“One of the most important activities of this House is its vibrant committee system and we all play a role in that process. … Whilst comprising a very broad spectrum of political opinion we never played party politics but worked collaboratively in our deliberations.” – The Hon David Clarke, Legislative Council former member (2003-2019) referring to the Law and Justice Committee
People may think that politicians from differing political parties, on principle, do not get along with each other. Picture Question Time, where members from the Opposition and Crossbench stand at the lectern and fire question after supplementary question at Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. These exchanges frequently involve raised eyebrows and on occasion have involved raised voices and pointed fingers.
But what happens when the doors are shut and committees enter into private meetings? Despite what happens in the chamber, members spend a considerable amount of their time working closely together on committee work. This could involve working together to identify ways of improving a government policy, or to find a solution to a problem. Committee work often requires a collaborative work ethic between members of different parties.
An example of a collaborative effort between committee members was demonstrated by Portfolio Committee 3’s inquiry into the reparations for the Stolen Generations in New South Wales. The committee members were able to put aside their political differences and reach a unanimous agreement on the report and its recommendations.
The result? Six months after the report, the NSW Government announced that a reparations scheme would be implemented for Aboriginal people who were part of the Stolen Generations. (Revisit our post on What committees can achieve.)
More so than the Portfolio Committees, the Subject Standing Committees generally tend to work more collaboratively as their inquiries are usually less political and controversial. The Standing Committee on State Development is well-known to be a collegial group, often producing consensus reports on their inquiries.
What if the members can’t agree?
The rules state that ‘as far as practicable’, a committee report must reflect a unanimity of opinion within the committee (SO 228).
But what happens if the committee is not unanimous in its findings and recommendations? Well in that case:
- the report is prepared in a way that the views of all members are reflected within it, and
- members can provide what we call ‘dissenting statements’. Where unanimity is not possible, any member in the committee can add a brief statement of dissent, which is often found at the end of the report (see the Public Works Committee report on the Sydney Stadiums Strategy).
So whilst a report may not reflect all the views across the political spectrum, members of a committee will work together to hold the government to account and shine a light on its policies.
“The committee … was composed of members who seemed to be diametrically opposed in their views. We worked our way through substantive hearings, heard from powerful voices who had suffered or witnessed family violence, and we produced a unanimous report that was adopted by the Government.
So keep your faith in this place.” – Mr Scot MacDonald, Legislative Council former member (2011-2019).