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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 764


Senator COULTER (10.31 a.m.) —We also will not be supporting Senator Chapman's motion, but for somewhat different reasons from the ones indicated by the government, although the government did not give a great deal of information as to why it was not supporting the motion. We have a great deal of sympathy for a lot of what Senator Chapman has said and we believe that there are some very important issues involved. The reasons we do not support this motion are that there is a confusion in the way Senator Chapman has presented this issue and that it is better dealt with in other ways.

  He is dealing with three quite separate issues, and it is important to tease those issues out. Firstly, there is the matter of the signing of international or intranational agreements which bypass the political process, something to which I have referred repeatedly in this chamber. International conventions signed by the government often lead to legislation presented to this parliament. When that happens, we are frequently told that it is totally impossible for us to amend, even in the most trivial ways, any part of that legislation. We are told that this has been negotiated, it is an international convention and the legislation in Australia must give effect absolutely precisely to this convention—no more, no less. That is bypassing the political process.

  We see exactly the same thing in this issue. The opposition is totally inconsistent with intergovernmental agreements. It is very keen on intergovernmental agreements within Australia and has watered down many of the environmental protection measures in Australia in the name of so-called states rights. But exactly the same thing happens, and the opposition should be just as concerned about that aspect—namely, that the various states of Australia and the Commonwealth enter into an agreement which is done outside the parliamentary process, it comes to this parliament in the form of legislation, and this parliament is again told that it cannot change one T, or one full stop, or one comma lest the complementary legislation passed in the other states does not exactly parallel the legislation passed here. Again, it bypasses the political process. That is one issue. It is a very important issue.

  The Democrats will be bringing forward in this parliament in a different form a consideration of that very matter—that international agreements should indeed be dealt with by some process which involves at least a parliamentary scrutiny of what the government intends to enter into. That issue is a broad issue. It goes well beyond a particular treaty, a desertification treaty or convention, or any other treaty. It is a general question that should be dealt with as a general matter and should be solved once and for all.

  The second issue Senator Chapman took up is the reliability of the evidence in relation to desertification. Interestingly, he has quoted a couple of scientists from England. I did not think England was subject to a great deal of desertification. Nonetheless, he has confused that very point with the reference to a rural and regional committee and drawn attention to the fact that many people in Australia are concerned about the impact on Australian farmers of the signing of this convention.

  Surely if there is argument about the scientific basis of desertification, if there is argument about whether desertification is indeed a process at all, or exactly what the definition of desertification is or should be, then it is more appropriate to send this not to a committee like that—and I understand that Senator Chapman wished to send it to a select committee—but to the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Recreation and the Arts, which is the appropriate committee to look at that very aspect on which he has laid so much emphasis.

  On this point I draw attention to the fact that we are very shortly to change the committee structure of the Senate to set up new committees. Part of the reason for that, which has been agreed to by all the parties in the Senate, was to deal with these references by standing committees as far as possible and not to have select committees. We are all involved in a number of these committees and the workload is getting intense. That is the second point which needs to be made. If there is substance to Senator Chapman's claim in relation to whether or not desertification is a factor, then that issue should go to a different committee.

  The third point that needs to be made is in relation to the actual terms of reference included in Senator Chapman's motion. Here he has moved right away from his concern over definitions, over the processes of desertification. He said that population growth is the chief cause—I think I am quoting him correctly—of desertification in many of these processes. Do we find any reference to that in his terms of reference? We do not find any.

  While he has expressed concern about the definition of desertification, wanting to satisfy himself on that, he seems to be dealing with this very much as a political issue in referring it to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs. Again, the terms of reference are oriented more towards appeasing a group of people who, by his own admission, are substantially concerned about an issue which is unlikely to arise, that is, the application of this convention back into Australia. Even if it were to arise, if the issue of what is desertification and those processes were better sorted out, then that would be the better way to go.

  We are not supporting Senator Chapman's motion. I draw the Senate's attention to the fact that I also have a motion before the Senate. It has somewhat different terms of reference, which is to put that reference to the standing committee on the environment. That motion will come back in the next sitting week. That is to allow somewhat more time for groups to have an input to that process. We believe that is a more appropriate way to proceed than by way of the motion that Senator Chapman has put before us this morning.

  The issues are important. As I said, the general question of international conventions and treaties bypassing the political process is a very important general question. It should not be dealt with in the context of a particular and narrow reference but should be dealt with far more broadly. Secondly, the issue of desertification and that particular treaty is better dealt with in this other way.