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Thursday, 19 June 2003
Page: 16979


Mrs MAY (9:20 AM) —On behalf of the Standing Committee on Procedure, I present the committee's report entitled Sessional order 344, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.


Mrs MAY —by leave—The report I have just tabled is the Procedure Committee's response to a request by the Leader of the House to consider the operation of sessional order 344, which was adopted by the House on 5 February 2003. The sessional order replaced standing order 344. That standing order addressed the admission of visitors when committees or subcommittees examine a witness or otherwise gather evidence. The standing order provided:

They—

the visitors—

shall withdraw if requested by the chair or if any member of the committee or subcommittee asks the chair to request their withdrawal.

Questions have arisen about the meaning of this section of the standing order and hence the request that the Procedure Committee consider the issue. Before addressing this matter, I would like to make it clear that there is no doubt that visitors must be excluded when a committee or subcommittee is deliberating or taking evidence in camera. These matters are also provided for in standing order 344 and they are not problematic.

In relation to the admission of visitors when it is expected that the evidence will be published, a situation arose in late 2002 where the meaning of the words `if any member ... asks the chair to request their withdrawal' was an issue. Did this imply that the member would do so only with the support of the committee? Did the chair have an option to ignore the member's request? These matters had not been tested in the 101 years of the existence of the standing order. This is not surprising because committees have generally worked cooperatively. The principle is well established that committees, like the House itself, operate on democratic principles. While the vast majority of decisions are made by agreement, if there are opposing views the matter is put to a vote.

In order to remove the doubt about the application of former standing order 344, a sessional order was introduced which provided that `[visitors] shall withdraw if requested by the chair or if the committee or subcommittee resolves for their withdrawal'. Committee chairs need to retain the power to take immediate action in certain circumstances, mostly relating to maintaining order, but their decisions, like those of the Speaker in the House, are always subject to dissent by the committee. The important principle that committees operate by agreement is upheld.

The committee has considered the evolution of standing order 344 and is satisfied that the sessional order and proposed new standing order, while removing doubt about its interpretation, does not threaten the rights of individual members. The committee recommends the adoption of the new sessional order as a standing order and further recommends that the new standing order 344 be interpreted and applied in a manner consistent with the presumption that proceedings of committees should be by agreement. I commend the report to the House.