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Thursday, 1 September 1994
Page: 765

Senator O'CHEE (10.40 a.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, the motion by Senator Chapman to refer the UN convention on desertification to the Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs is an important motion, and a motion which deserves the support of this chamber. This convention has the potential for enormous ramifications for people who live outside the coastal area of this country. It is estimated that the area which could be affected under this treaty, if the provisions of the treaty are imported into this country, is up to 76 per cent of the Australian continent.

  We in the opposition are very concerned that one of the implications of this treaty will be a loss of control for farmers over their farms, for local communities and local authorities over their shires, and for the states over their constitutional responsibility for land management issues. For that reason, we believe it is important that this matter be referred to the committee, as Senator Chapman has suggested.

  The government, on the other hand, has said, `No, we don't believe it should be submitted to a committee because "the convention was subject to extensive negotiations".' So what if the convention was subject to extensive negotiations between an Australian negotiating party and a Sudanese negotiating party and a French negotiating party and whoever else happened to be there when they were drawing up the convention? That does not mean that this parliament should have no say in whether this treaty is signed or not, and it does not mean that this parliament does not have a right to scrutinise this treaty. That is the most flimsy excuse that I have heard in a long time for not having parliamentary scrutiny of what the executive does.

  Honourable senators might be interested to know the process by which it is approved whether a treaty is signed or not. This was a matter that Senator Kemp and I put to Senator Gareth Evans when he appeared before Estimates Committee A on 24 May this year. For the benefit of honourable senators, I might read out exactly what Senator Evans said in relation to the ratification of a treaty. As honourable senators will know, a treaty is first signed and then it is ratified. Senator Gareth Evans advised the estimates committee that the signing of a treaty was a matter for the minister alone. When we asked him about ratification, he said:

It is a matter of relevant ministerial approval followed by executive council determination. It invariably involves the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and such other subject ministers as are associated with that particular issue. That is the normal way. On occasions there may be a formal Cabinet decision, but far more often than not it is dealt with at the ministerial level, but with a formal ratification being a matter for executive council approval.

In other words, this government has a totally arrogant attitude when it comes to international conventions. This government has usurped for a small number of people the right to decide whether or not this country signs treaties and ratifies them and on what terms.

  We on this side of the chamber believe that that is wholly unfair and wholly inappropriate. It is the right of the Australian people to have an input to matters which will affect them. This convention has enormous possibility to affect the rights of ordinary Australians, particularly ordinary Australians who live outside the coastal areas. That is why Senator Chapman's motion is so important today.

  Senator Evans made it very clear when he appeared before the estimates committee that these matters do not even necessarily go before the cabinet. A couple of ministers sit together around a cup of cappuccino at Aussie's and decide that they are going to sign a treaty: hey presto, next thing we know, the government is asserting in the High Court of this country that the states have no right to manage their own land areas, that local authorities have no right to manage their shires, and that farmers have no right to manage their farms. That is the arrogance.

Senator Cook —This is a comedy.

Senator O'CHEE —You are a comedy, Minister, and you know it. Senator Cook is a laughing-stock. This convention only goes to affirm the fact that this government has no respect for the parliament and no respect for the rights of the Australian people to have an input to matters which affect their lives. What this government would have us do in this parliament is blindly approve anything that any minister wanted to sign; blindly approve any obligation to which this government wanted to subject the Australian people.

  This government does not believe in parliamentary scrutiny; it does not believe in the right of the parliament to have a say on these issues. While the galleries are full of school students who are here to see how parliament works, it is interesting for them to note that this government is opposing parliamentary scrutiny of a convention which could have enormous ramifications for this country and for the people who live in it. So much for this government's belief in democracy, and so much for this government's belief in parliamentary accountability.

  What we have before us is the total and absolute refusal of this government to brook any scrutiny on this treaty at all. One of the reasons why this government does not want scrutiny of this treaty is that `Australia had a leading role in the negotiations'. Well, so what, if a group of public servants and a minister had a leading role in negotiating a treaty?

  It is not for bureaucrats and ministers alone to decide what Australia's obligations shall be. It is not for bureaucrats and ministers alone to rewrite the constitution by signing treaties willy-nilly. It is the responsibility of Australia's parliamentary representatives to ensure that the rights of ordinary Australian citizens are protected. In this government's refusal to accept Senator Chapman's reference of this matter to a committee, it is showing that it has utter contempt for the rights of ordinary Australian citizens.

