The workload of the committees supported by the Committee Office is determined by decisions of the Senate and of the committees themselves. During this financial year, the Committee Office again faced a significant workload in terms of the number of committees and inquiries supported, although the level of committee activity stabilised a little below the extreme peaks of recent years. The highest number of inquiries managed at one time was 73 in August 2017.
Submissions, public hearings and witnesses
The continuing significant workload of committee secretariats during 2017–18 is evident in the administrative support provided to committees in relation to the processes committees use to collect evidence. This included processing 7,388 submissions (compared to 9,208 in 2016–17). This figure does not include the more than 30,000 emails and form letters linked to various campaigns, such as those directed against the proposed radioactive waste facility that was the subject of an inquiry by the Economics References Committee. In addition, secretariats arranged 356 public hearings (including 83 estimates hearings) at which 6,972 witnesses appeared (including 3,283 witnesses at estimates hearings). Secretariats also supported committees by arranging 696 private meetings and 16 site inspections.
Again, to manage this volume of work the office continued to operate in a highly flexible manner with staff regularly working across committees in order to deal with peaks in workload.
Estimates hearings proceeded generally as scheduled in 2017–18 although a new public holiday during the Budget estimates rounds required minor rearrangements.
The 83 hearings that were held in 2017–18 match the peak in 2014–15 after changes to standing orders were introduced to require additional hearings in specified circumstances.
References and reports
In addition to a considerable number of legislation inquiries, committees inquired into and reported on a diverse array of topics including cancers with a low survival rate, a commitment made by the Business Council of Australia to the Senate, trade and investment relationships with Africa, funding for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef and the science of mitochondrial donation.
The office supported committees in preparing and tabling a total of 206 reports. Figure 12 indicates clearly how the election cycle influences the workload of Senate committees. The two low points in the graph coincide with the beginning of a new Parliament.
The quality of reports remains inherently difficult to measure as each report, while initially drafted by Committee Office staff is, in the end, a committee document which reflects the views of senators undertaking the inquiry. Nevertheless, feedback from senators and some participants in inquiries suggests that, despite the pressure created by the volume of reports, the high quality of committee reports continues to be maintained. This was achieved through the dedication and expertise of secretariat staff, on occasion supplemented by staff from other areas of the department providing research and drafting assistance.