One of the key outputs of the department is advice about the operations of the Senate and its committees. Much of this advice is given orally and instantaneously by the Clerk and other senior officers in the Senate, and by committee secretaries and their staff during committee meetings. These officers also provide procedural advice to senators and their staff at other times, both orally and in writing. Committee secretaries are supported in providing advice by the Clerk Assistant (Committees) and Senior Clerk of Committees, ensuring advice to committees is consistent and accurate.
Senators and other recipients of written advice continued to acknowledge its value, and it was invariably provided in time to meet the purposes for which it was sought. On numerous occasions during the year, recipients of advice published it as a contribution to public debate, at the same time subjecting it to public scrutiny. When committees seek the Clerk’s advice it is almost always for the purpose of publishing it, to show the basis on which committees may have taken particular decisions or reached particular conclusions. No committee expressed dissatisfaction with advice received.
Advice about the programming of business in the Senate is the responsibility of the Clerk Assistant (Table). Procedural advice and support for non-government senators is a particular responsibility of the Deputy Clerk and the Clerk Assistant (Procedure). Senators continued to acknowledge the value of their advice. The Clerk Assistant (Procedure) and her office also drafted large numbers of legislative amendments and private senators’ bills, helping senators participate in legislative proceedings. Amendments and bills accurately reflected the drafting instructions and were prepared within required timeframes and to the satisfaction of senators.
Advice provided by the department was also tested during estimates hearings and in other Senate proceedings and senators relied on such advice throughout the year. In addition to comments made by senators recorded in Hansard, surveys of senators seeking advice and of other key stakeholders such as Whips, indicated high levels of satisfaction with both advice and the levels of administrative support provided.
Procedural briefings among senior officers and the contemporaneous publication and dissemination of procedural resources assisted in maintaining the capacity of officers to provide advice and support.
This outcome has been met during 2017–18 through two program components.
1. Secretariat support for the Senate
The department provided secretariat support for the Senate on each of its 57 sitting days.
During the sittings the Clerk, the Deputy Clerk and senior officers provided advice in the Senate to the President, Deputy President and other occupants of the chair, as well as to other senators and their staff. The Table Office and the Procedure Office provided procedural scripts and advice to assist senators participating in proceedings. Feedback from senators acknowledged the value and accuracy of this advice and support.
Formal and ceremonial support for sittings, including the swearing in of 12 new senators, was provided by the Black Rod’s Office.
The Table Office and Senate Public Information Office (SPIO) published the Senate’s formal records and informal guides to its work. These resources were accurate and timely, and produced to meet the needs of senators and Senate deadlines. Documents supporting the Senate’s legislative work were also uniformly accurate and timely. Documents received for tabling were processed, recorded in procedural documents and archived. Increasingly, documents and business information are published online, enhancing the ability of senators and others to follow and participate in Senate proceedings, and improvements to digital publishing processes and online measures were implemented during the reporting period.
2. Secretariat support for committees
The department provided secretariat support for all committee meetings required under decisions of the Senate and of committees themselves, including those joint committees to which the department provides such support. This support was primarily provided by the Committee Office, although the Clerk’s Office, Table Office and Procedure Office also supported a number of standing committees.
Secretariat support for committees encompasses:
- procedural advice for the chair and other members, including advice and support to new senators
- logistical support for meetings (including interstate hearings)
- preparation of meeting documents, including minutes and agenda
- managing and publishing submissions, and organising witnesses
- research, analysis of evidence and briefings to members, and
- preparation of draft reports, and their finalisation for tabling.
The Committee Office experienced another sustained period of very high workload, supporting 16 legislation and references committees, 12 select committees and six joint committees, undertaking between them, at one point, 73 separate inquiries. Secretariat staff in the Committee Office processed more than 7,380 submissions, arranged 356 public hearings (which heard from more than 6,970 witnesses) and 696 private meetings. The Senate made 125 references during the year and the office assisted in drafting 206 reports.
Advice, documentation and draft reports were consistently provided to committees in accordance with their requirements. Reports were drafted and presented to the Senate in accordance with the timeframes set by committees and by the Senate.
Secretariat staff work closely with senators in supporting committees and, in particular, work closely with the chair in preparing draft reports. This provides an ongoing opportunity for direct feedback about senators’ satisfaction. Despite the high workload, this direct feedback continued to indicate high levels of satisfaction. Where workloads have permitted, the department has provided assistance with the preparation of dissenting reporting and additional comments. However, on occasion such assistance has not been possible due to resourcing challenges.
