A parliamentary committee comprises a group of members appointed by the house in which they sit (or both houses in the case of a joint committee) to undertake detailed work on its behalf and report back to the house(s) on the completion of its investigations.
The committees are bipartisan, which means members are drawn from different political parties (or Independents). A committee's membership is usually between four and five members, including an elected chairperson, although some joint committees are larger in composition.
Committees may assist the houses in their functions of legislating; monitoring and reviewing legislation; reviewing government administration and expenditure; and publicising issues.
Committees are able to 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 house(s). A benefit of the committee system is that they can conduct a detailed inquiry into matters in an environment that is often less adversarial than the houses.
Committees are an invaluable communication forum between Parliament and the Western Australian community, affording members of the public and organisations the opportunity to participate in lawmaking and policy review and to have their views reported to the Parliament.
There are three types of committees: standing committees, joint committees and select committees.
In the Legislative Council, the committees survive dissolution and membership continues, although in practice members are generally appointed for the term of the Parliament, with membership reconstituted by the house following the swearing-in of members in May following an election. In the Legislative Assembly, standing committees are appointed at the commencement of each Parliament and cease on dissolution of the Legislative Assembly.
Joint committees consist of members from, and report to, both houses of Parliament, although they are hosted under the standing orders of either one or the other house.
Committees are established pursuant to the standing orders of the house that constitutes them. The standing orders include the committee’s terms of reference as opposed to an inquiry’s terms of reference.
Select committees are appointed to conduct an inquiry into a particular issue. They are defined by their terms of appointment and usually dissolve once they report to the house(s).
Committees undertake most of their work through a process of investigation. Input from government departments, other organisations and members of the public is integral to a committee’s findings and recommendations. While a committee is largely free to decide how to go about an inquiry, the following is a brief summary of the steps an inquiry generally takes:
- a reference is either received by the committee from the house, or is initiated by the committee (where it is empowered to do so);
- background briefings and seminars (where appropriate) are prepared by committee staff and government departments to inform the committee;
- terms of reference are established (if not already adopted);
- advertisements are placed in relevant media calling for submissions;
- submissions are received and analysed;
- the committee selects individuals and organisations to give evidence, with hearings generally being public;
- the committee undertakes briefings and hearings outside the jurisdiction and conducts relevant site visits;
- the committee considers evidence, prepares a draft report, and then deliberates on, and adopts, the report;
- the report is tabled in Parliament and published along with transcripts of public evidence and submissions;
- in the Legislative Assembly, the members of the committee speak to the report on tabling, and in the Legislative Council, the report may be debated at a later stage;
- those providing submissions to the inquiry and witnesses are advised of the report’s tabling; and
- the government considers and responds to the report within three (3) months.
Committees have considerable powers at law and as delegated by the house that appoints them. The main power is the power to summon any person within the state to appear before a committee and/or produce documents.
A person who fails to obey a summons, misleads a committee, prevents a witness from giving evidence or prosecutes them for doing so may be found in contempt of Parliament, and there are various penalties that may be applied.
The ‘proceedings of Parliament,’ which include committee proceedings, are subject to parliamentary privilege. This provides protection for information provided by a witness, whether verbally or in writing, against use of that information in court proceedings or tribunals. This means that a witness can speak candidly without fear of legal repercussions.
Having a say on issues that impact you or the Western Australian community is very important, and our committees want to hear from you. For further information on committees, making a submission or giving evidence to a parliamentary committee, please read our Frequently Asked Questions.