Information Sheet 6 - Committees
What are Committees?
Parliamentary Committees consist of small groups of Members of Parliament who are appointed to conduct investigations into specific areas considered worthy of detailed investigation. Committees are assigned tasks which are more productively addressed away from the Chamber, such as hearing witnesses, taking evidence, undertaking onsite inspections and composing detailed reports. In delegating work to committees the Houses set out the terms of reference, giving each committee clear guidelines as to the scope of its inquiry and deadlines for fulfilling tasks. Committees are seen as extensions of the House; therefore, the privileges attached to the Parliament continue to apply. This means that Members and others, such as witnesses, who are involved in a committee inquiry, are protected from being sued or prosecuted. Any written submissions received during the course of an inquiry are also protected by parliamentary privilege.
Given the many demands on Parliament’s time, the existence of committees allows for more thorough investigation of matters before the House. Committee work represents a significant part of Members’ workloads. The work of these committees strengthens the parliamentary process as they undertake important functions which cannot be performed in the debating Chambers. Government accountability is also enhanced, as government and public service activities are subject to committee examination.
The committee system is used in many parliamentary democracies as a means of achieving greater public input into issues being considered by the Parliament. Inquiries usually encompass calls for submissions; thus, opportunities are created for the wider community, including experts, individuals, business and government organisations, to express their views.
The Parliament of Victoria has an extensive system of committees consisting of:
- Joint Investigatory Committees — appointed for the life of the Parliament and constituted from members of both Houses;
- Legislative Council Standing Committees — appointed for the life of the Parliament to examine a specific area or areas of government administration and composed solely of Members from the Legislative Council;
- Select Committees — temporary committees appointed to undertake particular investigations;
- Domestic Committees — appointed at the commencement of each Session to deal with matters concerning the operations of the Parliament.
What types of Committees are there?
Joint Investigatory Committees
In the 58th Parliament of Victoria there were nin Joint Investigatory Committees. These committees comprise Members of both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. Their roles, functions and terms of appointment are determined by the Parliamentary Committees Act 2003. Pursuant to this Act, the Joint Investigatory Committees are appointed at the commencement of each new Parliament. Through a resolution of either House of Parliament or an Order of the Governor in Council, each committee is given terms of reference which set out what the committee is to investigate and deadlines for reporting these investigations. A committee may also initiate its own investigations, although these are limited to inquiring into any annual report or other document relevant to its terms of reference.
These committees comprise Members from political parties represented in the Victorian Parliament. Each Joint Investigatory Committee must consist of not less than five Members and no more than ten Members, with a minimum of one Member coming from each House. Administrative responsibility for the committees is divided between the two Houses. The Legislative Council currently oversees six Joint Investigatory Committees.
Legislative Council Standing Committees
Legislative Council Standing Committees are appointed for the life of the Parliament and are comprised of solely Council Members. Unlike Select Committees which have narrow terms of reference and cease to exist once they have completed an inquiry, Standing Committees have broader terms of reference and can undertake numerous inquiries on various topics, often at the same time.
In the 58th Parliament, the Legislative Council had three pairs of Standing Committees covering the subject areas of:
• Economy and Infrastructure;
• Environment and Planning; and
• Legal and Social Issues.
Their composition and functions are set out in the Standing Orders of the Legislative Council, and are loosely based on the Australian Senate Committee system. The References Committees undertake inquiries into matters referred to them by the Legislative Council. They can seek submissions, hold public hearings, and ultimately table a report in the House. The Legislation Committees can examine Bills referred to them by the House, or can self-reference their own investigations into annual reports, estimates of expenditure or other documents tabled in the House, provided these are relevant to their functions.
Select Committees are appointed from time to time, by resolution of the Legislative Council, to conduct detailed investigations into very specific issues. Thus, their terms of reference are usually narrower than those of a Joint Investigatory Committee and a Select Committee normally ceases to exist once its final report is tabled in Parliament.
The operation of Select Committees is governed by the Standing Orders of the Houses. The usual composition of a Select Committee is five to ten Members. Three Select Committees were appointed during the 54th Parliament, none were appointed in the 55th Parliament, and three Select Committees were appointed in the 56th Parliament. No Select Committees were appointed in the 57th Parliament. In the 58th Parliament, there were two Select Committees established.
