Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

Parliament and Accountability: The Role of Parliamentary Oversight Committees

Parliament and Accountability: The Role of Parliamentary Oversight Committees

Advice on legislation or legal policy issues contained in this paper is provided for use in parliamentary debate and for related parliamentary purposes. This paper is not professional legal opinion.
Briefing Paper No. 12/2005 by Gareth Griffith
The focus of this paper is on parliamentary oversight committees and the role they play as scrutiny mechanisms. It begins with an account of the broader subject of parliamentary accountability, using this as a conceptual and practical context for the discussion of oversight committees. The paper’s practical emphasis is on New South Wales.

While the accountability role played by Parliament is more important than ever, Parliament must consciously share that work with other agencies. As Peter Barberis comments, ‘The key is to establish a proper working relationship between Parliament and the extra-parliamentary institutions of accountability’. Parliamentary oversight committees are one response to this challenge, one that places Parliament in a supervisory or monitoring role, maintaining oversight of the intricate web of accountability relationships that have developed in modern times.

At least five types of parliamentary oversight committees can be identified: (a) legislative review committees which scrutinise government and other bills; (b) Public Accounts Committees concerned with the supervision of public finance; (c) estimates committees to examine the appropriations of government departments and agencies; (d) other select or standing committees concerned with the scrutiny of policy and administration; and (e) the more recently established specialised oversight committees for the supervision of independent investigatory bodies. The mandate of the first is to guard against legislative invasion of individual rights, the second to guard the public purse, the third and fourth to stand guard as watchdogs over the Executive, and the fifth to guard the guardians of integrity.

Specialist oversight committees of this last type are now a common feature of the Australian parliamentary landscape. This is especially the case in NSW where parliamentary committees supervise most of the independent investigatory agencies. The exception to the rule is the NSW Crime Commission, the oversight of which is not the responsibility of a specific parliamentary committee. At present, the NSW Parliament has four joint committees, established by statute, for the oversight of various organisations. These are the: Joint Standing Committee on the ICAC; Joint Committee on the Office of the Ombudsman and the Police Integrity Commission; Joint Committee on the Health Care Complaints Commission; and the Joint Committee on Children and Young People.