  Senator Chapman has quite rightly said that this treaty could have very, very deleterious effects on farmers and people who live in isolated areas of this country. I think it is appropriate to go into exactly what those ramifications may be. The government would have us believe that there is no reason for concern at all because, it says, it is only going to sign the treaty and it is not going to lodge a national action plan. But once that treaty is signed, there is nothing which prevents the government at a later date from lodging whatever national action plan may take its fancy; whatever plan it may want.

Senator Margetts —And nothing that makes them, either.

Senator O'CHEE —Senator Margetts may be interested to know that I do not believe that any treaty should be worded in such a way that it allows the government of the day to have the power to lodge a plan, whether it is in relation to so-called desertification, whether it is in relation to wet tropics timber areas, whether it is in relation to the Great Barrier Reef, or anywhere else—

Senator Margetts —They don't need a treaty to lodge a plan; they can lodge a plan whenever they like.

Senator O'CHEE —The government can lodge a plan whenever it likes under this treaty. My concern is that, once that plan is lodged, this government could well assert that Australia is internationally bound to observe that plan, and it would then assert a right to override the states on areas where the states did not agree with it.

  I urge Senator Margetts to think about this matter very carefully because, whilst she may think that this will favour her and her political point of view, it may well be the case that the plan which is lodged may not favour her and her political point of view. I do not believe that as responsible legislators we should give this government, or any government, a blank cheque in relation to these matters. These matters should come before the parliament for scrutiny, and that is what Senator Chapman has sought to do. And that is why I believe that Senator Chapman's motion is correct and ought to be supported.

  But let us consider this matter of the national action plan. The NFF has said that it supports the treaty on the basis that there is no national action plan. Unfortunately, what was not explained to the NFF, and what was not explained by the government to anybody else who inquired, was that once the treaty was signed there was no mechanism by which any of the plans that the government may wish to lodge as national action plans under the terms of the treaty could be scrutinised by the parliament.

  Of course, this government would assert that once those national action plans are lodged they are binding on the federal government. The government would assert that they are binding on state governments. It would assert that they are binding on local authorities. It would assert that they are binding on farmers. A bureaucrat in Canberra has no understanding of what it takes to run a property, no understanding of what it takes to make a go of living on the land, and no understanding of the very, very delicate balance that exists and has continued to exist through good management. These people would be affected by these national action plans.

  This government would leave it all to people who are unaccountable to parliament to draw up plans to be lodged under this treaty which would become binding. We do not believe that that is appropriate. The government would also have us believe that once that treaty is signed there is nothing that can be done to limit the scope of Australia's obligations under the treaty. That is absolute balderdash. It is, of course, open to this country to lodge a reservation to the treaty.

  This is an important matter. What, honourable senators might ask, is a reservation to a treaty? A reservation to a treaty is defined in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969 as:

. . . a unilateral statement, however phrased or named, made by a state when signing, ratifying, accepting, approving or acceding to a treaty whereby it purports to exclude or modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that state.

Of course, it is open to this parliament to say, `We will sign the treaty and we will agree to meet whatever obligations or assistance flows from it, but we reserve for our parliament the right to decide matters that affect this country. More importantly, we reserve for the states, for local communities and for the people most affected, the right to decide how land under their control should be managed.'

  It would be entirely consistent with article 19 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties for Australia, through the parliamentary processes, to formulate a reservation in relation to this treaty. There are only three restrictions on our lodging a reservation to this convention. Firstly, we cannot lodge a reservation if the reservation is of a nature expressly prohibited in the treaty—that is not the case in this particular matter. Secondly, we cannot lodge a reservation if the reservation falls outside the provisions of a treaty permitting only certain kinds of reservations—that does not apply here either. Thirdly, we could not lodge reservations which are incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty—I doubt that would be the case either.

  It is entirely open to this parliament—it is entirely open to the government to invite this parliament—to formulate a reservation that would protect the Australian people from this government at a subsequent date, or from a subsequent government, lodging national action plans which had not been approved by this parliament and by each of the states. That would be a reservation entirely consistent not only with the Australian constitution but also with the intent of the UN convention itself. But is the government interested in doing that? The answer is no—and why? Because this government does not want the parliament or the states or the people having any say in what sort of obligations this government accepts on behalf of this country.

