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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 772

Senator CHAPMAN (11.18 a.m.) —in reply—I want to respond to the arguments that have been put by Senator Faulkner and Senator Burns on behalf of the government, by Senator Coulter on behalf of the Australian Democrats and by Senator Margetts on behalf of the Greens (WA). Can

I say at the outset that I am extremely disappointed at the refusal of any of those political groups to support the reference of this very important issue to a committee for inquiry.

  Senator Faulkner defended the government's position in not supporting the reference of the government's intention to sign the desertification convention to a Senate committee for investigation on the basis that there were a wide range of representatives on Australia's delegation to the final negotiating session on this treaty and that the negotiating committees from the various countries represented at that session agree that there is a need for a global mechanism.

  Let me say in response that, in the first instance, he referred to the fact that state governments and the National Farmers Federation had representatives in Australia's delegation. Notwithstanding the fact that at this stage the NFF, in the way in which the Australian delegation has agreed to the convention, supports it, the NFF also supports the fact that before this convention is signed there ought to be a parliamentary inquiry into it. The fact that it was part of the Australian delegation does not in any way diminish the fact that this Senate committee should inquire into Australia's signing of this convention, because at least one of the groups that was represented on Australia's delegation supports this committee reference.

  As well as that, as I said in my earlier remarks, two of its state constituent bodies, the South Australian Farmers Federation and the New South Wales Farmers Federation, passed unanimous resolutions—not just a majority—at their recent state conferences, saying that Australia should not sign this convention before it had been investigated by an appropriate parliamentary committee. So let us have none of the nonsense that the fact that one of the members of the Australian delegation in the final analysis went along with our agreement last June to this convention in any way precludes a parliamentary inquiry into this convention.

  Secondly, in relation to Senator Faulkner's point on the conclusion of the negotiating committee regarding the need for a global mechanism on this issue, of course that committee would agree. It is part of the international bureaucracy which feeds off this system of international conventions and international agreements. Again, the fact that a group of international professional bureaucrats agreed to this convention is no argument against this parliament investigating the impact on Australia of the signing of this convention. Senator Faulkner's arguments simply do not stand the test of scrutiny. Senator Coulter said that he had a lot of sympathy for what I said in my remarks in proposing this reference. But, having said that, he still would not support the reference.

Senator Coulter —In a general sense, Senator.

Senator CHAPMAN —Yes, in a general sense. He then went on to say that there were three points that I had made in support of the reference: firstly, the signing of this convention, as with other conventions, involves signing an international agreement which bypasses our domestic political process with the consequence that legislation flows from that signing.

Senator Coulter —You didn't support my motion on GATT.

Senator CHAPMAN —I will come to that in a minute, Senator Coulter, in relation to the comments made by Senator Margetts. Secondly, he agreed that there were questions about the reliability of the evidence with regard to the issue of desertification and, therefore, it was valid to question the impact of this convention on farmers. Thirdly, he supported my contention that one of the important issues in relation to desertification was the issue of population growth.

  However, he then said that, because all of those three elements were involved in this issue, it should not go to the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs for investigation; it should go up to the environment committee. Yet he has just identified at least two of the three areas that really do not relate to environmental matters at all.

  As Senator Coulter well knows, as a compromise I offered to the Democrats and the Greens the option of a select committee to investigate this matter, and they refused that—certainly the Democrats refused that. They insisted on the matter going not to the rural and regional affairs committee, not to a select committee, but to the environment committee. There is some inconsistency in what Senator Coulter says.

  Certainly, the matter of international treaties and the domestic policy impact of international treaties is not a matter for the environment committee. In the context of this convention, it certainly is in some respects a matter for the rural and regional affairs committee, because the primary impact on domestic policy of this particular convention will be on people in rural and regional areas. So it is appropriate that it go to that committee; but if not to that committee, then to a select committee.

  Secondly, with regard to the reliability of evidence, there may be some relevance of that to an environment committee. But, again, given that this issue ranges over more than just the environment and primarily relates to its impact on rural and regional people, then either the rural and regional affairs committee or a select committee would be the appropriate avenue for investigation. His rather poor defence, in terms of not supporting the reference to a select committee, was, as Senator Margetts indicated, that he believes that the new committee structure that is about to come into place precludes the role of select committees—that we are in fact restructuring our system of standing committees to avoid the need for select committees.

Senator Coulter —If possible.

Senator CHAPMAN —I simply say in response to that that the new committee structure does not come into place until the middle of October. My intention was to have this inquiry completed by then, because it is the intention of the government to sign this treaty on about 15 October. So any inquiry that we have in relation to this treaty needs to be initiated and completed by that date, a date before the new committee structure comes into place. To say that the new committee structure precludes a reference to a select committee is absolute nonsense.

