21 December 1996
APPEARING BEFORE PARLIAMENTARY
This briefing outlines issues relating to the following
- The establishment of parliamentary committees and the
sources of their powers.
- Appearing before parliamentary committees.
- The powers which parliamentary committees have to require
the production of information to them.
- The circumstances in which disclosure of information
or documents to a committee may not be appropriate.
- The consequences of failing to comply with a Committee's
- Some practical points to remember when appearing before
Establishing Parliamentary Committees
The Power to Establish a Committee
The precise scope of the inquisitorial powers of each House
of Parliament has not, to date, been authoritatively defined.
However, it is well established that each House can establish
a committee for the purpose of inquiring into any matter
necessary to enable Parliament to carry out its legislative
function or any matter which is capable of being the subject
of valid federal legislation.1
How Committees are Established
Committees are generally established in one of the following ways.
Each House may establish a committee of that House by passing an appropriate
motion. Additionally, the Standing Orders of each House provide for the appointment,
at the commencement of each Parliament, of a number of standing committees.
For example, order 25 of the Senate Standing Orders provides for the appointment
of a number of Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees to deal
with a broad range of subject matters.
Joint committees, that is, committees consisting of members of both Houses,
may be established by an appropriate motion of each House. However, joint committees
are more commonly established by an Act of Parliament. For example, the Joint
Committee of Public Accounts is established by the Public Accounts Committee
Act 1951 and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works is established
by the Public Works Committee Act 1969.2 In
the remainder of this briefing, committees established by an Act of Parliament
are called 'statutory committees' so as to distinguish them from committees
created by a House or Houses of Parliament.
Sources of a Committee's Powers
The source from which a committee derives its powers will depend on the way
in which that committee is established.
A statutory committee generally derives its powers from the legislation which
Committees other than statutory committees derive their powers from section
49 of the Constitution. Section 49 provides:
'49.The powers, privileges, and immunities of the Senate and of the House
of Representatives, and of the members and the committees of each House,
shall be such as are declared by the Parliament, and until declared shall
be those of the Commons House of Parliament of the United Kingdom, and of
its members and committees, at the establishment of the Commonwealth.'
The Parliament has, by enacting the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987,
made a partial 'declaration' of the powers, privileges and immunities of each
House and its committees and members as provided for in the first part of section
49. Except to the extent provided for by the Parliamentary Privileges Act,
or by any other provisions of an Act which can be construed as a 'declaration'
for the purposes of section 49 of the Constitution, the powers, privileges
and immunities derived from the House of Commons continue in force.3
Therefore, it remains necessary to ascertain the powers, privileges and immunities
of the House of Commons, its committees and its members at 1 January 1901.
These are determined by a branch of the common law known as 'the law and custom
of parliament'. This is ascertained from reported decisions of the courts and
also from texts such as Erskine May's A Treatise on the Law, Privileges
and Usage of Parliament.. In most cases, however, it is now
possible to determine the powers, privileges and immunities of the House of
Representatives and the Senate by reference to relevant modern Australian texts
such as Odgers' Australian Senate Practice and House of Representatives
Appearing Before a Committee
Preparing for Attendance
There are two documents with which any government officer called to appear
before a committee should be familiar. They are the Government Guidelines
for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters (last
issued in November 1989) and the Resolutions agreed to by the Senate on 25February
1988 relating to Parliamentary Privilege. The Guidelines provide practical
and useful instruction to government officers on the procedure to be adopted
when requested to assist a committee and, in particular, delineate the matters
which are appropriately dealt with by officers and those which are more appropriately
dealt with by a Minister. The Resolutions cover a broad range of privilege
issues. The first of the Resolutions is particularly relevant to officers called
to appear before a committee as it is concerned with the procedures to be followed
by Senate Committees in relation to witnesses.
A Committee's Power to Require Attendance
As a general rule, a parliamentary committee is conferred with the power
to require persons to attend before it.
In the case of a statutory committee, the legislation establishing the committee
usually confers a power to summon witnesses.4 For example, subsection 21(1) of the Public Works
Committee Act 1969 provides:
'The Chairman or a member authorized by the Committee by resolution may
summon a person to appear before the Committee to give evidence and to produce
such documents (if any) as are referred to in the summons.'
