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Before 1970, details of the government’s proposed expenditure (known as estimates) were debated solely in the chamber. This was time consuming and created difficulties for the limited number of ministers in the Senate responsible for answering questions from senators.

On 17 September 1970 the Senate referred the estimates for the year ended 30 June 1971 to newly created estimates committees whose subject interests matched the portfolios of the five Senate ministers. The estimates committees sat for 74 hours and questioned 144 departmental officers, reducing the time taken to consider the government’s proposed expenditure in the Senate in previous years by over 60 per cent. A review of the estimates hearings noted that they enabled senators ‘to probe more deeply and obtain more information from Ministers and departmental officers’ and were ‘clearly a success’.

Today, examination of the estimates is carried out by legislation committees. These committees scrutinise not only the expenditure proposals, but the wide-ranging operations and activities of government departments and agencies, thus providing one of the most powerful tools used by the Senate to hold the government to account.

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Gordon Sinclair Davidson, Senator for South Australia, Interview with Bruce Edwards on the examination of the estimates before estimates committees, 1985

National Library of Australia, TRC 4900/41, session 64, 00:24:51-00:27:44.
Full interview available at

Harold Young, Senator for South Australia 1968-83, Interview with Ken Taylor, 1987

National Library of Australia, TRC 4900/97, session 4, 00:31:29-00:32:27.
Full interview available at

George Branson, Senator for Western Australia 1958-71, Interview with Clarence Hermes, 1984

National Library of Australia, TRC 4900/16, session 9, 00:20:04-00:22:23.
Full interview available at

Gordon Sinclair Davidson, Senator for South Australia, Interview with Bruce Edwards, 1984-86

National Library of Australia, TRC 4900/41, session 61, 00:25:25-00:26:56.
Full interview available at

Geoffrey Thomas McLaren, Senator for South Australia 1971-83, Interview with Tony Hannan, 1988

National Library of Australia, TRC 4900/71, session 6, 00:11:45-00:13:45.
Full interview available at

Senators speak on the importance of estimates hearings

Department of the Senate, 2018

Senate Journals, 17 September 1970, p. 299

Where it all began. The estimates are referred for the first time to the newly established estimates committees.

From left: Senator the Hon. Sir Alister McMullin KCMG (President of the Senate) and senators George Georges, Douglas McClelland, Kenneth Anderson, Magnus Cormack (chair), Lionel Murphy, Vincent Gair, John Sim and Harold Young

Estimates Committee A photographed on its first day of operation, 17 September 1970.