The effectiveness of Senate Select Committee reports: the National Commission of Audit and government policy

The Australian parliament as we saw in Chapter 5 of the text book has a number of different types of committees (see table 5.9 on page 171). Parliamentary committees conduct inquiries where they call for submissions and the responses come from individual citizens, companies and interest groups.  They also have the power to call witnesses to give evidence.

Two types of parliamentary committees examine government policy and administration.  Standing committees which are ongoing during the course of the parliament are structured around policy portfolio areas (see Table 5.9).  Select committees, on the other hand, are established to inquire into specific matters and cease to exist when their final report is presented to the parliament.

When the government does not have a majority in the Senate the Opposition and cross bench members have combined to use their numbers to establish Senate select committees to examine policy issues likely to expose the government to criticism. However, as we saw in Chapter 5, committee reports are not binding on the government.  Information about the establishment and membership of Senate Select Committees can be found on the Australian parliament website at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate.  You can also see the types of issues that have been examined by Senate Select Committees.

The Abbott government’s National Commission of Audit

The Abbott government established the National Commission of Audit ‘as an independent body to review and report on the performance, functions and roles of the Commonwealth government’ (www.ncoa.gov.au).  The establishment of this Commission fulfilled the Coalition’s election commitment to examine ‘the role and scope of government, as well as ensuring taxpayers’ money is spent in an efficient manner’ (Hockey, J. & Cormann, M. 2013, ‘Coalition commences National Commission of Audit’, Liberal Party of Australia, media release, 22 October, http://www.liberal.org.au).

Governments often establish committees of inquiries with terms of reference and membership to deliver outcomes the government wants to achieve.  That National Commission of Audit seems to fit into this category because its terms of reference mirror government policy and it is chaired by a member of the Business Council of Australia, a body which strongly supported the government’s views on this issue. This was certainly the view of the Australian Greens who considered the National Commission of Audit had been ‘set up to just deliver what the Abbott government wants and that’s massive cuts across the public service’.  The Greens wanted the establishment of a Senate select committee to review the work of the Commission (‘Greens want Senate oversight of audit’, 10 December 2013 http://www.allnews.au.com/news/greens-want-senate-oversight-of-audit_news-au).

On 11 December 2013 Senator Christine Milne, Leader of the Greens, successfully moved in the Senate (with the support of the Opposition) for the establishment of a Senate Select Committee into the Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit to inquire into the Commission established by the Commonwealth government and, in particular, any report of that Commission to the government.  The task for the select committee included an examination of  ‘the nature and extent of any cuts or changes to government expenditure recommended by the Commission’ and the impact on government services and programs, ‘the ability of the public service to provide advice to government’ and the potential impact on the Budget outlays across a broad range of significant policy areas.  The  7-member Committee is made up of 3 government senators, 3 opposition senators and 2 Greens senator – thus rendering the government in the minority (For the full text of the terms of reference and the membership of the committee see Senate Hansard, 11 December 2013, pp 1496-1498).

Submissions to the Commission of Audit include those in favour and those against the work of the Commission.  For example, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (acci.asn.au) and the Business Council of Australia (www.bca.com.au) endorsed the intention of the review.  The Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) while recognizing the need to rationalize government spending, nevertheless asked the government to consider the impact on its membership base in the housing and development industries (UDIA, Submission to the National Commission of Audit, November 2013, http://www.udia.com.au). The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) not surprisingly called the Commission ‘a big-business dominated razor gang’ with ‘nothing off limits when it comes to looking for cost savings’ (www.australianunions.org.au/ourcommunity).

The power of the select committee to call witnesses  was exercised to call the five members of the National Commission of Audit to appear before the committee on 15 January 2014.  Labor and the Greens wanted information about the submissions to the Commission and a potential conflict of interest associated with the Commission chair coming from the BCA.  According to Labor Senator Sam Dastyari  because of this there was a risk that the Commission would be ‘nothing more than a Trojan horse to deliver the Business Council of Australia’s policy agenda’.  The government, on the other hand, called the senate committee ‘a show trial’ (Clarke, M. 2014, ABC News, 15 January, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-15/commission-of-audit-a-27showtrial27c-treasurer-joe-hockey-/5200620).

