Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Bedtime reading: Parliamentary Committee on Train Services

The Legislative Council's Select Committee on Train Services has just issued its first interim report. The paper includes the report itself, voting results on its more controversial findings and minority reports from some committee members.

The media soon jumped on to the report’s findings. It was sometimes treated it as if it came from an authoritative source, compiled after a careful evaluation of evidence of witnesses called before it.

Despite the quality of presentations from witnesses (who were all leaders in their fields) a parliamentary committee report does not have the same rigour as (say) an independent inquiry or royal commission (although some processes eg the use of expert witnesses and the invitation of submissions appear similar).

Instead ‘findings’ of parliamentary committees are more likely to be ‘opinions’ supported by the majority of its members. Notwithstanding the effort that witnesses and others made when writing submissions, the broad content of parliamentary committee reports are largely determined by the party affiliations of its members.

This particular committee had a majority of non-government members. Tension between them was sometimes apparent to witnesses who heard some of the asides. These differences intensified through the pages of the interim report (and in particular voting on the wording of findings) that reveal a committee sharply divided on party lines.

Parliamentary committees reporting on controversial matters tend to follow a common script. The government MPs seek to present the government in the best light. The opposition MPs seek to discredit the government, while seeking to remove criticism of their own period in office. And minor party members may use the process to boost their own profile.

The committee’s greatest impact may well have been during the hearings (that generated significant publicity). The previous rail operator opposed an upgrading of the under-rated Comeng train air conditioners and had neither obligation nor funding to do so. However the upgrades, funded by government, were announced as part of the new train contracts signed in late 2009. Also coinciding with the new contracts (which brought in a new operator) was a doubling of track, signal and overhead maintenance expenditure.

As for the future, parliamentary committees tend to have a life of their own. This committee’s scope has extended to ticketing, meaning that public transport will be under parliamentary scrutiny for some time yet.

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