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Tuesday, 13 November 1973
Page: 1716

Senator WILLESEE (Western AustraliaSpecial Minister of State and Minister for Foreign Affairs) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill, though brief, is of some practical and historical significance. In form it is merely a repeal Bill; it will repeal the High Commissioner (United Kingdom) Act 1909-1966. In its practical effect it will terminate the present legislative basis for administration of the Australian High Commission in London, thereby clearing the way for administration to be on the same basis as that for all other Australian diplomatic missions abroad. In its historial aspect it formally signifies that Australia's diplomatic relations with Britain are no longer regarded as being different in kind from its diplomatic relations with other countries.

It may be of interest to honourable senators if, before dealing more fully with the Bill, I outline briefly the history of the Act which it is proposed to repeal. In 1906 the Australian Government found it necessary to appoint a representative to look after its interests in the United Kingdom, especially in connection with the purchase of defence material. A representative of the Treasurer was later appointed to deal with financial matters. In 1909 the High Commissioner Act was passed to enable broader diplomatic functions to be exercised by Australia's official representative. The four-yearly Imperial Conference had apparently been then regarded as a permanent arrangement, and it was felt that a High Commissioner, with an enlarged staff, was necessary to assist with liaison work between these Conferences, as well as to present a balanced Australian representation in Britain, as distinct from the primarily partisan efforts of the States' AgentsGeneral. Canada had maintained a High Commissioner in Britain for some years, and questions of prestige and trade promotion were evidently important. It was envisaged, in this humble beginning, that the States would agree to transfer their function to the High Commissioner, but, as honourable senators are well aware, the States still maintain officers under Agents-General in London.

The 1909 Act created the office of our first diplomatic representative abroad. Over the years, it was amended as necessary because of changing requirements. It retained its original title through 4 amendments between 1909 and 1952, but by 1957 the post World War II expansion of Australian diplomatic representation was reflected in a change of name to the High Commissioner (United Kingdom) Act. From 1 957 on it became increasingly anomalous to administer Australia House, as the High Commission has long been popularly known, separately from other Australian diplomatic missions, all of which are staffed by Australia-based officers and locally engaged employees under the Public Service Act 1922-1973. Not only was it anomalous to have a separate administrative basis, but responsibility for the High Commission, alone of all our diplomatic missions, lay with the Prime Minister and not with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The previous Government, I am pleased to say, finally saw benefit in rationalising the position of the London mission and, on 1 November 1972, transferred responsibility for it to the then Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The present Bill is consequential on that transfer. Upon repeal of the Act administration of the High Commission will continue under the Public Service Act. To this end determinations under the Public Service Act will be made at the time of repeal. These, with existing provisions of the Officers' Rights Declaration Act 1928-1969, the Superannuation Act 1922-1971, and the Commonwealth Employees' Furlough Act 1943-1968, will preserve or improve existing rights and terms and conditions of service of the present locally engaged High Commission staff, who will all continue in employment.

Care has been taken by my Department and the Public Service Board, while this Bill has been in preparation, to keep the staff of the High Commission informed of developments and to consult closely with the Australian High Commission Staff Association. The Staff Association has given the fullest co-operation to the representatives of the Department and the Board, and I am happy to be able to inform honourable senators that agreement has lately been reached with the Association on new rules to replace the High Commissioner (Staff) Regulations which at present detail the terms and conditions of the staff. The new rules, as I have already indicated, will be in the form of determinations under the Public Service Act. The Association has indicated that it is anxious for early repeal of the Act and making of the determinations. The determinations will, of course, need to come into operation immediately upon repeal of the Act. In order to facilitate this, provision is made in clause 2 of the Bill for the Act to come into operation on a date to be fixed by proclamation. The only other clause that calls for comment is clause 4. The clause preserves existing rights under the Officers' Rights Declaration Act 1928-1969 of persons who have such rights by virtue of having been officers of the Public Service immediately before they became officers under the High Commissioner (United Kingdom) Act.

Debate (on motion by Senator Cotton) adjourned.

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