Committee System of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly

What are Committees?

Committees are delegates of the Houses of Parliament – the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly. Service on committees is a responsibility equal to service in the House.

Committees carry out a great deal of the detailed work of each of the Houses. Committees are one of the tools to assist the Houses of Parliament in their functions to legislate; monitor and review legislation; review administration and expenditure; gather information; and publicise issues.

The practice of delegating to committees of members is part of the established procedure of most representative parliamentary bodies.
Committees have been appointed for almost as long as the institution of Parliament itself has existed. In Western Australia, the modern Legislative Council committee system has been in operation since 1989. The Legislative Assembly committee system has evolved over recent years. Both Houses refined their committee systems during the Thirty-Sixth Parliament which commenced on 1 May 2001. The Legislative Council made further changes during the Thirty-Seventh Parliament which commenced on 29 March 2005. The Thirty-Eighth Parliament will commence on 6 November 2008.

Why do Committees Exist?

Reasons for the appointment of committees include:

The facilitation of the division of labour.

More than one committee can meet at a time.

More suitable forum than a House.

Committees can address, in an appropriate level of detail, matters that are the business of Parliament but are not suitable to be dealt with in the environment of a House. Committee proceedings are more intimate and less likely to be adversarial than proceedings in a House. Party politics are often less prominent in a committee than in a House. It can be useful for a committee to review a complex or contentious matter, and to assist parliamentary debate by clarifying issues and establishing common ground between members of different parties.

More practicable forum than a House.

Committees can perform functions which a House may not be well placed to perform. Committees may carry out investigations, hear evidence from witnesses, travel for inquiries, seek advice from experts, and deliberate on matters under inquiry before reporting their findings to the relevant House.

Avenue of public communication.

Committees are a good avenue of communication between Parliament and the Western Australian community. The committee forum gives different sectors of the community the opportunity to participate in law making and policy review by airing their views on a matter and having those views reported to Parliament.

Types of Committees

Over the passage of time different Parliaments have developed different types of committees that are appropriate to the functions they are appointed to perform. Committees may consist of a specialised quasi-judicial body with only a few members, or where there are matters of general interest the notion of the committee has been extended to include the whole membership of the House or Parliament. The Western Australian Parliament uses three general types of committees:

Committees of inquiry.

Committees of inquiry are appointed by the Houses to inquire into matters, the subject of business before the relevant House, or matters of public policy or government.

Domestic committees.

Domestic committees are committees established to consider matters of internal parliamentary administration.

Committee of the whole House.

The ‘Committee of the whole House’ is the House itself in a less formal guise. It is presided over by a ‘Chairman of Committees’ rather than the Presiding Officer and conducts its business according to more flexible rules of procedure. Only the Legislative Council operates by way of a ‘Committee of the whole’.

Committees of inquiry – two broad categories

In Western Australia the committee systems of the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly have developed two broad categories of committees of inquiry, namely standing and select.

Standing committees

Legislative Assembly standing committees are established, and members are appointed, at the beginning of each Parliament. The committees have continuity until the Legislative Assembly expires or is dissolved prior to the next State general election.

Legislative Council standing committees have been established by standing orders and their existence survives dissolution. Accordingly the standing committees continue from one Parliament to the next. Members are appointed to committees and their membership can also continue; however in practice, membership is usually nominated for the life of the Parliament only and there may be delays in reconstituting the membership of committees at the beginning of a new Parliament.

Standing Committees have a defined set of functions to perform (terms of reference) and may also initiate their own inquiries within their terms of reference.

Select committees

Select committees are established to carry out a specialised inquiry into a particular matter. They have a limited life, are defined by the terms of their appointment, and usually dissolve once their inquiry is completed or if Parliament is prorogued (whichever event first occurs).

Previous Legislative Council select committees inquired into DCD’s Foster Care Assessments, the Department of Education and Training, Privilege, WA Police and the Police Raid on the Sunday Times. Previous Legislative Assembly select committees have inquired into human reproductive technology and petroleum products pricing.

Joint committees

By agreement, the Houses in a bicameral parliamentary system may together appoint ‘joint’ standing or select committees. Joint committees differ from most other committees in that they consist of members from, and report to, both Houses of Parliament.

Committee Members and Staff

Members are appointed to serve on a committee by the relevant House. Standing Orders also enable other members to participate in standing committee inquiries or, with the leave of the committee in respect of a specific inquiry, participate in the deliberations of the committee (but not vote). In Legislative Council committees, members may also substitute for other committee members for the purposes of a specific inquiry.

All other changes to committee membership, such as a result of resignation, death or appointment to the Ministry, must be made by the House.

