Thanks for your question, Emma.
One of the functions of the Australian Parliament is to closely examine the work of the executive government. One of the ways the Senate does this is through Senate estimates, where senators have the opportunity to interrogate ministers and top public servants about government spending.
This process has grown out of 2 key Senate conventions: committee of the whole—where the Senate discusses a bill in detail—and Senate committees—where smaller groups of senators investigate a bill through public inquiry and questioning. The Senate used to look at the Budget papers – or supply bills – in committee of the whole, but this was a slow process and took up a lot of the Senate’s time. In 1970 the Senate decided to refer the bills to specialist estimates committees who would investigate and report back to the Senate. Then in 1994, the Senate’s standing legislation committees took over the estimates process.
Senate legislation committees have a government chair, an opposition deputy chair and have a balance of government and non-government members. This gives voice to the opposition and to the crossbench—minor party and independent senators.
The House of Representatives also considers bill in detail—in a process known as consideration in detail—and also has committees.
Because the government has the support of the majority of members in the House, Budget bills always pass and are not scrutinised – closely examined – as closely as in the Senate. These differences mean the House of Representatives has not developed the same processes as the Senate.
The Senate, where the government most often does not have a majority, considers the Budget in more detail through estimates before agreeing—or not agreeing—to it.
To learn more about Senate estimates, check out our Senate estimates fact sheet or Senate brief: consideration of estimates by the Senate’s legislation committees. You can also learn about the types of topics discussed at recent estimates hearing by searching for ‘estimates’ on News from our Parliament.