The Legislative Assembly’s committees play an important role in our democracy. They provide a valuable opportunity for the community to have their say on issues of interest or concern.
Assembly committees enable members to review complex matters in a level of detail that is not possible for the Assembly to deal with during sittings in the chamber. In any given year, there are hundreds of committee meetings and hearings.
Typically made up of non-executive members, the Assembly’s committees perform a number of functions, including:
- examining policy options and making recommendations to the government about the direction that particular policy area might take;
- providing input to the legislative process by examining bills and subordinate legislation; and
- scrutinising the activities of government, particularly through the budget estimates and annual reports inquiries.
Types of committees
There are two types of committees—standing committees and select committees.
Standing committees are formed at the beginning of an Assembly’s term. They exist until the next election and generally have the same members throughout their term. Each committee is responsible for examining and inquiring into particular matters related to the governance of the Territory, such as health, education, justice or planning issues.
Select committees are formed to examine a specific issue or set of issues that do not fall within the scope of the standing committees. A select committee is disbanded once it has completed its inquiry and provided its report. For example, a new select committee on estimates is established each year to consider the ACT budget.
How committees are formed
The Assembly makes appointments to each committee based on a nomination process. The standing orders require that overall committee membership must reflect all elected parties and groups in the Assembly ‘as nearly as practicable proportional to their representation in the Assembly’. In practice, this means that the committee system—in its entirety—should be composed of members from the various parties and groups so that they approximate the make-up of the Assembly itself.
Committees of the Assembly usually have four members.
Each committee elects a presiding member called the chair. The chair has a leadership role in the committee and speaks on behalf of the committee in the Assembly and, with the approval of the committee, in public. The chair of the committee is also responsible for upholding the relevant Assembly standing orders during committee proceedings. A deputy chair is also elected and is able to perform the role of chair where the chair is not available.
The committee is supported by an officer of the Assembly called a committee secretary. Secretaries are non-partisan officials who provide independent advice and support to the committee. Committee secretaries make arrangements for committee meetings and public hearings, undertake research as part of committee inquires and prepare draft reports.
The secretary is the first point of contact for information about committees from other members of the Assembly and the public.
How committees are governed
Just as proceedings in the Assembly chamber are governed by the standing orders, so too are committee proceedings. The rules for the authority and powers of committees and the agreed procedures, are set out in Chapter 20.
Committee proceedings are recognised as proceedings of parliament and they are given the same protections. Witnesses giving evidence to an Assembly committee are protected by parliamentary privilege.
Committees are also empowered by the standing orders to ‘send for persons, papers and records’. This power can play an important part in enabling the committee to hold the government to account for its decisions and its implementation of policy.
Committee inquiry process
How are inquiries formed?
The Legislative Assembly can ask a committee to look into an issue, or a committee can itself nominate to undertake an inquiry.
As part of an inquiry, committees will generally conduct research and analysis of:
- government policy;
- information provided through agency briefings;
- information from specialists in particular fields;
- information from site inspections; or
- information from community forums.
Terms of inquiry
Terms of reference are developed which set out the scope of an inquiry.
Terms of reference help the committee to stay focused on the issues that it is investigating. They also assist groups and individuals that wish to make a submission, or to appear before a committee at a public hearing, as part of the inquiry process.
Giving evidence to a committee inquiry
Submissions to committee inquiries can be made by individuals, community organisations, peak bodies, special interest groups, representatives from government directorates, and academics and other subject matter experts.
Evidence may be given to a committee as a written submission, or, where a group or individual is invited by a committee, at a public hearing. All evidence from public hearings is recorded and transcribed by Hansard.
Submissions and Hansard transcripts are generally made available to the public on the Assembly website. There are, however, special circumstances where a committee may accept a confidential submission, which is not published.
Once submissions have been received a committee may hold one or more public hearings to gather further evidence. The Committee makes the final decision on who will appear at the public hearing based on the submissions and other factors. Not everyone who made a submission will be invited to appear in person. People who appear before a committee are called witnesses.
The committee report
A draft report, or ‘chair’s draft’, which includes findings and recommendations, is prepared by the committee secretary in consultation with the chair. Once the chair has approved the draft report, it is circulated to other members, who may also suggest amendments.
If all the members do not agree to adopt the draft as the report of the committee, a dissenting report or comments can be included in the document.
Committees table their final reports in the Assembly. The Assembly and the government will consider the findings and recommendations contained in a report, however, a committee has no power to enforce its recommendations.
The government responds
The government has four months to respond to the report. The government response is also tabled in the Assembly