Refugee Council of Australia
Parliament House, Canberra

Keeping the Australian Government accountable: a guide

Parliamentary accountability

The Parliament is responsible for passing laws and keeping the executive government accountable. Parliament provides a number of important ways for people to participate in and influence the process of law-making and the review of policy.

Senate estimates

What are Senate estimates?

Twice a year, the government introduces sets of ‘appropriation bills’, which give the government power to spend money. One of the two houses of Parliament, the Senate, examines the details of this expenditure in hearings known as ‘Senate estimates hearings’.

As well, the Committees look at annual reports of departments and agencies (which must be tabled in Parliament by 31 October every year), the mid-year economic and fiscal report (MYEFO) and the final budget outcome report.

In Senate estimates, Senators can make Ministers and public servants answer detailed questions about government policy and expenditure. The process also provides the best opportunity for individual Senators, especially those not forming part of government, to find out more about the operations of government.

Consideration of Estimates by the Senate’s Legislation Committees

Which Committee is responsible for immigration matters?

The main legislation committee responsible for immigration is the Senate Standing Committees on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

This Committee is responsible for the Department of Home Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Department.

The Committee is also responsible for agencies such as the Australian Border Force, the Australian Federal Police, the Commonwealth Ombudsman and the Australian Human Rights Commission. Agencies, however, are not always called before Senate estimates, especially if they get no funding in the appropriation bills.

Each legislation committee includes three members of government, two members of the opposition, and an independent or minority Senator. Most questions are asked by the non-government Senators.

The members of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee

When are Senate estimates held?

The main hearings are held after the Budget is handed down (typically in May, with four days of hearings). There are supplementary hearings (usually in October) and hearings on additional appropriation bills (usually two days in February).

The hearings are held in public in Canberra and are streamed live on the Parliament’s website. All documents, including a transcript of the hearings, are also published online.

Senate Estimates

What can be asked?

Public servants are usually asked detailed questions about the background to policies and their administration. They generally must answer these questions, and, if they do not, they could be in contempt of Parliament (meaning it is a crime). The hearings are usually ordered according to the programs listed in the financial statements.

The main limit is that questions must be relevant to the estimates of what the government is going to spend. This includes questions as to the operations or financial positions of the department or agency.

However, public servants are not expected to answer questions about, or express an opinion on, policy. This is the responsibility of the Minister who is usually at the hearing. The Minister can agree to the public servant discussing policy.

In certain cases, the witness may refuse to disclose information on the grounds of public interest immunity – for example, because disclosing the information threatens national security, or privacy. This claim must be made by the responsible Minister.

Senate estimates

Questions on notice

Questions that cannot be answered immediately during the hearing, or are provided in writing, can be put on notice. Members of the relevant legislation committee, and indeed any Senator, can put written questions on notice.

People who have an interest can ask Senators to submit questions they would like answered. Typically, each political party will decide which questions they will put on notice, so it is usually unnecessary to submit questions to more than one member of the same party.

The answers are published online. Since 2017-2018, these answers are now searchable online. Previous answers to questions on notice are provided by Parliament in the form of a list for each hearings on the Committee’s estimates page.

Senate Estimates – Questions on Notice
Legal and Constitutional Affairs – Senate estimates

Commonwealth Parliamentary committees

Another way Parliament ensures the accountability of government is through Parliamentary Committees.

There are two main types of parliamentary committees: standing committees and select committees. Select committees are created to inquire into particular matters, and end when they have reported, unlike standing committees which continue in existence and inquire into their areas of responsibility. Committees typically make recommendations for the Government to consider.

Committees are one of the few ways ordinary people can participate in law making and the review of policies. Anyone can make a submission, and Committees will typically invite some of those who have made submissions to give evidence. Committees sometimes hold hearings outside Canberra. You can also attend committee hearings as they are held in public.

