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Monday, 30 August 1999
Page: 7931

Senator COONEY (3:39 PM) —I present report No. 24 of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties entitled A seminar on the role of parliaments in treaty making , together with minutes of proceedings, and I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.

Leave granted.

Senator COONEY —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

On some occasions I would seek leave to incorporate the tabling statement in Hansard but on this occasion, as the report deals with an important meeting on treaty making, I will speak to it. The report contains an overview of the main issues discussed at a seminar on the role of parliaments in treaty making conducted in June this year by the treaties committee in association with the Australasian Study of Parliament Group. The report also sets out the ideas for future action that were raised during the seminar and includes a full record of the seminar proceedings.

The work of the treaties committee over the last few years has revealed a sense of unease in parts of the Australian community about the impact of international law on Australian law and policy. Some people believe that treaty obligations represent a loss of national sovereignty, and some doubt the capacity of parliaments to control the process. The only way for these concerns to be resolved is for more information to be made publicly available and for our elected representatives to ensure that any international obligations entered into truly reflect our national interest.

The fundamental purpose of our seminar was to explore the opportunities that exist for parliaments around the country to become more aware of, and involved in, the process of treaty making. It is clear that governments in the federal system have had much to say about treaties over the years. Even though Australia acts internationally as one body, it is, in fact, a federation. That has been reflected in the way treaties have been dealt with over the years—at a government level, not at a parliamentary level. This conference addressed the issue of how parliaments in a federal system are able to operate well enough to make the treaty process a good one for the population as a whole.

It was pleasing to see the level of interest displayed in these issues by the seminar participants. This interest led to the development of a number of sensible proposals for greater parliamentary involvement in treaty making—proposals that would see more information about treaty actions provided to state parliaments, more effective community consultation on treaty making, and better cooperation between the Commonwealth and state parliaments. The first proposal, submitted by representatives from the Western Australian parliament, called for treaty information—including national interest analyses—to be routinely presented to all state and territory parliaments, and for all state and territory parliaments to establish standing committees dedicated to the task of reviewing treaty information and liaison with the treaties committee in the Commonwealth parliament.

The second proposal, which is seen as complementary and which was submitted by members of the treaties committee, is that all Australian parliaments contribute to the establishment of an interparliamentary working group on treaties. This proposal builds on earlier recommendations from the Federal-State Relations Committee of the Victorian parliament. We envisage that the working group would comprise members from all of the parliamentary committees represented at the seminar and any other committees that may, over time, become interested in treaty matters and that it would act as a forum for promoting wider public awareness of proposed treaty actions and better parliamentary scrutiny of treaty making.

In our view, both of these proposals warrant serious consideration. They are not grandiose and would cost little to implement. To borrow words used by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in his address to the seminar, the reason behind the government's reformed treaty making process is to `ensure that the parliament and the general community are the ultimate arbiters of whether international treaties are in Australia's national interest'. This is also the reason behind the proposals emerging from our seminar. It is important to stress, however, that the measures described in these proposals will not happen unless seminar participants, and others with an interest in the process, make them happen. Those of us who believe it important for local communities, and their elected representatives, to understand and influence the treaty making process must take the initiative. I urge the presiding officers in each state and territory parliament, and interested members in each of those parliaments, to consider these proposals and take action to make them happen.

I would like to thank the special guest speakers at our seminar: the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon. Alexander Downer; Associate Professor Donald Rothwell; Professor Richard Herr; Professor Gillian Triggs; Bill Campbell from the Attorney-General's Department; our parliamentary colleague from New Zealand the Hon. Derek Quigley MP; and all of our state and territory parliamentary colleagues. Thanks are also due to all of the other seminar participants who helped make the event a success. Thanks are due to the secretariat of the committee. I thank each and every one of them for the success of the seminar.

The treaties committee has been a most successful committee. It arose out of a report, amongst other things, by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee and from ideas by the Attorney-General, Daryl Williams. The committee has considered the idea of treaty making around the world at a time when parts of the world are coming closer and closer together, and has brought treaties closer to the people.