  I now deal with his argument that it should go to the environment committee because this is a matter, as I said, that has some relevance to population growth. Certainly, the issue in terms of its impact in Africa, as I explained in my introductory remarks, has some relevance to population growth, but certainly not in relation to Australia is this a matter to which population growth has any relevance whatsoever.

  The issue at stake in this convention is not a significant problem in Australia in regard to population growth. In the areas of Australia to which the matter is relevant, it is most definitely not an issue in relation to population growth, because they are the most sparsely populated areas of Australia and are actually having a decline in their population. So to say that, in terms of the relevance of this issue to Australia, it is a matter of population growth, and again argue that it ought to go to the environment committee, is complete and absolute nonsense.

  Senator Coulter also said that he would not support the reference because this convention was not likely to apply to Australia. Who knows what the government will do in the future in pursuit of centralisation of power? On numerous occasions over the 10 or 11 years this government has been in office we have seen the government abuse its external affairs power to take unto itself power which correctly, under our constitution, belongs to the state government jurisdiction.

Senator Cook —Don't be stupid!

Senator CHAPMAN —Does the minister want me to cite the examples, going right back to 1983, when the government abused the external affairs power in a way which never was intended by the framers of our constitution?

Senator Cook —So you say; why is the power in the constitution if it is not to be used?

Senator CHAPMAN —It never was intended in that way and the minister knows that only too well. That is why there is this enormous concern in the community about the way in which the government goes about signing treaties and conventions. Don't talk that nonsense in this chamber.

  On numerous occasions this Labor government over the last decade has abused the external affairs power under the constitution by, as I say, taking unto itself powers which rightly belong under state jurisdiction. The government has done that in many instances well after the signing of the particular convention or treaty that it has then used or abused, or under which it has abused the external affairs power to take that jurisdiction unto itself. So who knows, Senator Coulter, what this government, a Labor government, will do down the track under the external affairs power as a result of signing this convention to take power unto itself?

  This convention has an almost fraudulent basis, given the enormous disagreement and dispute amongst scientists as to the basis of desertification and the evidence in relation to it. Everything that we need to do in this country to deal with this problem can already be done, both internationally and domestically. We do not need this convention. Australia does not need to sign this convention to do what it needs to do in this country to deal with this problem in regard to rangelands, to the extent that it exists, nor do we need this convention to do anything we might want to do internationally to assist other countries to deal with this problem. We can quite easily do that under existing bilateral and multilateral aid provisions. So why do we need this treaty? That is the question that needs to be asked.

  The government's refusal to support an investigation into the convention by a Senate committee can only lead to the conclusion that it has something to hide. We need to ask: what is the government's hidden agenda? What will it do in the future? How will it in the future use this convention to determine domestic policy by abusing the external affairs power? We need the answers to those questions, and that is a very important reason why this matter ought to be referred to a Senate committee for inquiry.

  I now turn to the arguments that Senator Margetts from the Western Australian Greens used in indicating their opposition to this reference to a committee. She raised the issue of the GATT agreement, and Senator Coulter raised it a few moments ago by way of interjection. Senator Margetts said that this government had gone off and signed the GATT agreement and that we in the opposition did not insist that that be investigated by a Senate committee, and therefore she accused us of inconsistency or hypocrisy.

  What Senator Margetts does not understand is that the GATT agreement does not in any way extend the legislative power of the Commonwealth government or the Commonwealth parliament. The Commonwealth parliament already has the powers relating to trade under the constitution as it exists.

Senator Coulter —We are going to change half a dozen bills as a consequence of GATT.

Senator CHAPMAN —Yes, but under power which it already has. The GATT agreement is not extending the legislative power of the Commonwealth. Excise tariff bills and customs tariff bills regularly come into this chamber for debate and discussion, which bills relate to trade issues. There is no extension of the Commonwealth's legislative power as a result of its signing the GATT agreement, but there is potentially in its signing of this particular convention through the extension it gives via the external affairs power. So again Senator Margetts has shown her lack of knowledge of the constitution.

  The concern that we and so many people in the community have about the signing of conventions and treaties relates to those which can potentially change the balance of power between the Commonwealth and the states by giving the Commonwealth the chance to use the external affairs power to determine domestic policy—not foreign policy but domestic policy—as was never envisaged under the constitution. That is the central issue with regard to the government's signing of conventions.

  Senator Margetts also expressed the view that the government does not really seem very interested in helping Africa. She referred to statements by Minister Bilney. She referred to her own recent experience in visiting there. If that is the case—and it would seem from Minister Bilney's statements that it is the case—we again need to ask the question: why is the government signing this convention? It raises yet again the concern that the government has quite another motive for signing this convention, that is, the centralisation of power to itself and the removal of powers which quite correctly should remain under state government jurisdiction. Of course, what that means is giving the Commonwealth the capacity to remove the control of land management from the states, from local government and from individual farmers and graziers.

