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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2206

Senator BOURNE (9.50 a.m.) —I move:

  That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

  Leave granted.

  The speech read as follows

The purpose of this bill is to require parliamentary approval of treaties which the Government proposes should apply to Australia.

The Democrat's reason for introducing this bill is to make the Government more accountable in its conduct of our international relations. Global interdependence is growing rapidly, and it is a strange anachronism that Parliament has no say over the signing of treaties which can be of momentous significance to Australia.

The procedure by which Parliament now considers treaties is nothing short of farcical. Once a year, a huge number of agreements is tabled, and a few Senators make brief comments on a handful of them. No vote is taken, because Parliament's opinion is irrelevant. That is the pitiful extent to which Australia's democratically elected representatives have a say in treaty-making.

In a few cases, some of the provisions of a treaty require domestic legislation. This can produce some debate about the treaty's merits, and Parliament can prevent at least those provisions from being given the force of domestic law. But this is an incidental and marginal form of accountability, and is clearly unsatisfactory.

The Democrats' belief that treaties should be approved by Parliament goes back to the mid-1980s. The nuclear debate had revealed that Australian governments had signed agreements which made Australia a nuclear target, and a potential contributor to nuclear weapons proliferation, without the need for Parliament's approval or even knowledge.

History repeated itself in 1988, when the Hawke Government signed new ten-year agreements covering the US/Australian facilities at Pine Gap and Nurrungar. Because the agreements were made the subject of a prime ministerial statement, a parliamentary debate did occur—but the agreements were a fait accompli, and the debate a mere formality.

The Democrats note with interest that the Opposition has begun to call for Parliament to be given a greater role. On the 8th of June this year, Opposition Leader Alexander Downer told the National Press Club that the Australian Parliament should have a "proper say" in our international treaty-making processes.

Here is the Opposition's opportunity to demonstrate its sincerity in demanding greater accountability in treaty-making. A bill which does indeed give Parliament a proper say.

I should make one thing clear. This is not a Fortress Australia bill. It is not an attempt to disengage from the world community, to play King Canute by ordering away the rising tide of international interdependence. That is neither possible nor desirable.

On the contrary, this bill is designed to better engage Australia with the world. As the web of agreements binding nations together grows stronger and more complex, it is untenable that Parliament's agenda continues to look as though the rest of the world barely exists. We argue over the detail of domestic legislation which is often far less significant than treaties which barely make a dent on our collective consciousness. For example, debate in this place about the completion of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has been minimal and shallow, despite the enormous impact it is predicted to have on our national economy.

The longer this state of affairs continues, the more irrelevant this Parliament will become. Many of our number will continue to regard treaty-making as an intrinsically suspect activity conducted by shadowy figures in far-off places. The purpose of this bill is to make Parliament a part of the treaty-making process. The result should be a more mature and informed debate about international matters. Attempts to beat up voter concern about international influence over our domestic affairs would become much more difficult to sustain.

This bill should be attractive to both the Government and the Opposition. For the Government, it holds the promise of a better domestic understanding of international affairs, and a more mature debate. For the Opposition, it provides for greater executive accountability.

Questions have been raised as to whether Parliament has the constitutional power to require by legislation that treaties be submitted to it for approval. We have sought advice from Mr Tony Morris QC on this point, and he has no doubt that Parliament does have that power.

The bill has been drafted to provide a simple and effective mechanism for approving treaties which does not make unwanted demands on Parliament's time.

Under the model we have chosen, either House of Parliament would debate a treaty if, within 15 sitting days of it being tabled, a member of that House gives notice of motion that the treaty be considered. If no notice of motion is given, the House is deemed to have approved the treaty after 15 sitting days have elapsed. If notice is given, then the treaty must be considered within 15 sitting days, with approval requiring the assent of the House. Both Houses must have approved the treaty by one of these two methods before it can enter into force in respect of Australia. If either House votes against the treaty, it cannot enter into force.

This procedure ensures that Parliament does not spend unnecessary time debating inconsequential or uncontroversial treaties. However it also avoids the inherent negativity of a disallowance procedure. It is a genuine approval process which allows Parliament to concentrate on those agreements which are significant or controversial—not just those which are controversial.

A notice of motion for approval of a treaty may be withdrawn, at one sitting day's notice, by the member who gave it. If fifteen sitting days have not yet elapsed since the treaty was tabled, any member can give a new notice of motion to approve the same treaty. Alternatively, any other member can take over the notice of motion whether or not fifteen sitting days have expired. This is based on the disallowance procedures of the Acts Interpretation Act.

The Acts Interpretation Act also provides the model for what happens to an approval motion when the House of Representatives is dissolved or expired, or the Parliament is prorogued.

If fifteen sitting days has not elapsed since tabling of the treaty, and there is no current notice of motion for approval, then notice can be given in the new Parliament within the remaining available sitting days. If there is a notice of motion which has not been withdrawn, or called on, or not otherwise disposed of, then the treaty is deemed to be tabled in the relevant House on its first day back.

An important provision of this bill is that any reservation to a treaty proposed by the Government also requires parliamentary approval, by exactly the same procedure as applies to treaties. Reservations have an obvious impact on the operation of a treaty in respect of Australia, and should be subjected to the same oversight as the treaty itself.

I would like to record my thanks to the Clerk of the Senate, and to Mr Tony Morris QC, for their assistance in drafting this legislation.

I would conclude by saying that this bill, if passed into law, would achieve two things: it would provide greater government accountability, and would maintain Parliament's relevance in the international age. I commend the bill to the Senate.

  Debate (on motion by Senator Panizza) adjourned.