In the case of any other committee established by a House or by both Houses,
section 49 of the Constitution empowers the Houses to confer on the committee
a power to summon persons. It is clear that the House of Commons in 1901 had
the power to summon persons and could give that power to its committees. Accordingly,
each House of Parliament may confer a committee with the power to summon persons.
The power to summon a witness is usually conferred either by a relevant motion
of a House or by the Standing Orders of a House.For example, order
25(15) of the Senate Standing Orders provides that Legislative and General
Purpose standing committees 'shall have power to send for persons and documents'.
In relation to Senate Select Committees, order 34(1) provides that the 'Senate
may give a committee power to send for persons and documents, and a committee
with that power may summon witnesses and require the production of documents'.
Immunities of Witnesses Appearing Before a Committee
The Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 now puts it beyond doubt that
both the giving of evidence before a committee and the submission of documents
to a committee (even if outside the formal hearing for the reception of evidence)
form part of the 'proceedings in Parliament'.5 This means, in effect, that the giving of evidence before,
and the submission of documents to, a committee are absolutely privileged.
The effect of absolute privilege is that a witness cannot be made the subject
of any sanction for giving evidence before, or submitting documents to a committee,
apart from any penalty for the offence of giving false or misleading evidence
to that committee. Any attempt to do so is both a contempt of Parliament liable
to punishment by the relevant House and also a criminal offence punishable
by a court. Also subsection 16(3) of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 makes
it clear that, for example, a witness's evidence to a committee cannot be used
as a basis for an attack on his or her credit in court or other proceedings.
It should be noted, however, that the actions of a committee contrary to
the Standing Orders of the relevant House or otherwise without authority of
that House probably are not 'proceedings in Parliament' as they could not relate
properly to the 'business' of the House or the committee for the purposes of
subsection 16(2) of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987.
Also it seems that, in general, correspondence to individual members of Parliament
does not form part of 'proceedings in Parliament'.
Accordingly, evidence given to a committee acting without the authority of
the relevant House, and correspondence with individual members of Parliament,
probably do not attract absolute privilege. Care will need to be taken when
disclosing information in those circumstances. For example, an officer should
be careful not to disclose defamatory or self-incriminating information in
the absence of absolute privilege.
Powers of Committees to Require Information
In addition to the power to require persons to attend before it, a committee
is generally conferred with the power to order the production of information
and documents to it. As with the power to summon persons, this power is derived:
- in the case of a statutory committee from the legislation creating the
- in the case of committees other than statutory committees from a House
of Parliament exercising the powers it has under section 49 of the Constitution.
The power which a committee has to require production of information and
documents is usually very broad. However, there may be circumstances in which
it is not appropriate to disclose information or documents to a committee and
where the committee will agree not to seek the information or documents.
Claims of Public Interest Immunity
This will most commonly be the case where the executive government considers
that the public interest in information or documents remaining confidential
outweighs the public interest in the information or documents being made public
through disclosure to a committee. In those cases, the government may resist
disclosure of the information or documents on the basis that they are subject
to 'public interest immunity'. The procedure for making a claim of public interest
immunity, and the kinds of information and documents which may be the subject
of such a claim, are discussed in the Government Guidelines for Official
Witnesses mentioned above.
The Senate accepts that public interest immunity may be claimed by Ministers
(and officials can refuse to answer questions pending an opportunity for a
Minister to make such a claim).7 However
it does not accept that such claims by the Executive are a conclusive answer.
The position adopted by the Senate has been that the claim may be determined
by the Senate and, if determined against the Executive, that the Senate has
the legal right to the information.8
In contrast, the Executive has adopted the view that a statement that disclosure
is contrary to the public interest made by a Minister in response to a summons
from a House or committee is conclusive.9 In the absence of any exercise of the penal powers of
the Senate, the practical effect of this approach to date has been that conflicts
are resolved in the political arena rather than in the courts.
