Opinion

OPINION: What Is A Standing Committee?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of
01 Jun 2015 10:41
OPINION: What Is A Standing Committee?

Professor Richard Herr is Adjunct Professor of Governance and Ethics at the Fiji National University. The FNU acknowledges the support of the Fiji Sun and that of the Embassy of Japan through the Candidates’ Manual School’s programme.

 

Welcome back to Parliament 101. Last week we looked how almost everyone can participate in the work of the Parliament through the use of a petition to ask the Parliament for help.

This week we examine another method of direct engagement whereby the Parliament might ask you for assistance when we answer the question “What is a standing committee?”

Section 70 of the Constitution says the Parliament must “establish committees with the functions of scrutinising Government administration and examining Bills and subordinate legislation” and such other responsibilities as the Parliament might determine.

If you look at this passage carefully, you will notice several important points that it makes about parliamentary committees.

The first and most critical is that parliamentary committees are so important that the Constitution makes it obligatory for the Parliament to create at least some.

You can see this in the word that the Constitution uses.

It does not just give the Parliament permission to establish committees saying it “may” do this but rather directs the Parliament to it by stating that it “must” establish committees.

This constitutional status is underscored by the priorities that the Constitution gives to the committees that must be instituted.

The Parliament is obliged constitutionally to create committees to oversight the Government and its administration; to examine proposed legislation and to assess subordinate legislation.

Any other functions and activities that the Parliament might want to send to committees are left to the discretion of the Parliament.

Also left to Parliament are the rules and procedures for the operation of parliamentary committees.

So in order to understand better what parliamentary committees do, we have to turn from the Constitution to the Parliament’s Standing Orders.

Here we find that there are four types of parliamentary committees – the Committee of the Whole, standing committees, select committees and special committees.

If you have been reading Parliament 101 regularly, you will have encountered an example of three of these in previous columns.

The Committee of the Whole and its role in legislation were raised when we considered the question of “what is a bill?”

We discussed one of the four select committees – the Business Committee – when we reviewed the framing of the Order Paper.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts was reviewed in the context of the budgetary process and its vital role in assuring financial accountability.

Public Accounts is one of six such committees created under Standing Orders.

So, what is the difference between and amongst these different types of committees?

We can put the Committee of the Whole aside since this is the only committee that includes the full membership of the Parliament.

It is really the entire Parliament dealing with bills under more relaxed rules so that the Parliament can roll up its sleeves and deal with proposed laws in a less formal way.

Traditionally, the main difference in parliamentary committees was to be found in the distinction between select committees and standing committees.

Both are alike in that they have memberships that are significantly smaller than the entire Parliament but what makes them different is harder to describe.

Unfortunately there is no standard or simple dividing line to make the work of the two types of committees easier to understand.

It used to be said that standing committees were committees that operated for the life of the parliament and dealt with broad policy areas while select committees had a more limited life with a narrow investigative focus.

In this sense, the Standing Orders’ provision for special committees would be basically the same as this meaning of select committees since these will have a limited purpose and a short tenure.

Let’s not worry about other parliaments and just consider the Parliament of Fiji.

The purpose of its four select committees is to promote the good order and operation of the Parliament itself.

Because of their work, ordinary Fijians are not likely to be involved in the activities of the Business Committee, the House Committee; the Privileges Committee; or the Standing Orders Committee.

The six standing committees of Parliament are quite a different matter since these deal with the matters Section 70 of the Constitution mandated to the Parliament.

You can get the flavour of their importance from their titles.

There are Standing Committees on Economic Affairs, on Social Affairs, on Natural Resources, on Public Accounts, on Foreign Affairs and Defence, and on Justice, Law and Human Rights.

Each has broad responsibilities for their areas of authority.

They must examine any bill referred to them; oversee the Departments in their subject area, consider any petitions or papers referred to the committee; and review relevant international treaties and conventions.

Of course, all Standing Committees must accept whatever additional duties are referred to them by the Parliament.

Significantly, Standing Orders require every committee to observe the principle of gender equality “to ensure all matters are considered with regard to the impact and benefit on both men and women equally.”

You might wonder why Parliament 101 thinks these committees are important to you more than the Select Committees.

Naturally, as a citizen, you will want these committees to do an effective job in keeping the Government accountable and ensuring proposed laws are properly drafted.

However, Standing Committees can offer you more than just the hope of good governance in general terms.

You are actually encouraged to engage directly and actively with these committees.

Not only do the Standing Orders require meetings of these committees to be open to the public and the media, the committees should “encourage public access to committee meetings”.

To achieve the aim of inputs from the public into their activities, all Standing Committees are obliged to allow sufficient time and public notice for the interested persons and groups to make submissions to committee inquiries.

Naturally, there will be occasions where a committee may have to meet “in camera” (behind closed doors) due to the confidential matters before it. However, these will be rare.

Standing Committees need to be powerful if they are to do their job of holding the Government to account.

So, they are invested the powers and privileges of the Parliament which gives them the same powers as the High Court.

This means that a committee can summon any person to give evidence or provide information, which includes be able to demand documents or other materials as it feels it needs to complete its inquiry.

A failure to comply with the demands of a committee could see this referred to the Privileges Committee, which would be a very serious matter indeed.

Since these committees are small version of the entire Parliament, the membership is required to be shared as fairly as possible in a way that reflects the distribution of party representation in the chamber.

The Speaker formally appoints Members to the committees but she does this in consultation with the party whips so in practice parties are able to choose which of their Members serve on which committee.

However, not all Members are eligible to sit in a committee. Standing Orders state that, “A Minister shall not be a member of a standing committee.”

Can you think why this is so? [Hint: go back to Section 70 of the Constitution!]

The purpose of these committees is to hold the Government to account so it would be inappropriate – indeed, a serious conflict of interest – for a Minister to sit on a committee reviewing his or her Department!

There is so much more that could be said about the role and work of Standing Committees and, if you are interested, to go to the Standing Orders and the Parliaments website for more information.

In the meanwhile, keep an eye out in the newspapers for a notice of a committee inquiry that might interest you and your friends and try your hand at writing a submission.

It is what the Constitution and the Parliament want you to do!

 

Feedback: newsroom@fijisun.com.fj

 


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