  Senator Margetts also referred to the additional terms of reference—I think the terms of reference were originally drafted by the Democrats, but the Greens seem to have picked them up—which she had discussed with me and sought our support for. There is a very obvious and clear reason why we would not support those additional terms of reference: those terms of reference involved a major inquiry, a very lengthy inquiry, into the whole issue of desertification.

  The central thrust of what we are trying to achieve in this committee reference is to investigate the impact on Australia, and particularly on domestic policy, of Australia's signing of the convention on desertification. That would, as I have said, be a relatively short-term inquiry. Indeed, it needs to be a short-term inquiry because it needs to be completed before 15 October, which is when the government intends to sign this treaty.

  There is no way that the additional terms of reference which had been sought by the Democrats and the Greens could have been completed within that time frame. As I said, the terms of reference which they wanted involved a major inquiry, a quite separate inquiry. If they want to pursue that issue, they can do it by putting up those terms of reference, as indeed I think Senator Coulter has, for a separate inquiry. But they should in no way be confused with the issues at stake in this particular reference and should not be used as a reason for refusing to support this reference, because it is, as I said, a quite separate issue.

  Senator Margetts also claimed that, in relation to the scientific evidence on desertification and its contributing factors and nature, it is very easy to find tame scientists who will put a point of view on behalf of companies or whatever. Apart from the fact that that is an ad hominem argument, it is of course not true in relation to this particular issue. As Senator Coulter himself acknowledged, there is a lot of disagreement about the nature and causes of desertification. What Senator Margetts refuses to do is look at the evidence and the arguments which have been presented by these scientists and which I presented in my remarks earlier.

  I say to Senator Margetts that Drs Thomas and Middleton, to whom I referred extensively in my speech when moving this motion, are not oddball, as she asserted. On the contrary, they are at the centre of scientific research on desertification and indeed were the major contributors to the World Atlas of Desertification, which was published by the United Nations Environment Program itself. So to try to negate the arguments of these two reputable scientists in the scandalous way in which Senator Margetts has done by referring to them as oddball, when, as I said, they are central and well-recognised researchers on this issue and are in fact the authors of the World Atlas of Desertification, simply shows how far from reality her argument is and shows the lack of knowledge and consideration of this issue by the Western Australian Greens.

  Finally, I turn to the remarks made on behalf of the government by Senator Burns, who, I suppose, raised two issues in relation to this matter. Firstly, he said that a number of issues were currently under investigation in the landcare inquiry currently being undertaken by the rural and regional affairs committee. I agree with him on that. In fact, that again reinforces why there was no need for the extended terms of reference sought by the Democrats and the Greens on this issue. A lot of those issues—the actual nature of desertification itself in relation to Australia and the issues surrounding that—are already under investigation.

  The purpose of the reference that I have moved this morning is to investigate the convention's constitutional and domestic policy impact on Australia and its effect on farmers and graziers in particular. The issue of desertification and the environment issues themselves, as I said, are matters for another inquiry and, as Senator Burns has indicated, they form part of an inquiry that is already being undertaken. So Senator Burns, in effect, reinforced the arguments that I have put.

  Senator Burns then referred to stocking rates. He said there ought to be control over what farmers and graziers do in relation to their land management; they should not be allowed to overstock; there should be some control over stocking rates.

  I agree with Senator Burns—I agree with him 100 per cent. But there already is that control—at the state level, where appropriately it should lie. State governments already, in terms of their lease agreements with pastoralists, define stocking rates and define land management principles that have to be observed, otherwise those leases are not renewed.

  What we are saying is that that is the level where the control ought to remain because that is where it is appropriate: closest to the people who are affected and where decisions are made by people closest to the issue. It should not be usurped by a central government here in Canberra by abusing the external affairs power, which the government will be able to do if it signs and ratifies this convention.

  That should not be allowed to be done at all. Leave it where it appropriately lies, under state government jurisdiction.

  Again, that is the whole central issue in regard to this convention: what is the government's intention? Senator Burns has let the cat out of the bag by raising that very issue. Quite obviously, it is the intention of a centralising Labor government to take this control of land management unto itself and away from its appropriate jurisdiction, the state level. Senator Burns has let the cat out of the bag by referring to that very issue. Again, that simply reinforces the need for this inquiry. I close my remarks by urging all of my colleagues in the Senate to support my motion.

  Question put:

  That the motion (Senator Chapman's) be agreed to.