Committees
Information on Senate Committees and getting involved

The Senate Committees are especially important. The Senate plays a constitutional role in checking and reviewing proposed legislation. It is not common for laws to be reviewed by committees in the House of Representatives.

The legislation committees inquire into proposed laws, estimates, annual reports and the performance of agencies. References committees inquire into any other matters referred to them.

Legislation committees are chaired by a government Senator and the government has a majority on the legislation committees, with a deputy chair that is not from the government. Non-government parties chair and have the majority on references committees, with six chaired by the Opposition and two by someone from the largest minority party. The deputy chair of references committees is from the government.

There are six members on each committee, although senators may also be appointed as substitute members (replacing other members for specific purposes) or participating members, meaning they can act as a member other than voting. Subcommittees may also be appointed of at least three members.

Committees

Information before Committees

Parliamentary committees regularly ask for the public to provide its views and information to inquiries. The main ways in which people can provide information is through making submissions to inquiries and giving evidence before an inquiry.

Anyone can usually make a submission, and there is no required format. However, the best submissions according to Parliament:

  • are relevant and highlight your own perspective
  • are concise, generally no longer than four to five pages
  • begin with a short introduction about yourself or the organisation you represent
  • emphasise the key points so that they are clear
  • outline not only what the issues are but how problems can be addressed, as the committee looks to submissions for ideas to make recommendations
  • only include documents that directly relate to your key points
  • only include information you would be happy to see published on the internet.

Making a submission

You can make a submission online (you will need to create an account), email it to the Committee secretariat, or post the submission.

Lodge my submission
Email your submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee (email: legcon.sen@aph.gov.au)

Key Committees

An important committee is the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. This is composed of six members of the House of Representatives and four Senators, evenly divided between those nominated by the government and by the Opposition, minority parties or independents. Its focus is on broader inquiries into matters relating to immigration, including policy and practice as well as legislation.

As a joint committee that inquiries into broader topics, this Committee tends to have longer timeframes and broader terms of reference.
Joint Standing Committee on Migration

There are several important Committees which review all legislation introduced into Parliament).

The Selection of Bills Committee reviews all proposed legislation (other than those that only appropriate money) and recommends whether they should be referred to any committee, and if so, to which committee it should be referred, when it should be referred and the date the committee is required to report. The Committee is chaired by the Government Whip and includes two other government senators, the Opposition Whip and two opposition members, and any other party whips.

There are no formal criteria by which the Committee decides to refer proposed laws. In practice, it recommends referral if a significant group ask for referral, and a significant proportion are considered in Committee.

Senate Standing Committee for Selection of Bills

The Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee focuses on parliamentary scrutiny, the rule of law, and proposed laws that affect individual rights, liberties and obligations. The Committee has six members, three from government and three from the opposition.

It publishes digests (the Scrutiny Digest) every sitting week in Parliament to alert members of concerns about proposed Bills. The Committee can write to the relevant Minister to respond to its concerns and publishes those responses, either before or after the Scrutiny Digest is published.

Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills
Scrutiny Digest

Ministerial Responses

A similar committee is the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances. This assesses delegated legislation (regulations and rules) on similar grounds. Every week that Parliament sits, this Committee publishes the Delegated Legislation Monitor. This reports on delegated legislation (regulations and rules) that raise concerns and can be disallowed by Parliament (meaning it will no longer have effect).

Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances
Guidelines
Delegated Legislation Monitors

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights was established by legislation passed in 2011. It examines all bills and legislative instruments for compatibility with human rights, as set out in the main human rights treaties that Australia has ratified.

Every joint sitting week, this Committee publishes a scrutiny report where it inquires as to whether proposed laws comply with Australia’s human rights obligations. As with other committees, the government provides responses to its concerns.

However, the Committee has failed to live up to its promise. Responses made by Ministers have been inadequate, and laws have been passed before the Committee has reported. It has not received much media or parliamentary attention.Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights
Scrutiny reports
The operation and impact of Australia’s parliamentary scrutiny regime for human rights

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