In recent times, the predominant view, both in the Executive and the Senate,
has been that the courts should not have jurisdiction to determine such claims
of public interest immunity.10 It
seems a consensus may be developing that the resolution of these disputes
is essentially a matter of political judgment, not a question of legal rights
Legal Professional Privilege
Legal professional privilege is a common law principle which allows a person,
in civil and criminal cases, to preserve the confidentiality of statements
and other materials which have been made or brought into existence for the
sole purpose of seeking or being furnished with legal advice by a practising
lawyer, or for the sole purpose of preparing for existing or contemplated judicial
or quasi-judicial proceedings.12 The principle has no formal application in parliamentary
proceedings. However, the Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses suggest
that material which is subject to legal professional privilege may in some
circumstances also be subject to a claim of public interest immunity.13 The confidential
nature of material which is subject to legal professional privilege is a consideration
which a committee can take into account in deciding whether to press for its
The fact that particular information is confidential, for example, because
it relates to the commercial activities of a person or body, does not provide
grounds for resisting disclosure of the information on the basis of public
interest immunity. Nevertheless, a witness may inform a committee of the confidential
nature of information and, in particular cases, a committee may agree not to
require the production of such information. For example, a committee may not
require production if it is evident that to do so would prejudice the future
provision to the Government of the relevant kind of confidential information.
Matters of Policy
A government officer should not advocate, defend or canvass the merits of
government policies when giving evidence to a committee. It is for the relevant
Minister to assist the committee with such issues.14 A witness may, however, describe policies to a
committee and, if the Minister agrees, discuss policy options for dealing with
a particular issue.15
Relevance of Question
A committee can only inquire into matters which fall within its terms of
reference. Accordingly, a witness is not required to disclose information or
produce documents in response to a question or request which is not related
to a committee's terms of reference. Similarly, a witness cannot be required
to disclose information in response to a question relating to a matter which
is the responsibility of a person within another part of the Government. For
example, an officer of the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
cannot be required to answer a question which relates to a matter for which
the Department of Communications and the Arts is responsible.
As a general rule, a witness before a parliamentary committee cannot refuse
to answer a question on the ground that to do so would be incriminating. That
is because a witnesses response to a committee's question is privileged and
therefore cannot be relied upon or questioned in court proceedings. The response
could not be relied on as a basis for bringing criminal proceedings against
the witness.16 The
position is probably different in relation to some statutory committees where
a witness is permitted to refuse to answer questions on grounds on which a
witness in a court could do so, including self-incrimination.For
example, section 25 of the Public Works Committee Act 1969 provides:
'A person summoned to appear or appearing before the Committee as a witness
has the same protection and privileges, and is, in addition to the penalties
provided by this Act, subject to the same liabilities in any civil or criminal
proceeding, as a witness in proceedings in the High Court.'17
Giving Evidence in a Closed Hearing
As an alternative to resisting disclosure of information and documents, a
witness may request that a committee hear certain evidence 'in camera',
that is, in proceedings which are closed to the public. A witness before most
Senate committees has the option of seeking a closed hearing for sensitive
certain circumstances a witness before the Parliamentary Standing Committee
on Public Works or the Joint Committee of Public Accounts will have a right
to give evidence in private and for that evidence to be kept confidential.For
example, section 23 of the Public Works Committee Act 1969 relevantly
(2) Where, in the opinion of the Committee, any evidence proposed to be
given before, or the whole or a part of a document produced or proposed to
be produced in evidence to, the Committee relates to a secret or confidential
matter, the Committee may, and at the request of the witness giving the evidence
or producing the document shall:
(a) take the evidence in private; or
(b) direct that the document, or the part of the document, be treated as
(4) Where, at the request of a witness, evidence is taken by the
Committee in private:
(a) the Committee shall not, without the consent in writing of the witness;
(b) a person (including a member) shall not, without the consent in writing
of the witness and the authority of the Committee under subsection (6);
disclose or publish the whole or a part of that evidence.
(5) Where evidence is taken by the Committee in private otherwise than
at the request of a witness, a person (including a member) shall not, without
the authority of the Committee under the next succeeding subsection, disclose
or publish the whole or a part of that evidence.
(6) The Committee may, in its discretion, disclose or publish or, by writing
under the hand of the Chairman, authorize the disclosure or publication
of, evidence taken in private before the Committee, but this subsection
does not operate so as to affect the necessity for consent of a witness
under subsection (4).'19
The option of a closed hearing is not available in the case of a Senate Legislation
Committee when it is considering estimates of proposed or additional expenditure.20 However,
such a committee may take evidence in camera when it is performing non-estimates
Secrecy provisions (that is, legislative provisions which purport to restrict
disclosure of certain information) do not bar production of documents or information
to a House or a committee, unless the secrecy provision concerned necessarily
deals with such production. The power of a House or a duly authorised committee
derived from section 49 of the Constitution to question witnesses or send for
papers can only be taken away in an Act by express words or, probably also,
a necessary implication of the legislation.
