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Monday, 9 September 1996
Page: 3057

Senator CARR(4.15 p.m.) —I join with Senator Abetz in stating that this first report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties is a significant report both in terms of the committee and the parliament. The chamber would be aware that this committee was established by the parliament to consider the tabling of treaties and to provide detailed scrutiny and examination of those treaties which are of particular interest to Australians.

It arose essentially out of a report entitled Trick or treaty? Power to make and implement treaties. I must say that it involved consideration of a range of reform processes to allow for greater public consultation on issues of treaty making in this country. I think Senator Abetz is quite right: there is a perception in the community that there has been inadequate consultation on a range of matters relating to treaty making.

However, that is not necessarily a perception borne out by the facts. In fact, when consideration is given to the detail of treaties, it is quite often the case that there is an understanding of the importance of treaties to this country. That is particularly the case with global environmental issues and, as part of that global environment, this country has an important role to play in terms of protecting its people and advancing the interests of the people of this country in regard to those matters.

A number of the matters being discussed in this report do go to issues directly related to the environment. It is of interest that the reform process does involve a higher level of consultation in terms of the consideration of treaty business. I note in the report the reference to COAG and the understandings that have been entered into in regard to consultation with the states involving treaty matters, the possibility of information being provided and a long-term program to allow for forward consideration of these matters.

What has struck me as particularly interesting in this matter is that the demands by the states to be consulted only extend as far as the premiers' offices. When it comes to the question of whether or not the state parliaments should be considered in the process of consultation, the shutters go up. It is always very interesting, I find, in terms of states rights arguments, that the question of executive government only goes as far as the premier's office.

A great deal has been said about Senator Kemp's interest in these matters, and I do find the change that occurs as one crosses this chamber interesting. The commitment that Senator Kemp enjoined in the last parliament to international isolationism seems to be vanishing quite considerably. If I recall rightly, he indicated his opposition to the Basel convention on the disposal of hazardous wastes, the international convention on the combating of desertification, the World Heritage Convention, and the international climate and change convention. Of course, all those matters are now quite clearly being considered in a different light.

It strikes me that what this committee does provide is an opportunity for a much more careful examination of national interest perceptions and debates. I think the requirement of the national interest analysis for each of the treaties does assist members of parliamentary committee to assess the nature of proposed obligations and treaty actions. That is a very important role that parliament can fulfil, particularly given our constitutional responsibilities under section 51 (xxiv.).

In any event, it is an important function of this parliament to exercise the foreign affairs powers of the constitution in a way that actually does benefit the people of this country. I am concerned, nonetheless, that in that process there is a possibility that the treaty making process can be undermined by not providing for the tabling of urgent treaties or the use of the urgent treaty processes in such a way as to allow for exemptions beyond the 15-day period. There ought to be a firm commitment by the government and a maintenance of that commitment to the process of informing the parliament about any treaty arrangements that it is entering into.

It is important that the parliament does take its responsibilities very seriously and, of course, does not allow the government to circumvent its obligations by using the urgency mechanisms that have been provided within the new treaty making processes. It is important that departments of state understand their obligations to ensure that the accountability to parliament is not subverted by concluding treaties in a way which would allow for the circumvention of that parliamentary accountability by the use of the urgency mechanism.

The report that we are considering today considers some 25 treaties which were tabled between 21 May and 18 June. It is not a particularly long report but I do think it covers the matters quite adequately and reflects the considerations of the committee quite properly. In terms of specific matters such as the Waigani convention, the committee found that the multinational regional convention on hazardous wastes was an opportunity for us to consider the most appropriate way for small countries of the South Pacific to deal with their hazardous wastes given their limited bureaucratic and other resources.

This report does highlight that small island states do have a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure that is able to meet their requirements within the terms of this particular treaty. Therefore, the option that has been provided under this treaty for a simpler approach is preferred. It does offer the advantage of being able to accommodate similar types of treaties and it is important for the South Pacific that they should be able to ratify them at a later date.

One of the particular matters that I would like to draw attention to, which I indicate that this report does cover, is the issue of the treaty with Indonesia. It was resolved by the committee that we should not take any action at this point but should perhaps look at the implementation of that treaty at a later date. I am particularly concerned about the reference to article II, which states:

Under the terms of that treaty the parties undertake to consult each other in the case of adverse challenges either to either party or to their common security interests and, if appropriate, consider measures which might be taken either individually or jointly in accordance with the processes of each party.

It is stated quite explicitly in the advice to the committee that this is an agreement which is in the common interest of both countries to provide peace and stability to the region and which underlies their intention to develop cooperation to benefit their security and that of the region. It provides for activities in the security field which would result in these benefits, and for regular ministerial consultations.

The committee has been advised that there is no legal obligation from either party to actually commit military forces to matters that relate to internal security threats that might be posed within each country. Given the events in Indonesia in recent times, I think it is important that that advice be checked. I am not altogether convinced that that advice is in fact adequate.

Senator Abetz —What do you think it says?

Senator CARR —I am expressing a view and I am concerned about what the legal implications of the words `adverse challenges' are in this context. I am not altogether satisfied, on the advice tendered to us, that that does not involve any obligation on the part of this country to protect the internal security of Indonesia in this regard, particularly given the events of recent times and the measures taken by the Indonesian government against its political opponents internally.

This agreement is not a defence pact or an alliance, we are told. It does not commit either country automatically to support the other in the event of an attack. It obliges us only to consult in the event of threats to our security environment. It is not an assertion that Australia and Indonesia have common internal policies or philosophies or that Australia endorses Indonesia's domestic policies and action and vice versa. It does not involve Australia in the internal affairs of Indonesia or vice versa or compromise our approach on human rights in Indonesia. I trust that that advice is right. I expect that it is; you would not expect officials to be advising the parliament on the basis of advice that is incorrect. However, I will be seeking, when the time comes for an inquiry into this matter, to follow up those issues.