are usually re-established in successive Parliaments. They have a continuing role.
Select committees are created as the need arises, for a specific purpose, and thus have a more limited life which is normally specified in the resolution of appointment. Once a select committee has carried out its investigation and presented its final report, it ceases to exist.
Joint committees draw their membership from, and report to, both Houses of Parliament, enabling Members and Senators to work together on the same matter.
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 committees are those with investigatory powers. Generally speaking the term is used to describe all committees other than the Main Committee and domestic or internal committees (although some internal committees, such as the Privileges Committee, may also have an investigative function).
General purpose standing committees are investigatory or scrutiny committees, established at the commencement of each Parliament to inquire into and report upon any matters referred to them by the House or a Minister, including any pre-legislation proposal, bill, motion, petition, vote or expenditure, other financial matter, report or paper. Between them the nine general purpose standing committees of the House cover most government activity, with each committee covering a particular spread of subjects and thus a number of related government departments and authorities (because of the role of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade there is no general purpose standing committee covering these subject areas). Annual reports of government departments and authorities are automatically referred to the appropriate committee for any inquiry the committee may wish to make.
The Main Committee is a committee established to be an alternative venue to the Chamber for debate of a restricted range of business (i.e. the second reading and consideration in detail stages of bills, committee and delegation reports, and papers presented to the House). It is not an investigatory committee and cannot hear witnesses or take evidence. More detail may be found in Factsheet No. 16 — The Main Committee and Factsheet No. 7 — Making laws.
Most Members of Parliament, except some of the principal office holders and Ministers, serve on committees—even the Speaker is a member of certain committees. All Members are members of the Main Committee (although only some of them would be participating in its proceedings at any one time). Other committees vary in size and may have as few as seven and as many as 32 members. They are normally composed of Members from the various parties or independent Members in proportion to the numerical strength of each group in the House. Thus government members form a majority on each committee. In practice each committee is chaired by a government member and has 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. Independent Members may be nominated by the opposition whip or, in some cases, may nominate themselves to the Speaker. Committee work is an important part of the duties of a Member of Parliament and generally makes considerable demands on a Member's time.
The secretaries of each committee of the House and some joint committees are officers of the Department of the House of Representatives, which is responsible for providing support staff and other facilities. Other joint committees are serviced by the Department of the Senate.
Committees have considerable powers, usually delegated to them by the House(s) appointing them. Laws establishing some committees also have particular provisions on these matters. To enable them to carry out their functions effectively, investigatory committees are normally given power to summon persons 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, but may also be prosecuted under the provisions of the Parliamentary Privileges Act.
Committee proceedings are '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.
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.
An investigatory committee usually starts an inquiry by advertising its terms of reference in the press and inviting submissions. Persons or organisations known to be interested in the subject or thought to have specialist knowledge may be approached direct to make submissions. An analysis of existing material on the subject matter of the inquiry is made by the committee secretariat and information is usually sought from the relevant government departments or agencies. Having considered the written submissions received, committees proceed to formal hearings to which witnesses are invited to appear and answer questions. Public hearings are often held away from Canberra in State capitals and regional centres. Committees may also conduct inspections at places of relevance to the inquiry.
After examining all the evidence, a report is prepared setting out the committee's 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.
Depending on the scope of the subject matter, inquiries may take only a few days, or may last many months when wide community input is required.
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, of the organisation the person represents. Submissions should be typed, if possible.
As committees are restricted by their terms of reference in what they may consider, submissions should be strictly relevant to the terms of reference. However 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.
All submissions are acknowledged. Once a submission has been formally received by a committee, it becomes the property of the committee and may not be published or disclosed elsewhere without the committee's authorisation. Any uncertainties in this area should be clarified with the committee secretary.
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. Proceedings commence with the first witness or witnesses being called to the committee table. Witnesses may be required to make an oath or affirmation that they will tell the truth. The witness then sits at the table and is asked to identify himself or herself and to state the capacity in which he or she is appearing before the committee—for example, as a representative of a particular organisation or as a private individual. 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 desire 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, in turn, to ask any other questions they might have. A witness or member of the committee may object to a question but the committee can insist on it being answered. Only members of the committee may question a witness.
A transcript of evidence taken at public hearings is prepared by Hansard and is normally published.
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. 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.
On occasions committees may decide that a less formal form of proceedings will be more appropriate to their purposes, and may hold informal discussions, public meetings (as opposed to hearings), seminars or workshops. Such means may be used to conduct preliminary 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.
Informal proceedings can be very valuable to a committee in giving direction to an inquiry but they do not attract parliamentary privilege and the information so gathered does not have the status of formal evidence.
Although a committee report may be presented at any time when other business is not before the House, a period is reserved on sitting Mondays specifically for presentation of, and debate on, committee reports. Committee reports may also be referred by the House to be debated in the Main Committee.
Special provisions apply in relation to reports of the Main Committee when it reports back to the House on its consideration of bills referred to it (see Factsheet No. 7 — Making laws.).
Except in the cases of the Main Committee and committees concerned with the work of the House in a domestic sense, 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 prepared response to the House. In recent years it has been government policy to respond to a report within three months of its presentation to the Parliament. 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.
A list showing the membership of each committee and giving information on their current inquiries is published towards the end of each issue of the House of Representatives Notice Paper.
House of Representatives Practice, 2nd edn. A.G.P.S., Canberra, 1989. pp 583–681.