Australian Senate Select Committees: Senate Composition, Party Partisanship and Democracy

By Dewar, Jacqueline | Social Alternatives, July 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Australian Senate Select Committees: Senate Composition, Party Partisanship and Democracy


Dewar, Jacqueline, Social Alternatives


Committees in the Australian parliament have increasingly played a valuable role in the development of policy, legislation and in the accountability of executive power. In particular, Senate committees, whose members are less restricted by the pressing requirements of electorates and are more frequently hostile to the government, play a crucial role in the process of parliamentary democracy. However over the past decade, changes to the Senate's composition following elections have resulted in the development of a political climate within the Australian parliament that undermines the operation and value of Senate committees. Senate select committees are particularly symptomatic of this shift and decline.

In September 2014, the Palmer United Party was successful in establishing a Senate select committee and parliamentary inquiry into Certain Aspects of Queensland Government Administration related to Commonwealth Government Affairs (Select Committee on Certain Aspects of Queensland Government Administration related to Commonwealth Government Affairs, 2014). The establishment of this select committee drew wide media attention and public criticism that parliamentary committees were more about party partisanship and personal vendettas than effective and informed government. The inquiry into the administration of a state government raised important questions as to how Senate select committees are established and what impact the Senate composition had on these usually little known Senate entities.

Academic inquiry has focused on standing committees within the Senate because of their longevity, high public profile, and demonstrations of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny. However, alongside standing committees1, the Senate has the capacity to establish ad hoc select committees in response to contemporary, often highly politically charged issues. Little consideration has been given to select committees and in particular the way after each election, the changes to the political composition of the Senate shapes the function, characteristics and effectiveness of these ad hoc entities. The Senate elections of 2004, 2007 and 2013 produced three distinct periods of Senate control. Each has had major implications in the establishment of Senate select committees and the types of inquiries they undertook.

The election of 2004 resulted in government control of the Senate. During this Parliament, the government used their numbers in the Senate to block the establishment of any select committees. The election of November 2007 resulted in a change of government but also an extended period in which the previous coalition government controlled the Senate. During this time, three highly political select committees were established. The election of 2013 delivered the greatest number of independent, minor and micro-party senators. Hence, the crossbench in the Senate became a powerful space. In this Parliament, the establishment of select committees became a form of political currency that could be traded for political support.

Senate Committees

The Senate committee system is an important aspect of modern parliamentary practice because it is both a mechanism for democratic participation by citizens in the parliamentary process and for scrutiny of government (Holland 2009; Grant 2009). As Stanley Bach has argued:

The Senate is proud of its committee system, and justifiably so ... The importance of these committees can't be over-stated. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say that no parliamentary body can be taken seriously unless it has a functioning committee system that's well-designed for the constitutional and political context in which the committees operate (2009: 15).

The modern Senate committee system, established in 1970, underwent major restructure in 1994 to establish eight paired standing committees in the current portfolio areas of:

* Community Affairs

* Economics

* Education and Employment

* Environment and Communications

* Finance and Public Administration

* Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation

* Legal and Constitutional Affairs

* Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport

Senate parliamentary committees act as an extension of the chamber undertaking detailed examination of both policy issues and legislation, which the chamber in its totality would be unable to discharge efficiently. …

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