Members of both Houses also serve on certain committees which are concerned with the maintenance and operation of Parliament. These are commonly known as ‘Domestic Committees’ and are generally re-appointed each Parliamentary Session. The Domestic Committees are:
- House Committee - a joint committee established by the Parliamentary Committees Act 2003, comprising the President, the Speaker, five Members from the Legislative Council and six Members from the Legislative Assembly which oversees the management of the refreshment rooms, gardens and building maintenance. The Speaker normally chairs this committee;
- Privileges Committee - the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly each have a Privileges Committee which inquires into and reports upon complaints of breach of parliamentary privilege referred to it by their respective Houses; and
- Procedure Committee - the Procedure Committee reviews proposals for changes to the Standing Orders of the Legislative Council. In the Legislative Assembly it is called the Standing Orders Committee.
What do Committees do?
The Parliamentary Committees Act 2003 and the Standing Orders empower committees to call for persons, papers and records and to take evidence on oath if a committee so requires. Thus, in conducting inquiries, committees can seek submissions, call for evidence, obtain the views of experts, conduct research, undertake inspections and hear the public’s views. Public participation is a fundamental characteristic in the operations of the committees.
Each committee’s terms of reference are advertised in the media before its inquiry commences and submissions from individuals and organisations are invited, promoting public participation in the process. It is usual for a wide cross-section of views to be sought and committees also invite people and organisations with relevant specialist knowledge to contribute. Discussion papers are sometimes published identifying key issues in order to assist those wishing to make a submission. Research into the area is conducted and the committee may also hold public hearings that allow them to seek additional information. Unless there are special circumstances, committees take evidence in public and hearings are frequently attended by the media, ensuring that the process is transparent. Upon completion of an inquiry, a report of findings and recommendations is tabled in Parliament. These reports are an important resource in the formation of government policy.
How are Committees formed?
Each political party selects its own Members for appointment to each committee. These Members are then formally appointed by the Houses. Independent Members are also appointed to committees from time to time. Committees therefore bring together Members of different political persuasions to work collectively in examining important matters in an impartial, apolitical manner.
The History of Committees
For most of the nineteenth century, the use of a committee system in the Victorian Parliament was restricted to the creation of Select Committees, Royal Commissions and Boards of Inquiry. These bodies were appointed at the start of each session of Parliament to investigate or examine particular issues, both external or internal to parliamentary affairs, with subject matter ranging from the condition of Victoria’s penal establishments to Aborigines and land settlement.1 The establishment of the Public Accounts Committee in 1895 signalled the start of retaining certain committees past the life of each parliamentary session. In 1916, an ongoing Statute Law Revision Committee was formed, and a Subordinate Legislation Committee was established in the 1950s. House Standing Committees overseeing areas such as the parliamentary buildings and the library were, by this time, also in place.
In 1982, the in-coming Government established five new Joint Investigatory Committees to replace the existing committees. Committee activities expanded substantially in 1992 when nine Joint Investigatory Committees were established to replace the previous five. The structure of the committee system was again altered following the 1999 Victorian State election with negotiations between the new Government and Opposition resulting in a reduction to seven Joint Investigatory Committees and one Select Committee, and the number increased to 11 after the 2003 election. Each was issued with new terms of reference. In the 56th Parliament the number of Committees rose to 12 Joint Investigatory Committees. In the 57th Parliament all 12 Joint Investigatory Committees were reappointed, along with three pairs of Legislative Council Standing Committees. In the 58th Parliament, these 12 Joint Investigatory Committees were combined into nine.
Why do we need Committees?
The work of committees contributes greatly to the functions of government; better administration and policy making results from the detailed investigations the committee system generates. Not only do committees enable Members of Parliament to be better informed on issues, thus improving their contribution to policy and legislative review, but committees also provide a forum for input from both individuals and community interest groups. Committees also generate an exchange of views across party lines. Furthermore, committees can be important sources of information themselves through facilitating public awareness of Parliament’s activities.
For further information regarding committees, see the Committees section of the Parliament website.
Prepared by: Table Office
Department of the Legislative Council
Parliament of Victoria
Reissued July 2011
- Last Updated: Tuesday, 04 December 2018 09:19