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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12799

Mr ANDREW THOMSON (1:28 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties I present the following reports, together with the minutes of proceedings and evidence received by the committee: Report 27, Termination of social security agreement with the United Kingdom and International plant protection convention , and Report 28, Fourteen treaties tabled on 12 October 1999 .

Ordered that the reports be printed.

Mr ANDREW THOMSON —The two reports I have just tabled deal with a total of 16 proposed treaty actions. The two proposed treaty actions reviewed in report 27 were tabled in parliament on 11 August 1999. The rest of that group was reviewed in report 25. These two were held over in order to provide interested groups with the opportunity to comment on the proposals before us. In the same way, 17 proposed treaty actions were tabled on 12 October this year. We have held three of that group over to allow interested groups more time to give us their views. The relevant ministers have been informed of this. We will report on these matters as soon as practicable.

Of the agreements in the two reports, the most noteworthy is probably the proposed termination of the social security agreement with the United Kingdom. That is in report 27. For its own reasons, the UK government has refused under this longstanding agreement to index pensions paid to its pensioners who live in this country. We have supported termination of the agreement, but we have recommended that an additional year's notice should be given to reduce the chances of hardship to those who might be affected.

The department responsible for this agreement, the Department of Family and Community Services, appeared before us but, sadly, without having undertaken any consultations with community groups that might be affected—a puzzling omission. It was, of course, the first time that this department had encountered our committee and its processes. The committee has now been in existence for 3½ years and, in terms of its emphasis on consultation, has been very consistent, due no less to the efforts of some of the members, including Mr Hardgrave, the member for Moreton. I would have thought that the importance of consultation with interested groups and individuals about any proposed treaty actions should really have dawned on every government department by now, but it is not always the case.

You could say it was alarming to find another example of this lack of consultation in the treaties reviewed in report 28. This was in relation to the consular agreement with the People's Republic of China. While there are many Australia-China business groups, many of them based in the particular regions of China from which those Chinese-Australians come, it has to be said that there was no attempt made to contact any of these groups to ascertain what they might have thought about this proposed treaty. We have to say that this lack of action actually came from the agency responsible for managing the revised treaty making process itself, that is, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade—upon which be peace and salutations in the normal course of events, but in this case the lapse was rather puzzling.

That said, our processes in the treaties committee have really settled down now, and we have attempted to extend our own consultative mechanisms. For example, in June this year, the committee held a landmark seminar where we dealt with the involvement of parliament—not just the federal parliament, but the state parliaments—in the treaty making process. One of the outcomes of that seminar was the expansion of our efforts to seek, and to try to use, the views of state and territory parliaments about proposed treaty actions. Although we did not receive a huge number of comments from them on the treaties reviewed in these reports, it does seem true that a number of parliaments around Australia are looking at ways in which they can participate a bit more in the whole treaty making process. We look forward to greater contributions from our brethren in state and territory parliaments.

These two reports review a wide range of proposed treaty actions. We have made some additional comments, as well as recommending that binding treaty action be taken in these cases. We hope the sponsoring agencies will take note of these comments of ours. That said, I commend both reports 27 and 28 to the House. This being perhaps the last time that I will be on my feet this year as the chairman of this committee, I thank all committee members for their diligence and good humour in some trying times this year, and I look forward to another mighty year for the treaties committee.