Each committee must have a chairman who is appointed by election at the first committee meeting. If a committee is unable to elect a chairman the committee must report the matter to the relevant House. The House then appoints a committee member to the position.

Current Legislative Council committees have between 3 and 5 members appointed from the Legislative Council. Legislative Assembly committees generally have 5 members appointed from the Legislative Assembly. Joint committees have members drawn from both Houses of Parliament - depending on the joint committee this will be 8 members (4 from each House) or 4 members (2 from each House).

Most Government backbench and non-Government members serve one or more committees. Committee work takes up a large part of the time and energy of members and is a major part of backbench members’ contribution to the workings of Parliament.

Ministers do not serve on committees with a Government review function, as to do so may conflict with their role in the executive government.
Each House has a pool of staff, appointed as researchers, advisers and clerks to the committees of that House.

Legislative Council Standing Committees

Committee systems often undergo review and refinements. The modern Legislative Council committee system has been in operation since 1989 (with some occasional refinements). During the Thirty-Seventh Parliament (which commenced in March 2005) the Legislative Council amended its standing orders to facilitate a revision and realignment of the committees and their terms of reference.

The Legislative Council committee system is a significant development in the strengthening of the State's parliamentary system. It allows the House to more efficiently perform one of its roles as a house of review and to keep the executive accountable for its actions.

The current Legislative Council committees are:

Legislative Council standing committees are essentially generic, ‘whole of Government’ committees with each having a broad, but distinct, focus in their potential subjects for inquiry. They are not restricted in their inquiries to specific Government portfolios, although each committee’s terms of reference defines a basic broad area of responsibility so as to avoid an overlap with another committee’s jurisdiction.

Legislative Assembly Standing Committees

The current structure of the Legislative Assembly committee system was established in 2001 at the commencement of the Thirty-Sixth Parliament. Prior to this, Assembly committee activities were undertaken primarily by select committees established by the House to inquire into specific matters. There was also a number of committees charged with oversight of specific agencies or areas, such as the Standing Committee on Uniform Legislation and Intergovernmental Agreements, the Public Accounts Committee, the Joint Standing Committee on the Anti-Corruption Commission and the Standing Orders and Procedure Committee (which was established in 1997 as a sessional committee that focussed on the procedures and privileges of the Assembly).

The number, diversity and scope of select committees established during the 1990s gave rise to consideration of the development of a number of permanent committees. This, in turn, led to the creation of a series of portfolio-based standing committees which largely reflect the various ministerial areas of responsibilities.

The Legislative Assembly committee system is currently comprised of seven standing committees, including the two joint standing committees administered by the Assembly (see below), the Procedure and Privileges Committee (which took over from the Standing Orders and Procedure Committee and became a standing committee in 2007), the Public Accounts Committee (with the power to examine any matter of public expenditure) and three portfolio-based committees, which are:

Joint Committees

Joint Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation (administered by the Council)

The Delegated Legislation Committee was established in November 1997 with 8 members, 4 from each House of Parliament. Members will be appointed by the Houses of Parliament for the Thirty-Eighth Parliament. Its function is to consider and report to the Houses on any regulation made under a parent Act which:

  • appears to be not within the power allowed by the Act;
  • unduly impinges upon established rights, freedoms or liberties;
  • contains matters which should be properly dealt with by the Parliament through legislation; or
  • unduly determines rights through administrative rather than judicial decisions.

Joint Standing Committee on the Corruption and Crime Commission (administered by the Assembly)

This committee has two members from each House of Parliament, with members to be appointed by each House for the Thirty-Eighth Parliament.

The Corruption and Crime Commission Act 2003 both establishes and confers special investigative powers on the Corruption and Crime Commission. In doing so, the Act provides for a number of essential accountability mechanisms to scrutinise the use of these powers. This includes a Joint Standing Committee principally tasked with monitoring and reporting to Parliament on the exercise of the functions of the Commission and the Parliamentary Inspector of the Commission and for promoting integrity within the public sector. The Parliamentary Inspector is tasked with ensuring "that the [Corruption and Crime Commission's] operations and exercise of powers conform to, and are conducted in accordance with, basic principles underlying law". The Inspector is responsible under Section 188 (4) of the Act with assisting the Committee in the performance of its functions.

Hence there exists an accountability framework in Western Australia which ensures that the Commission is responsible to a Committee, the Committee to Parliament and the Parliament to the people of Western Australia.

Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People (administered by the Assembly)

The Commissioner for Children and Young People Act 2006 created the position of Commissioner for Children and Young People. The role of the Commissioner is to advocate for children and young people in Western Australia and investigate, advise and report independently to Parliament about issues that concern children and young people. Also pursuant to this Act, and in accordance with section 51, the JSCCCYP was established in June 2008 by resolution in both Houses. The Act provides that the JSCCCYP will be comprised of an equal number of members from each House and that the functions and powers of the standing committee will be determined by agreement between the Houses. During the Thirty-Seventh Parliament the JSCCCYP was administered by the Assembly. Members will be appointed by the Houses of Parliament for the Thirty-Eighth Parliament.

The JSCCCYP’s function is one of oversight, which involves monitoring, reviewing and reporting to Parliament on the exercise of the functions of the Commissioner for Children and Young People. Oversight by the JSCCCYP will help to ensure that the independence of the Commissioner is maintained and that there is sufficient focus on the important work performed by this Office.

Powers of Committees and Witness Entitlements

General powers

Committees have considerable powers, at law and delegated by the House that appoints them.

The key power is the power to summon any person within the State's jurisdiction to appear before a committee and/or to produce documents. A person who fails to obey such a summons, or who misleads a committee, may be in contempt of Parliament and subject to reprimand, fine or even imprisonment. It is also a contempt to attempt to influence a witness, to prevent a witness from giving evidence, or to persecute a witness for having done so.

Committees also have power to commission reports; sit during an adjournment of the House (but not after the Parliament has been prorogued); travel to gather evidence; and appoint subcommittees. These are simple, but very broad, powers and there are few restrictions on the investigative powers of committees.

Parliamentary privilege

The proceedings of committees are recognised as ‘proceedings in Parliament’ and they have the same privileges and immunities as Parliament itself. Parliamentary privilege provides protection for what is said in parliamentary proceedings and means that what is said by a witness to a committee cannot be used against that witness in subsequent court proceedings or tribunals. The purpose of parliamentary privilege is to enable parliamentarians and witnesses to speak candidly without fear of legal repercussions. Written evidence received by a committee is similarly protected.

Witness entitlements

Witnesses appearing before a committee:

  • answer relevant questions from committee members;
  • are given access to relevant documents;
  • may be accompanied by counsel, but this is highly unusual and counsel are not permitted to answer questions on behalf of a witness;
  • are entitled to respond to allegations made against them;
  • may provide, or be required to provide, supplementary evidence;
  • are able to raise objections to answering questions irrelevant to the inquiry; and
  • may apply to the committee to have their evidence heard in private (most evidence is heard in open/public session).

Members and Ministers as witnesses

Members may voluntarily appear before committees of the House of which they are a member but an order of the relevant House is required to compel attendance. Members normally accept invitations to provide evidence.

When an Assembly member is required to be examined by either the Council or a committee of the Council a Message is sent from the Council to the Assembly in order for the Assembly to give leave for the member to be examined. The same procedure applies when the Assembly or Assembly committees require the attendance of a Council member.

Ministerial and departmental staff as witnesses

Public servants are required to administer the State in accordance with the law and government policy. It is the Minister who answers to Parliament for both policy and administration, by way of ministerial accountability.

Public servants appear before committees as servants of the government of the day, but once required to appear before a committee, are obliged to appear and answer relevant questions. Failure to do so may constitute a contempt, notwithstanding any ministerial direction to the public servant. A public servant may also appear on issues in relation to which the Minister has no right of direction such as when they appear in a personal capacity or in relation to the exercise of an independent statutory responsibility which has been vested in them.

The role of public servants is to explain existing government policy, the administrative arrangements and procedures involved in implementing them, and to provide factual information. It is the Minister’s responsibility to justify, advocate, defend or canvass the merits of a policy and any alternative proposals. The Legislative Council’s own rules distinguish between policy and administration.

Given this protective framework it is reasonable for parliamentary committees to expect that public servants will be co-operative, provide information requested by a committee promptly, and act in good faith in their dealings with committees. In factual situations where the dividing line between policy and administration is unclear, a committee will usually permit a public servant to seek advice and instructions from more senior officials or the Minister.

There are government guidelines for the appearance of public servants before parliamentary committees. The Legislative Council has published its own guidelines.

How Committees May Conduct Inquiries

Inquiry process at a glance

Committees do most of their work through a process of investigation. The work may have a non-legislative or legislative focus. The inquiry process may vary from inquiry to inquiry as circumstances demand but usually consists of the following steps:

  • A reference is either received by the committee from the House, or is initiated by the committee, where the committee has the power to do so.
  • Background briefings and seminars (where appropriate) are prepared and provided by staff and relevant government departments to the committee.
  • Terms of reference are established for the inquiry if not already adopted.
  • Advertisements seeking submissions are placed in relevant major newspapers.
  • Submissions are received and analysed.
  • The committee conducts hearings with selected individuals and organisations requested to give evidence. Hearings are usually open to the public.
  • The committee considers evidence and prepares draft report.
  • The committee deliberates on and adopts draft report.
  • The report is tabled in Parliament. Copies of the report are sent to witnesses and persons who made submissions, and published on the Internet along with transcripts of all public evidence.
  • The Government considers the report.
  • The Government responds to report.
  • Legislative Council committee reports may be debated in the Legislative Council.


