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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 987

Senator WATSON —I present the 264th report of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts. I seek leave to make a short statement.

Leave granted.

Senator WATSON —From time to time, and not very often, the Public Accounts Committee has been forced into a situation of having to sit at the same time as the Senate. That is the background for this report. The report examines the question of concurrent sittings of the Public Accounts Committee and the Senate and is a response to part of a report of the Standing Orders Committee tabled in the Senate on 6 October 1983.

Disagreement has arisen between the Senate and the Public Accounts Committee about whether the Committee has the right to sit while the Senate is sitting. The Senate is of the view that the Committee has no such right and cannot sit during Senate sittings without the authority of the Senate to do so. On the other hand, the Committee believes that it has a statutory right, under section 6a (1) of the Public Accounts Committee Act 1951, to sit whenever it determines. Because of the extreme difficulties the Committee would encounter in arranging sufficient meetings to enable it to carry out its program and not clash with the new Senate sitting hours, the Committee feels that it should formally make known its opinion on the question of concurrent sittings. The Senate has based its argument that the Committee is not entitled to sit without the Senate's authority on Senate standing order 300, which states:

A Select Committee may adjourn from time to time, and, by Order of the Senate, from place to place; and may sit on those days over which the Senate is adjourned; but no Select Committee may sit during the sittings of the Senate.

However, the Committee believes that it has legislative authority to determine when it sits under sub-section 6a (1) of the Public Accounts Committee Act 1951, which provides:

The Committee may meet at such times and at such places within Australia as the Committee, by resolution, determined or, subject to any resolution of the Committee, as the Chairman determines, but shall not meet at any place outside Australia.

The Committee has obtained advice on this matter from the Attorney-General's Department, the then Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, and the Hon. Justice Paul Toose, CBE. All the legal opinions have been to the effect that the Committee is not a select committee of the Senate and that therefore Senate standing order 300 does not apply to it. The opinions have advised that the Committee is a statutory committee and, accordingly, is regulated solely by the terms of the statute under which it was established. A problem has never arisen with the House of Representatives on the question of concurrent sittings because that House has no standing order similar to Senate standing order 300 and it has a policy of allowing committees to meet while the House is sitting.

In view of the legal advice the Committee has received, the heavy work load that it has had to complete, and the extra responsibilities that have been placed on it by this Government and this Parliament, the Committee believes that it has no option but to meet at such times as it deems necessary. Hopefully, the Committee's meeting times will not inconvenience the Senate and both the Committee and the Senate will be able to carry out their functions effectively. I commend the report to honourable senators.