These Guidelines apply to members, office holders, and committee members in Crown entities and State-owned enterprises, as well as to public servants and personnel in other agencies comprising the State sector. 1
Select committees have considerable powers at their disposal to summons witnesses and require the production of information. Officials from within the State sector may be called upon to attend select committees as witnesses (in relation to the Estimates, financial review, petitions or inquiries), or as advisers (the usual position in relation to bills).
The House of Representatives must get free and frank answers and evidence from those who appear before its committees.
Parliamentary proceedings are subject to absolute privilege, to ensure that those participating in them, including witnesses before select committees, can do so without fear of external consequences.
In addition, officials must operate within the framework of accountability to Ministers who are in turn accountable to the House. As a result, there is sometimes a tension between the absolute privilege of the House on the one hand, and the accountability of agency personnel in the State sector to Ministers on the other.
Pressure must not be placed on those appearing before a select committee, in order to deter them from giving advice or evidence, nor should action be taken against them as a direct consequence of their giving evidence. Conduct in breach of this rule could lead to punishment by the House for contempt.
However, officials from State sector agencies appear before select committees in support of Ministerial accountability, and their conduct must be consistent with this. Therefore, at a minimum, they have an obligation to manage risks and spring no surprises on the Minister. This is the case even when officials appear on matters which do not involve Ministerial accountability, such as when they exercise an independent statutory responsibility or appear in a personal capacity.
Public Service departments must remember that they cannot make a submission on a bill without the specific approval of the Cabinet Legislation Committee. In the case of officials from agencies in the wider State sector, who wish (or are invited) to make a submission to a select committee on any matter, they are expected to discuss the matter first with the responsible Minister. 2
Responsibility for justifying Government policy, explaining how it was developed, or commenting on alternative policy proposals, ultimately rests with Ministers.
1 The Public Service departments are listed on the First Schedule of the State Sector Act 1988. The term "State sector agency" broadly refers to central government agencies which are either owned or controlled by the Crown through Ministers (often referred to as the agency's appropriate, responsible, or shareholding Minister).
2 Cabinet Manual 5.74.