Raizel wins Senate Essay Prize

November 19, 2010 by J-Wire
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Raizel Gutnick, a year 12 student at Melbourne’s Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah College has won the prestigious Richard Baker Senate Essay prize.

The prize is awarded annually by the President of the Senate and is open to students throughout Australia. The winning essay is published on the Senate website and the Parliamentary Education Office website. Raizel, a national politics student, receives a cash award of $250 with a further $250 going to the school.

Raizel’s prize-winning essay:

How have the committees contributed to the Senate’s accountability function?

Raizel Gutnick

The increased prominence of the Senate Committee system in recent decades has substantially enriched the Australian parliamentary system which enshrines the ideals of accountability and responsible government. In its role as House of Review, The Senate’s scrutiny of government activities, policies and legislation operates as a fundamental check on the power of the government of the day. Essential to this role is the Senate Committee system which allows for a greater detailed review of government policy than is afforded by the limitations of Question Time and general debate in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. American founding father Thomas Jefferson eloquently stated, “Most bad government results from too much government”. Thus in the Senate, where the Government frequently cannot command a majority, Bills have a considerably greater chance of receiving the necessary scrutiny.

Espousing these ideals, each bill that comes before the Senate is examined by the Scrutiny of Bills Committee which is concerned to ensure that legislation does not “trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties” of citizens (standing order 24). For example, in a recent report ( May 2010), the committee voiced its concern about mandatory penalties in relation to the Anti‐People Smuggling and Other Measures Bill 2010 which put in place laws to provide greater deterrence of people smuggling activity and to address the serious consequences of such activity. The report highlighted that mandatory sentences limit the usual judicial discretion exercised when determining a proper sentence and thanked the Minister for this comprehensive response. 1 This provides an essential mechanism to achieve transparent government, in which legislation that impacts on fundamental rights and obligations can be considered carefully.

Moreover, Bills considered to require more detailed examination are referred to the relevant legislative and general purpose standing committees covering all areas of government administration. They have developed a reputation of being the backbone of the Senate Committee system in their core ‘watchdog’ function for the Senate. These committees also have extensive powers including to hold public hearings, question witnesses including the relevant minister, departmental officials and various interest groups to inquire into the effects of government policy, or whether problems exist in the community which the government needs to be addressing. For example, this is evidenced by the Senate Education and Work Place Relations Committee which is currently holding an Inquiry into the administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing. It has received over 270 submissions from the public2 , thus allowing for citizen participation in holding the government answerable to the people, a central element of our flourishing liberal democracy. This process provides a vital vehicle to examine the performance of the government and significantly enhances the capacity of the Senate and the community to scrutinise the government and the legislative process.

Furthermore, through the twice‐yearly consideration of estimates by Senate committees, accountability is most directly evident, to the extent that Hon. Senator John Faulkner described it as the ‘best accountability mechanism of any Australian parliament’3. These committees examine in detail whether revenue is being spent appropriately and efficiently by relevant government departments and have become a tool highly valued by Senators as a means to improve government administration and hold the executive more accountable to the public for policy decisions.

Upon the completion of their inquiries, Committees report to the Senate which may recommend amendments to a bill. Individual senators often take up concerns raised by the committee and draft amendments to the bill accordingly. However, the degree of effectiveness of the committee system depends on the makeup of the Senate. If the Government has a majority in both Houses the strength of the committee system is reduced to a rubber stamp, which was particularly evident when the Howard Government commanded a Senate majority.

Moreover, once a report is submitted to the Senate there is no requirement on senators to reflect the report’s findings as exemplified by the Senate Procedures Committee report on reforms of Question Time.

Nonetheless, the Senate’s comprehensive committee system emerges as the ‘accountability powerhouse of the Senate’4. The value of the committee system as a means of accountability is exemplified by the increased use of committees. In 2009, 191 reports were tabled by the Senate committees, in contrast to an average of 32 annual reports during the 1970‐90’s5. In assisting the Senate to perform its law‐making and inquiry role more effectively, the committee system truly espouses Sir Richard Baker’s vision of Senate that is ‘strong, a powerful, and a living house’.6

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