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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8757

Mr KELVIN THOMSON (Wills) (16:55): I present the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties Report 128, which contains the committee's views on the Treaties Ratification Bill 2012.

In accordance with standing order 39(f) the report was made a parliamentary paper.

Mr KELVIN THOMSON: by leave—The member for Kennedy introduced this bill into the House of Representatives in February of this year to address what he perceives as the undemocratic nature of treaty negotiation and implementation. The member for Kennedy is concerned that the treaties Australia is entering into are economically damaging to Australian agriculture and manufacturing and that Australia's sovereignty is being eroded.

The way in which trade treaties are negotiated continues to be a matter of controversy and the committee recognises the community's concern. There is a popular perception that Australia is being disadvantaged by these agreements—the fear is that Australia is opening its markets to foreign products and services, which is undermining our own industries, while our competitors retain restrictions on their markets.

The Treaties Committee considered these issues during its study of the Australia-Chile Free Trade Agreement in 2008. At the time, the committee recommended that a more thorough cost-benefit assessment of treaties be provided by the government. The committee reiterates that sentiment in this report with the following recommendation:

That prior to commencing negotiations for a new agreement, the Government table in Parliament a document setting out its priorities and objectives, including the anticipated costs and benefits of the agreement.

However, the member for Kennedy's bill is not, in the opinion of the committee, the solution to these concerns as it has a number of flaws that would render it unworkable.

The bill has only one substantive provision:

The Governor-General must not ratify a treaty unless both Houses of the Parliament have, by resolution, approved the ratification.

The committee received a number of excellent submissions and heard evidence from well-informed witnesses at the public inquiry that was held into the bill. From this evidence, the committee concluded that it appears that the bill is likely to be constitutional.

Section 61 of the constitution places the formal responsibility of treaty-making with the executive rather than the parliament. The wording of the bill indicates that the parliament is not taking over the ratification function, but rather makes the executive's decision to ratify conditional upon the parliament's prior approval.

However, the bill would present a number of practical and political problems to both the parliament and the executive, if passed as presented. The sheer number of treaties along with the political composition of the Senate has the potential to overwhelm the parliamentary process. This, and the bill's lack of a provision for short-term emergency treaties, makes the bill unworkable.

For example, the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has, on behalf of the parliament, reviewed over 600 treaty actions at an average of almost 40 treaties per year since it was established in 1996. If both houses of the parliament had to, by resolution, approve the ratification of each treaty as the bill demands, the parliament would have little time to complete its other business.

Although other models exist overseas which may add a greater degree of parliamentary scrutiny to the treaties review process, the bill is a very brief document which allows little room for amendment without a comprehensive change of its intent.

The committee recognises community concerns about the negotiation of treaties, and in particular the negotiation of trade treaties. But given the practical and political difficulties the bill would pose for the executive, the parliament and the treaty-making process generally, the committee recommends that the Treaties Ratification Bill 2012 not be passed by either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

On behalf of the committee, I commend the report to the House.