In February 1994, following a report from the Standing Committee on Procedure, the House of Representatives made some significant changes to its procedures. The central feature of the new arrangements was the creation of the Main Committee.
The Main Committee is essentially a debating committee. The description 'second chamber' which has sometimes been used, exaggerates the function and importance of the Main Committee, but is indicative of its role. The Main Committee is an extension of the Chamber of the House, operating in parallel to allow two streams of business to be debated concurrently.
The Main Committee meets in the largest of the House of Representatives committee rooms. This room has been dedicated to its new role and converted to a small-scale chamber setting. All Members of the House are members of the Main Committee and eligible to participate in its meetings. The Chair of the Committee is the Deputy Speaker, who is assisted in the chair by the Second Deputy Speaker and members of the Speaker's panel.
The Chief Government Whip, has primary responsibility—following consultation with Ministers, opposition whips and independent Members—for determining the agenda of the Main Committee and organising the referral of business to it from the Chamber.
Meetings of the Main Committee are open to the public and are covered by a dedicated channel of the television monitoring system. Its debates are recorded in Hansard and the minutes of its proceedings are included in the Votes and Proceedings of the House.
The Main Committee can take a limited range of business—specifically, the second reading and consideration in detail stages of bills (its major role), the debate of committee and delegation reports, and the debate of papers presented to the House. Such business can be referred to the Main Committee or taken in the House, Main Committee time being an alternative to Chamber time. The Main Committee can debate and resolve motions and process bills through the relevant stages, including making amendments to them, just as the House can. However, as the Main Committee is a subordinate body, any decision it makes on business referred to it must be later confirmed by a decision of the House.
The Main Committee generally meets on sitting Wednesdays and Thursdays during the period from 10 am to 1 pm. These hours may be extended if the amount of business necessitates. Although the standing orders permit the Main Committee to meet at any time during a sitting of the House, in practice it does not meet during question time, during the discussion of a matter of public importance or at other times when all or most Members' presence might be expected in the Chamber.
The adjournment of the House causes the immediate adjournment of proceedings in the Main Committee, if the Main Committee is meeting at the time.
The intention behind the establishment of the Main Committee is to give Members extra opportunities to speak on bills or reports of a relatively non-controversial nature and at the same time free the Chamber for debate on other matters. This allows the time of the House to be used more effectively, and in a sense, significantly increased.
Procedures in the Main Committee are substantially the same as those operating in the Chamber for the same type of business, with the exception of those relating to the subordinate nature of the Main Committee—e.g. the need to report back to the House.
There is however the very important difference that there is no provision for division in the Main Committee—if business cannot be progressed 'on the voices' it is reported back to the House as 'unresolved'. This factor perhaps best highlights the guiding principle behind the operation of the Main Committee—co-operation. Only business on which it is hoped that agreement can be reached is referred to the Main Committee. Disagreements occurring in the Main Committee are referred back to the House for settlement; disorder in the Main Committee closes it down. The Main Committee is intended for uncontroversial, unopposed business which is only referred following agreement between government and non-government Members.
Other details of the operation of the Main Committee include:
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure.About time: Bills, questions and working hours. Report of the inquiry into reform of the House of Representatives, AGPS, Canberra, 1993. (Parliamentary Paper 194 of 1993) pp 6–15.
House of Representatives Standing Committee on Procedure.Time for review: Bills, questions and working hours. Report of the review of procedural changes operating since 21 February 1994, AGPS, Canberra, 1995. (Parliamentary Paper 108 of 1995) pp 12–18.