The workload and performance of committee secretariats was also considered by the Chairs’ Committee during the reporting period and assessed as meeting the needs of senators. The members of this group were formally surveyed in February 2018. The survey gauged the advice, reporting standards and professionalism of the department’s secretariat services provided to Senate committees. All responses were positive.
Senators referring to committee reports during debates in the Senate indicated their high levels of satisfaction with the support provided by secretariat staff.
The department, principally through the Black Rod’s Office, provides support services to the Senate, to Senate committees and to senators at Parliament House. These services include preparing and supporting the Senate chamber for each sitting day, general office support, asset management, maintenance of equipment and furniture, and stationery services. The office also paid senators’ salaries and allowances as required, organised office accommodation within the Senate wing and provided other services such as arranging transport and delivery services.
Security matters continued to be a focus during the period as a range of physical security upgrades continued to be implemented at Parliament House. The Usher of the Black Rod provided security advice and support to the President, committees, senators and the department. The Usher of the Black Rod and Deputy Usher of the Black Rod also worked with colleagues in the DPS Security Branch and the Serjeant-at-Arms’ Office, and with the Australian Federal Police, providing the Senate’s perspective on security matters.
Services were delivered within established timeframes and met relevant legislative requirements. This aspect of the department’s work involves regular and direct contact with Senate office holders, senators and their staff, and other stakeholders, all of whom provided regular informal feedback which was generally positive. Positive comments were also recorded in Hansard about the quality of the administrative advice and support for senators provided by the department.
The department continued its program of providing public information programs, including 27 seminars, 11 training programs for senators and their staff and seven public lectures this year; as well as publishing material on the role of the Senate and its committees. The formal evaluation of these services indicated that the programs effectively met their objectives.
The department also delivered a comprehensive education program to students visiting Parliament House from more than 1,600 Australian schools, as well as an outreach program to students in Queensland. Attendance levels, requests for training and educational programs and feedback collected from these sessions indicated high levels of satisfaction among those accessing this information. Continued demand for Parliamentary Education Office (PEO) services was complemented by formal and informal feedback which demonstrated high levels of satisfaction with these services.
SPIO develops and publishes a range of public information resources to support the operation of the Senate, including on sitting days the Dynamic Red and Senate Daily Summary, and manages the department’s web presence and twitter account @AuSenate. The office also collates statistics on Senate activity and in this reporting period undertook a significant project to redesign the statistical database, StatsNet. These resources were provided on all sitting days, and accurate, reader friendly public information resources were delivered within established timeframes.
Senate committees provide opportunities for senators and others to monitor the department’s performance. The department met its accountability obligations to the Senate during the year, particularly through its appearance before estimates hearings. The Clerk and other officers appeared at estimates hearings of the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee during each round of Senate estimates and also provided responses to 20 estimates questions, which were published on that committee’s web pages. These activities provide an important accountability mechanism by which senators may test advice provided by departmental officers and evaluate the department’s performance in a public forum. The Appropriations, Staffing and Security Committee also has a specific role in relation to the department’s appropriations as well as matters concerning the department’s structure, staffing and ICT and security arrangements. Quarterly reports on the department’s financial performance were provided to the President of the Senate and the Appropriations, Staffing and Security Committee, as was the annual report of the department’s Audit Committee.
As the accountable authority, the Clerk complied with all known public governance and accountability obligations, including in relation to the matters certified in this report.
The department’s services are enabled by its governance and accountability arrangements. These facilitate the department’s work and provide assurance to the Clerk, as its accountable authority, in fulfilling accountability obligations to the Senate, under the Parliamentary Service Act 1999 and under the PGPA Act.
The department’s Audit Committee provides independent advice to the Clerk. The Clerk used this advice in meeting his responsibilities under the PGPA Act. In line with its charter, the committee reviewed and provided advice on the appropriateness of the department’s financial reporting, performance reporting, risk management and system of internal controls; and provided advice that appropriate systems and practices were in place to support the department’s compliance and reporting obligations.
The department’s activities are also scrutinised by both an internal audit service provider and the Australian National Audit Office. These activities inform the work of the department’s Audit Committee. Further details are set out in the Management and Accountability chapter.
The department also works within a strong ethical framework guided by the Parliamentary Service Values, Parliamentary Service Employment Principles and the Parliamentary Service Code of Conduct set out in the Parliamentary Service Act 1999.