In our best interest: treaty scrutiny in a connected world
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In our best interest: treaty scrutiny in a connected world

November 20, 2019


[MUSIC PLAYING] 2016 marks a special anniversary
for the Joint Standing Committee On Treaties,
otherwise known as JSCT. Established during the
Howard Government in 1996, JSCT has spent the past 20
years examining treaties on behalf of the parliament
and making recommendations on how or if Australia should
take binding treaty action. Committee chair, The
Honourable Luke Hartsuyker, MP, reflects on how the work of
JSCT impacts all Australians. Well, I think that JSCT is a
parliamentary committee that is immensely relevant
to all Australians. So many areas in which
the parliament operates, it is a sphere where
it perhaps affects a very narrow level
of interested persons, whereas with the potential
impact for treaties, with how Australians are perhaps–
their experiences overseas, or the experiences
of businesses, and the ways in which
Australians can interrelate with foreign nationals,
there is a huge width and breadth of activity
that is impacted on by the work of
this community. And it makes it a very relevant
committee to all Australians. JSCT is one of the busiest
parliamentary committees. Over the past 20
years, the committee has inquired into over
742 treaty actions and made over 157
reports to parliament. Long-standing committee
member and JSCT deputy chair, The Honourable
Kelvin Thomson MP, says JSCT is a vital part of
the treaty-making process. The Australian government
enters into treaties with other countries,
sometimes bilateral treaties, and sometimes
multilateral treaties. Prior to the establishment
of the Treaties Committee, there was effectively no
parliamentary scrutiny of the treaties at all. It’s simply an executive
power and function, and the executive
would carry it out. in 1996, the Howard Government
set up the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. I don’t think I’m doing them a
disservice if I say that this was driven by people on the
right of politics who were concerned that the treaty-making
process was being misused by Labour Governments to
pursue a left-wing agenda. Some of those people had a
somewhat conspiratorial view of the role of the
United Nations, so the idea was that there ought
to be parliamentary scrutiny of these treaties. And what now happens is that
when the government signs a treaty, it tables
it in the parliament, and it is then referred to
the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, who
considers the treaty, presents a report
about the treaty back to the parliament
and the government who consider that report. Now, as part of that
process, of course, we call for submissions. We invite the public
and interested parties, stakeholders, the states,
to make submissions. And we also have public
hearings where that’s warranted and invite people to
appear as witnesses. Over the past 20
years, treaties have become increasingly complex. Australians are more
connected to the broader world through trade,
education, and migration. International
agreements increasingly affect not only broad
issues of state, but the actions and
responsibilities of individual citizens. Worldwide, treaty scrutiny
is reflecting this change by moving towards greater
transparency and consultation. Critics of JSCT are concerned
that the scrutiny process lacks transparency due to the fact
that the full text of treaties are not normally made available
to the public or the committee during the negotiation stage. In my time on the
Treaties Committee, the greatest frustration
for both the committee and the public, alike,
has been the fact that we don’t get to see
the text of the treaties until it emerges and is signed. So this treaty
negotiating process is like a train in the tunnel,
and all of a sudden it emerges. And some people would say,
well, the Treaties Committee and the parliament gets it on
a take it or leave it basis once it’s been signed. In the United States
Congress, for example, I understand that
there is access to the text of treaties
while it is in draft form and while it is
being negotiated. And I think there’s a case
for that being done here in the Australian Parliament. Well, I think the
practical reality of the text of the treaties
is that they are massively complex documents,
and it is verging on the impractical
for committee members to have a highly detailed
knowledge of those texts. But what the
committee does do, it offers members the opportunity
to test the various issues that are part of the treaty
that is being considered by the committee. It would be far too
cumbersome to impose on committee members
who have a broad range of other responsibilities
in the parliament an obligation to read
various texts in detail. I think the current
process of having a committee inquiry where the
committee can examine witnesses and can test various
ideas and perhaps concerns that members may
have is an appropriate way to, I think, provide
parliamentary scrutiny in a way that can be done in a practical
time frame in a way that matches the available
resources of the committee and its members. These issues and more will be
discussed at a one-day seminar event as part of the 20th
anniversary celebrations. In Our Best Interest, Treaty
Scrutiny in a Connected World will bring together politicians,
academics, and public servants to celebrate the
achievements of JSCT and discuss the future of
treaty scrutiny in Australia. To find out more,
visit aph.gov.au/jsct.

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