Has the Committee Made a Request?
A final point worth noting is that it is the committee, not individual members,
which can require a witness to answer questions or produce documents. If an
individual member asks a question or seeks documents, the witness may consider
it appropriate to seek confirmation from the Chairperson of the Committee that
the Committee requires a response to the member's question or request.
Contempt - Failing to Comply with a Committee's Directions
If a witness does not attend in response to a summons, or does not answer
a question or produce a document, a committee has no power to compel these
A House of Parliament (as opposed to a committee of a House) has the power
to impose a penalty of a fine or imprisonment where it finds that a person
has committed an offence within the meaning of section 4 of the Parliamentary
Privileges Act 1987. An 'offence' requires conduct which 'amounts, or is
intended or is likely to amount, to an improper interference with the free
exercise by a House or committee of its authority or functions, or with the
free performance by a member of the member's duties as a member'.
Section 9 of the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 now requires that
a warrant committing a person to custody set out the particulars of the matters
determined to constitute the breach of privilege or contempt. This provision
now allows a court to determine whether the ground for the imprisonment was
sufficient in law. It seems, however, that a court would not be entitled to
examine 'proceedings in Parliament' for that purpose.22
Each House of Parliament has the power to fine as an alternative to imprisonment.23 A fine could be enforced
using the general law for recovery of debts and, unlike imprisonment, does
not require a resolution and a warrant setting out particulars of the matters
determined to constitute the offence. This clearly still restricts the capacity
of a court to review whether the conduct could amount to a breach of privilege.
Other sanctions, such as penalties imposed for offences in relation to the
giving of evidence to the statutory committees24 would be dealt with by the criminal courts in the
Points to Remember
Before You Attend
Appearing as a witness before a Parliamentary Committee, or before a court
or tribunal, can be a difficult experience. It is important that a witness
be thoroughly prepared.
- Be familiar with the Committee's terms of reference.
- Be familiar with all the relevant material.
- In particular, ensure you are familiar with any formal Departmental or
Government submission that has been made to the Committee.
- Ascertain what issues the Committee is particularly interested in. The
Committee's Secretariat may be able to assist you in this regard.
- Prepare an outline of your presentation.
- Think about what questions might be asked, and develop answers.
- Consult with other relevant Departmental officers and, if necessary, your
It is also important that care be taken in answering questions.
- Listen carefully to the question.
- Consider whether it is appropriate for you to answer it. In particular,
consider whether the question:
- is relevant to the terms of reference;
- relates to a matter which is the responsibility of another Department or
- relates to a matter of policy;
- asks for material that is subject to public interest immunity or legal
- asks for material which will incriminate you; or
- asks for confidential material.
- If it is not appropriate for you to answer the question, raise this with
the Committee, and if necessary your Minister.
- Consider whether you should ask that the answer be taken in camera.
- Consider whether you know the answer, if not, say so. Questions can be
taken on notice.
- Answer clearly and concisely.
- If an extended answer is required, develop a structure to the answer. Explain
that structure to the Committee, follow it, and summarise.
2 Other joint parliamentary
committees are established by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization
Act 1979; National Crime Authority Act 1984; Australian Securities
Commission Act 1989; Native Title Act 1993; and Parliamentary
Proceedings Broadcasting Act 1946.
10 Government submission
to Senate Standing Committee of Privileges on the Parliamentary Privileges
(Enforcement of Lawful Orders) Bill 1994 (August 1994); Senate Standing Committee
of Privileges (49th Report) The Parliamentary Privileges (Enforcement
of Lawful Orders) Bill 1994 (September 1994).
22 Subsection 16(3) of
the Parliamentary Privileges Act 1987 would present an obstacle to
a court having regard to the proceedings of Parliament for these purposes.
The exception in subsection 16(6) appears to relate only to criminal prosecutions.
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The material in this briefing is provided
for general information only and should not be relied
upon for the purpose of a particular matter. Please contact
the Legal Practice before any action or decision is taken
on the basis of any of the material in this briefing.