Interim report of the Senate Select Committee inquiry released on 19 February 2014 included among its recommendations ‘broader representation on the National Commission of Audit in order for a wider range of perspectives to be included in the process’, all submissions to the Commission to be made public, a longer time frame for the Commission ‘to complete its work, in the interests of comprehensive stakeholder consultation’ and ‘more rigorous analysis’, as well as broadening the scope of the committee.  Not surprisingly government members of the committee did not agree and issued a dissenting minority report rejecting these findings (Senate Select Committee into the National Commission of Audit, Interim Report, 19 February, http://www.aph.gov.au).  It is reported the government senators claimed the ‘probe set up to grill and extract information from participants’ was aimed at ‘disrupting the important and urgent work of the commission’.  The government rejected ‘demands from the Opposition, the Greens and unions for more information on the activities of the Commission’ (Bajkowski, J. 2014, ‘New row over Commission of Audit’s cone-of-silence’, 24 February, http://www.governmentnews.com.au/2014/02/new-row-commission-audits-cone-silence).

Conclusion

 

The Abbott government is not required to implement the recommendations of the Senate select committee’s interim report and to date has not done so.  

The media reported that the government received the National Commission for Audit’s interim report on 15 February 2014.  The Opposition and the Greens criticized the government for not making it public. The impotence of the Senate on an issue like this in the context of our political system where the government is formed in the House of Representatives was apparent when the government failed to respond to a Senate motion requiring any reports received by the government from the National Commission of Audit be tabled in the Senate no later than noon on 17 March 2014 (Senate, Hansard, 4 March 2014, p. 45; 17 March 2014, p.68).  Parliamentary Secretary Senator Brett Mason informed the Senate that the report would come out when the government was ready to release it (Mason, B. 2014, Senate, Hansard, 17 March, p. 69).

It is the government’s prerogative to determine what it does with the report of the National Commission of Audit.  This point was made by the government senators on the Senate Select Committee in their dissenting report: ‘It is important to recognise from the outset that while the commission will make recommendations to government, decisions will ultimately be made by government, not the commission (Senate Select Committee into the National Commission of Audit, Interim Report, 19 February 2014, http://www.aph.gov.au).

It was reported in the media that the interim report of the National Commission of Audit ‘supports the concept of paid parental leave but finds that Mr Abbott’s scheme is too generous given the state of the budget’.  This was a core policy promoted and supported by the prime minister who regards it as ‘a historic reform’ that ‘will happen under his government’ (Meares, A. 2014, ‘Audit cold on Abbott’s parent leave’, Australian Financial Review, 27 February, http://www.afr.com/p/national/audit_cold_on_abbott_parent_leave_WRMrop9MjDcE0wNogTLxIN).  It remains to be seen whether Abbott will accept the Commission’s advice.

The Abbott government’s May 2014 Budget policies will be framed within the context of its own political agenda which may or may not take up the recommendations of the final report of the National Commission of Audit. Liberal Senator David Bushby told the Senate Select Committee that the government ‘would not be accepting any recommendations from the commission which are not consistent with its election mandate’.  The Chair of the Commission also said it was ‘up to the government what they do with the report’ (Abbott Government’s Commission of Audit Select Committee, Senate, Hansard, 15 January 2014.  It remains to be seen when the May Budget is brought down what notice the government has taken of any National Commission of Audit’s recommendations that do not meet the government’s own agenda.

Senate select committee reports have no official status in determining government policy.  Many reports of government-initiated committees of inquiry gather dust without their recommendations being enacted.  Nevertheless both forms of inquiry do perform a useful function because they place information and opinion about the issues under scrutiny on the record for scrutiny and debate in the public domain.

 

Dr Gwynneth Singleton

18 March 2014

 

 

 

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