Senate Estimates are back today. We hear that two issues that Crikey has been following will be coming up – ABC bullying and the Film Finance Corporation funding for the kids’ animated series Crocadoo, where the answers already given by Arts Minister Rod Kemp seem to have only raised more questions.

They should be fun, but there’s a much bigger question hanging over the whole of Estimates and the entire Senate Committee system. How will they change – how will they do their job – when the balance of power in the upper house switches to the Coalition?

The Parliament House website describes the function of Committees as follows:

The purpose of parliamentary committees is mainly to conduct inquiries into specified matters which includes taking submissions, hearing witnesses, sifting evidence, discussing matters in detail and formulating reasoned conclusions… An important function of committees is to scrutinise government activity including legislation, the conduct of public administration and policy issues. Committees may oversee the expenditure of public money and they may call the Government or the public service to account for their actions and ask them to explain or justify administrative decisions.

A parliamentary committee consists of a group of Members or Senators (or both in the case of joint committees) appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament. Through its committees the Parliament obtains information from Government agencies and peak bodies and advice from experts on the matters under investigation.

A specific Senate backgrounder is more explicit on the role of Senate Committees. “The role of committees is to investigate and to draw attention to what they find. They throw ‘light in dark corners’ and give advice,” it says. Interestingly, it notes that “more time is spent by senators in committee meetings overall than in sittings in the Senate chamber… Senators serve on more than forty parliamentary committees”.

Will the Government want this? Won’t they prefer to have their boys and girls in the Chamber pushing their legislation through? The Senate’s standing orders specify the size of standing committees and the number of positions allocated to senators from the government, opposition, minority parties and independents.

References committees comprise six senators – two government members, three opposition members and one minor party or independent senators. They are chaired by non-government senators; six committees have an opposition chair and two have members of the largest minority group in the Senate as chair. Legislation committees consist of six senators – three government members, two opposition members and one member from the minority groups and independent senators. Each legislation committee has a government chair and an effective government majority.

Do the arithmetic and you’ll see how the change in the balance of power to the Government will change the make up of Senate Committees.

But more could happen. The Government will now have the numbers to amend the Standing Orders, to change the way Committees are constituted and take complete control of the system itself. Will it happen? That’s what we want to look at in Crikey this week. The House of Review – reviewed. Will checks and balances end up as rubber stamps?