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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2784


Senator ABETZ (3:50 PM) —I need to make a brief contribution in this debate, given the gross misrepresentations that have occurred this afternoon in relation to the government's response to the Multilateral Agreement on Investment report from the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. It would be worthwhile for the Senate to consider the history of international treaty making in this country. When we went to the election in 1996, a policy of ours was to establish the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties so that these sorts of things could be examined in the public arena, with all members of parliament, so that there would be some transparency in the treaty making process.

When did the Multilateral Agreement on Investment start its negotiations in Paris with the OECD? It was under the previous Labor government, who were in opposition to transparency in our treaty making process. Indeed, former Senator Gareth Evans is on the public record time and time again saying that the treaty making process should not be part and parcel of parliamentary inquiry because you could not have every man and his dog looking at these treaties. We as a government were absolutely and utterly committed to involving the democratic processes of this country. That is why we established the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

Senator Murphy interjecting


Senator ABETZ —Indeed, but for our policy to do so, Senator Murphy, you would not have had the opportunity of even sitting on the committee. But we remained true to our election policy of establishing that committee.

The precursor to the committee was the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee's report on the external affairs power. I had the great pleasure of sitting on that committee when it came down with its unanimous report suggesting that a committee such as the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties should be established. We were the only party that went to the election with that policy. We were elected. We established the committee. Given my involvement in the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, I put my hand up and was very pleased to be chosen to sit on the inaugural Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.

Senator Murphy passes the gratuitous comment across the chamber as to whether or not I had bothered to turn up. He should have turned up. He should have read the Hansard because he would have found one of the most potent cross-examinations was undertaken by me of Treasury officials. I would invite you to read the Hansard because people with a concern about the Multilateral Agreement on Investment in fact reprinted the Hansard and took it around the country as an example of how our treaty making processes were actively at work involving the democratic process. I addressed public meetings in Tasmania and around Australia on that very issue.


Senator Murphy —Supporting it?


Senator ABETZ —No, not at all. I involved the body politic in the process because, unlike the previous Labor government that had commenced the process in secret without telling anybody—that was the Labor Party's view of the world in relation to this treaty—when we came to government we agreed to put the draft document on the Internet so everybody could have access to it. Did it ever go on the Internet under Labor? No, not a printed word from the previous Labor Party because they were negotiating in secret. We as a government had nothing to hide. We were happy for the draft exposure to go on the Internet and for it to go to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties for public examination, because we happen to believe in the democratic process.

So it is highly disingenuous of speakers from the Labor Party to come into this place and assert that somehow they were the champions of democracy or champions of the people in relation to this issue. We as a government had said all along when we got into government and found out that the Labor Party had been negotiating secretly on this that we will continue the negotiations with one major caveat, that is, it is within Australia's national interest; and to determine whether it was in Australia's national interest we involved the public.

We got the people of Australia to access it on the Internet. We allowed them to make submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, something that the previous Labor government would never have allowed. We allowed all that to occur. It is therefore highly disingenuous for people such as Senator Murphy to come into this chamber making what are quite bald and nonsensical assertions when you have a look at the history of the treaty making process in this country.

In relation to the two recommendations that were made by the committee—and, as I understand it, unanimously, Senator Murphy, you and I in fact agreed on this—that Australia not sign—


Senator Murphy —Exactly. It is the government's response I am talking about.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Murphy!


Senator ABETZ —No.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Abetz, address the chair please.


Senator ABETZ —Thank you, Madam Deputy President. You might like to remind others not to interject.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —I have just called people to order.


Senator ABETZ —There were two recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. The first recommendation was that Australia not sign the final text of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment `unless and until a thorough assessment has been made of the national interest and a decision is made that it is in Australia's national interest to do so'. Where was the Labor Party's dissenting report saying that that is an outrageous recommendation, that we should not consider a Multilateral Agreement on Investment in any shape or form?

You signed off, Senator Murphy, along with all your Labor colleagues, on the recommendation that Australia not sign the final text of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment `unless and until a thorough assessment has been made and a decision is made that it is in Australia's national interest to do so'. So you were prepared for the process to continue with us making an examination as to whether it was in Australia's interest to do so. You have now come into this chamber, having signed off on that report, making the assertion that you and the Labor Party were against this Multilateral Agreement on Investment from the beginning when you in fact were the initiators of Australia being involved in this agreement. It is outrageous.


Senator Murphy —I rise on a point of order. Senator Abetz has just said that we claim to be opposed to the committee's recommendations. That is simply not true. What I questioned was the government's response—nothing else.


Senator ABETZ —This is a debating point.


Senator Murphy —It is not a debating point. You made a statement which was blatantly wrong.


Senator ABETZ —Read your speech.


Senator Murphy —No, you read the Hansard , Senator Abetz, because I said that I was concerned about the government's response, not the committee's recommendation.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —What is your point of order?


Senator ABETZ —There is no point of order and he is wasting my time.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Excuse me, Senator Abetz. I will make the call on whether there is a point of order, thank you.


Senator ABETZ —And I am sure you will agree with me.


The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —There is no point of order. I would appreciate less interjection and I would appreciate people addressing the chair.


Senator ABETZ —Thank you, Madam Deputy President. The government responded to this recommendation, which Senator Murphy signed off on, which said that Australia not sign `unless and until a thorough assessment has been made and a decision is made that it is in Australia's national interest to do so'. He did not sign off on a report suggesting that we should close down all discussions. Senator Murphy or any of his Labor colleagues did not suggest that the process should be discontinued absolutely. Indeed, the committee unanimously agreed that we should keep monitoring it to see whether it was within the national interest. The government's response was—


Senator Murphy —Yes?


Senator ABETZ —Well, I will read it to you. It said:

The Government welcomes the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties' support for its longstanding and clearly articulated position that it would only sign the MAI if it was demonstrably in Australia's national interest to do so.

That has been this government's stand from the beginning and that is our response. In other words, we accepted recommendation No. 1. Recommendation No. 2 states:

The Committee continue its public inquiry into the MAI and provide a fuller report to Parliament at a later date.

That second recommendation was made on the understanding that negotiations were still taking place. In relation to the fact that negotiations stopped and the whole thing has fallen apart, it would be quite silly for the committee to continue its inquiry into something that is non-existent. But, of course, that is how Senator Murphy has made a name for himself in this chamber—pursuing issues that are non-existent. This is a very sensible response by a government to a very sensible report from the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties on which there was unanimous support from all members of the committee.

Question resolved in the affirmative.