Inquiry process in more detail

Approach adopted

Whether undertaking an inquiry on its own initiative or following a referral from the relevant House, a committee is largely free to decide how to go about a particular inquiry, within the scope of the inquiry's (and the committee's) terms of reference. However a common approach is usually adopted for the overall conduct of committee inquiries.

As discussed, a committee is charged with the task of investigating and reporting to the relevant House on matters referred to it. This involves seeking information, assessing its significance, and then reporting findings and recommendations to the House.

Committees:

  • will seek information and comment from Government departments and agencies relevant to the inquiry, as well as appropriate experts;
  • may cast a wider net, seeking submissions from individuals and groups likely to be interested in or affected by the issues under inquiry. Where an inquiry is on a large scale a committee may advertise for submissions from the general public;
  • will utilise information technology and consider what is published on the Internet (note that in itself information from the Internet may be skewed);
  • in the case of bills, will scrutinise legislation or proposed bills interstate and sometimes internationally; and
  • will scrutinise relevant domestic and interstate parliamentary debates and reports.

Information may be sought by way of written submission and/or a hearing:

  • As a general principle, evidence would be invited in the first instance in the form of a written submission to the committee. Upon examination of such submissions, decisions would be made whether witnesses were to be called to appear before the committee. Normally an advertisement would be placed calling for submissions, although specific parties may be approached by the committee to provide a submission.
  • Standing committee hearings and Legislative Assembly select committee hearings (where committees hear oral submissions from witnesses) are generally open to the public and the media unless the committee orders that the proceedings be closed to the public and media. The opposite is true for Legislative Council select committee hearings, which are closed unless the committee determines otherwise.

Preparation of report

  • Once the committee has collected information it regards as necessary, it will discuss the issues raised by the terms of reference of the inquiry, usually basing its deliberations on a draft report prepared by committee staff.
  • The committee will consider the arguments, evidence and data it has gathered, and agree findings and recommendations in a report. If one or more committee members do not agree with the majority's findings they can submit a minority report detailing the points of difference.

Tabling the report in the House

  • The report is tabled in the House to which the committee reports. The reports of the joint standing committees are tabled in both Houses. A committee's formal involvement in an issue effectively ends with the tabling of its report. As part of the tabling process in the Legislative Assembly, only members of the committee may speak to the report unless a non-committee member has been given leave by the House to do so. In the Legislative Council once a committee report is tabled it is set down for discussion in the House at a later date. This provides an opportunity for all members of the House to debate the findings and recommendations.
  • Reports on bills are discussed when the relevant debate on the bill or bills resumes. In the Legislative Council, where amendments to a bill have been recommended by a committee and no other amendments have been published at the time at which the order of the day for the committal of the bill is called, the Minister or members in charge of the bill may move that those amendments be agreed to. If this motion is agreed to, the House may bypass the Committee of the whole House stage and proceed immediately to the third reading. If the motion is not agreed to, the bill is committed according to the order of the day.
  • Committee reports are public documents and are widely distributed. A copy of a report is sent to everyone who made a submission, appeared as a witness, or requests a copy from the relevant Committee or Assembly/Council Procedure Office. Committee reports are also available on this website, at the State Law Publisher, State Library, and some university libraries.

Government response

With the exception of reports on bills, the Government (in the case of a report to the Council) or the Minister (in the case of a report to the Assembly) has a fixed time within which to reply to reports tabled in the Houses:

  • 4 months from the date of a report being tabled in the Legislative Council; and
  • 3 months from the date of a report being tabled in the Legislative Assembly.

The Government can accept, reject, modify or adapt the committee’s recommendations.


Further Information

If you want assistance or further information about a committee, its terms of reference or its inquiries, contact:

Legislative Council

Legislative Council Committee Office
18-32 Parliament Place
WEST PERTH WA 6005
Phone: (08) 9222 7300
Facsimile: (08) 9222 7805
E-mail: lcco@parliament.wa.gov.au

Legislative Assembly

Legislative Assembly Committee Office
Level 1, 11 Harvest Terrace
PERTH WA 6000
Phone: (08) 9222 7494
Facsimile: (08) 9222 7804
E-mail: laco@parliament.wa.gov.au