  The question is: would it be unfair for the parliament to have the right to say, `We believe any national action plan which you lodge should be submitted for approval by the states and by the parliament'? That is the question that needs to be asked here. Very clearly, the answer is that it would not be unfair. In fact, it would be unfair if that opportunity were not given to the parliament and to the states. That is the question at issue here and the question that the government has tried to avoid. It has tried to avoid the fact that by signing this treaty it is being grossly unfair to the people who are affected.

  On this side of the chamber we believe that the matter of reservations should be explored by the appropriate committee and that the appropriate committee is the rural and regional affairs committee. Why is the rural and regional affairs committee the appropriate committee to consider these matters? It is because rural and regional Australians are the ones who will be affected if the provisions of this treaty are imported into this country. The people who live in rural and regional Australia are the ones who will bear the cost if there are restrictions put on stocking rates, water usage, where people are allowed to travel, what pastures are sown, and so on.

  It is not a matter for the science committee to decide whether it believes desertification exists. It is not a principle issue, whether it is appropriate that this scientist or that scientist should be believed. It is sufficient for Senator Chapman to say, `Look, there are doubts about the validity of desertification and, given those doubts, it is appropriate that the matter be sent to a committee that will examine the impact on the people who will suffer.' That is why Senator Chapman's reference is so absolutely critical and so absolutely correct.

  The Democrats have argued that they do not want this reference to go ahead because, amongst other things, Senator Coulter seems to think that there might be some better committee to which this convention could be sent. It is interesting that he should say that. Those of us who live in rural and regional Australia know that a couple of months ago the Democrats came up with a grandiose plan called `Democrats for the bush'. Where is Senator Coulter's support for the bush when he does not want the matter to go before the rural and regional affairs committee? Where is the support for the people who live in rural and regional Australia when Senator Coulter says that the Democrats do not believe that this matter should be sent to the committee that looks after the interests of the people who live in rural and regional Australia?

  The Democrats have no interest in the bush—only a sham interest for which Senator Coulter should hang his head in shame. These people who sit at the end of the chamber, who purport to be interested in every group they happen to stumble across in their midnight ramblings, have no regard for people who live in rural and regional Australia. They have no regard for the impact this convention could have on people in western Queensland, in South Australia, in western New South Wales, in Western Australia or the Northern Territory. They have no interest at all because this group of people, this pitiful collection of individuals who sit at the end of the chamber, have sold their souls to the extreme environmental movement.

  And they are suffering the consequences of that. Their vote slips every day because they are showing themselves to be irrelevant to the issues that affect this nation so seminally today. They are showing themselves to be irrelevant to the people who live in rural and regional areas by their refusal to support the reference of this bill to the committee as Senator Chapman has suggested.

  It would be a great shame, an enormous shame, if this Senate did not seize this opportunity to send this treaty for examination by the rural and regional affairs committee. This government has talked about updating the constitution. Yet, so far as international treaties and conventions are concerned, this government wants Australia's treatment of these matters to be lodged very firmly in the first part of the 19th century, when kings and potentates had absolute power to sign and when the rights of individual citizens counted for nought.

  On this side of the chamber we are saying that this issue is a test case for referring a treaty to a committee, getting clear evidence on the impact the treaty will have on the people most affected and formulating appropriate guidelines and reservations, if necessary, to apply to the treaty if it is ratified. If the government and the Democrats are not willing to cooperate with the reference Senator Chapman has proposed, we do not believe that it is right or proper for the government to have open slather to deal with this matter as it wishes. We believe that the rights of ordinary Australians are more important. We believe that the rights given to us through the constitutional process are more important.

  Mr Acting Deputy President, if you look at the collection of individuals who make up this government's cabinet you will understand our concern that a couple of ministers over a cappuccino at Aussie's should have the right to bind this country to all sorts of obligations which have never been submitted to the people or the parliament. That is why I have great pleasure in supporting Senator Chapman's motion and in urging all honourable senators to take a similar course to ensure that this country is best served in the manner which we propose.