Committee system needs surgery

Ray & KlugmanA two-day conference in November 2010 reviewed Senate Committees after 40 years operation, but most of the time was wasted on platitudes, CLA President Dr Kristine Klugman reports. However, two sitting Senators, in the final hour, started to peel away the facade and reveal why the parliamentary committee system needs major surgery. Read more (and listen/watch, if you wish)…
Photo: Dr Klugman with former Senator Robert Ray at the conference.

Report on Senate Committees and Government Accountability Conference

11-12 November 2010; Parliament House and Old Parliament House


By Dr Kristine Klugman*

The conference marked 40 years of operation of Senate Committees, and featured mostly retired Senators extolling the virtues of the system on the first day of the two-day event.

But, like a good meal, the true delicacies came at the very end, on the last day, when Senator Trish Crossin (Lab, NT) and Senator Christine Milne (Greens, Tas) spoke from the heart about what was wrong and what could be improved in the committee system.

While certain committees – notably Estimates (which is public), Privileges (which is not) and Scrutiny of Bills (which is sometimes public) – appear to have in the main been effective, there was very little attention given on the first day into ways that procedures may be improved. There was precious little, if any, criticism of committee failures; there was virtually no mention of rushed hearings to meet impossible timetable demands of the Howard and Rudd Governments. And the audience was generally leaden, with the only penetrating or critical questions coming from the CLA representatives!

There was little cognizance, and certainly no widespread debate, given to the fundamental change in parliamentary governance and accountability which is resulting from the operation of the 40-plus Ministerial Councils (MCs) overlaid on to the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General (SCAG); or to the increasing trend to centralise executive power and decision making, to the detriment of the political parties and their branch members, MPs and the community, all of whom are becoming less relevant, if not irrelevant.

To a large extent, the reports, findings and draft legislation of COAG/SCAG and the 40 MCs emasculate the work of parliamentary backbenchers, in the Senate, the House of Representatives and in State and Territory Houses. Australian democracy is now at the whim of faceless and unaccountable bureaucrats who staff the secretariats of these secretive organisations, which don’t usually publish agendas, or formal minutes…and at least one of which operates to a centuries-old blackball system where one Minister can stop eight others from around the nation considering an issue of major importance to the entire country. These bodies often include NZ Ministers and even local ‘council’ representatives from Norfolk Island, who get more say than Australian electors in what laws and regulations will govern the nation in future.

There was no acknowledgement in the conference program’s planning of the value of input of non-paid community groups to the deliberations of committees, through their written submissions and appearances at hearings. The only non-government representative who got to speak was the man from the AMA (Australian Medical Association), surely one of the highest paid and most influential lobby groups connected to the parliament, and hardly representative of the ‘little guy’.

Finally, there was no mention, until that last session, of the impossible time constraints put on both committee members and people making submissions by an executive disinterested in optimal policy outcomes for legislation, and focused only on ramming legislation through parliament.

In truth, the committee system is not working, and increasingly so.

A complete review of the functioning of the Senate (and House) committee systems is crucial, to give sufficient time to enable full and proper consideration of legislation by all interested and affected bodies.

* Dr Kristine Klugman OAM, is President of Civil Liberties Australia

For detailed coverage of the conference (in both audio and video), see the Australian Senate website:

…in particular, the last session, Day 2, 10.50am to 12.10pm, and the thoughts of Senator Crossin and Senator Milne.

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