Chapter 2 Previous Parliamentary initiatives to scrutinise the treaty
The Treaties Ratification Bill 2012 is not the first
initiative to attempt to strengthen the Parliament’s supervisory role in the
making of treaties. Previous initiatives have shaped the current system of
review. This chapter will provide an historic background of the evolution of
the parliamentary oversight process of treaty making, culminating in the
establishment of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT).
Australian governments have always considered that the negotiating of
and ultimate agreement to treaties is a matter for the executive government and
does not require approval of the Parliament. This contrasts with the situation
in the United States of America, where the President requires the advice and
consent of two-thirds of the Senate before making a treaty. In Britain
treaties are not ratified until 21 days after the text is laid before
Parliament, although the government may modify this procedure in cases of
urgency or when other important considerations arise.
Treaties may be incorporated or referred to in legislation where their
provisions are to be applied as part of Australian law.
History of reform initiatives
1983 – Senator Brian Harradine
A notice of motion was given in the Senate in 1983 by Senator Brian Harradine
(Independent – Tasmania) for the establishment of a Senate standing committee
to consider and report in respect of treaties. Such a standing committee was
Australia should undertake to be bound by that treaty if that treaty is not
already binding upon Australia, and
(ii) the effect
which Australia’s being bound by that treaty has or would have upon the
legislative powers and responsibilities of the Australian States.
This motion arose from concern about the scope of the external affairs
power under Section 51 of the Constitution, and the power of the
Commonwealth Parliament to legislate to enforce treaties entered into by the
government, as interpreted by the High Court in Commonwealth v State of
Tasmania 1983. The motion to establish
the committee was not moved, but a notice in the same terms was given in each
session after 1983.
1994-1995 – Senator Bourne’s Parliamentary Approval of Treaties Bill
Prior to the introduction of the Treaties Ratification Bill
2012, it had already been suggested that the Parliament could legislate to
provide that treaties not enter into force for Australia until approved by each
The tabling of 36 treaties on 30 November 1994 led to a debate on
the need for some more formal means of scrutiny of treaties by the Senate. The
establishment of a committee to scrutinise treaties was then under
consideration by Senators. The treaties tabled on that day included those
under negotiation or active consideration for Australia. 
In 1994, Senator Vicki Bourne (Democrats NSW) introduced the Parliamentary
Approval of Treaties Bill which would provide for treaties to be approved
in the absence of any parliamentary action or, if raised for consideration in
either House, by resolution of that House. A revised version of this Bill was
introduced in 1995.
Senator Bourne was particularly concerned at the emergence of what
former Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, called the ‘democratic deficit’. As
part of her Second Reading Speech, Senator Bourne stated:
It is a fundamental democratic principle that an executive
government should seek parliamentary approval before making a treaty binding
upon Australia. Treaty making has historically been an executive prerogative,
but the growth in the number and scope of international agreements has meant
that the status quo can no longer be justified.
When Sir Ninian Stephen used the term ‘democratic deficit’ in
a lecture last year, his concern was with treaties which transfer power from
national to supranational bodies. I would add that there is a real deficit
wherever rights and obligations are imposed on Australian citizens, under
international law, without Parliament's consent. There is no popularly elected
assembly which is empowered to approve, amend or reject the imposition of that
obligation. That is a clear and unjustified democratic deficit.
Under the Bill the Minister would be required to:
publish a declaration in the Gazette when it was proposed that Australia
enter into a treaty;
the treaty would then have to be tabled in each House of Parliament
within fifteen sitting days of gazettal;
the members of each House would then have fifteen sitting days to give a
notice of motion requesting that the treaty be considered by that House.
a. If no notice of motion was given within the 15 sitting
days, the treaty would be deemed to have been approved;
If a notice of motion was given, no
action could be taken by the executive to bring the treaty into effect until
the treaty had been approved by the relevant House of the Parliament.
If the treaty was not approved, then the executive would not have the
power to enter into the treaty. Provision was also made for approval of
reservations to treaties.
According to the critics, the Bill exhibited a number of flaws:
The Bill did not make any exceptions for sensitive treaties.
The Bill did not deal with the issue of urgent treaties.
Clause 9 of the Bill exhibited two problems:
Firstly, when there is a reservation by
Australia in respect of a treaty proposed to enter into force in respect of
Australia, this proposed Bill applies to the reservation as if the reservation
were a treaty.
Second, is that each reservation would
be subject to a separate gazettal and disallowance procedure.
The Bill did not appear to apply to the withdrawal of a reservation.
Finally, the requirement in the Bill for a treaty impact statement which
was expressed in mandatory language could give rise to problems.
Ultimately the Bill was not passed, though it was restored to the
Senate’s Notice Paper in May 1996, November 1998 and February 2002.
1995: The ‘Trick or Treaty?’ Report
Senator Bourne’s Bill and the corresponding debate highlighted concerns
about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny and control of treaties. This
contributed to a comprehensive examination of the subject and a report by the Senate’s
Legal and Constitutional References Committee in 1995.
Known as Trick or Treaty? Commonwealth Power to Make and Implement Treaties,
the Committee’s report was published in November 1995.
A number of central issues were identified from the evidence and
submissions received for the Trick or Treaty? inquiry. Concerns were
raised about the impact of international treaties on the Australian federal
system and Australian sovereignty. Concerns were also identified in relation to
the degree of consultation undertaken by the Government prior to entering into
and ratifying treaties. Finally, the issue of the respective roles of the
Parliament and the Government, and in particular the executive, in treaty
making was raised.
The Committee's recommendations had five main objectives:
n to increase the
information available to the public about treaty making;
n to improve
consultation with the States in relation to treaty making;
n to improve
consultation with the public, industry and interested groups in relation to
n to strengthen the
role of Parliament in relation to treaty making; and
n to put forward a
mechanism which can accommodate the federal system.
1996 – The establishment of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties
After the 1996 Federal election, the incoming Howard Government
responded favourably to the Committee’s report.
It agreed to table treaties in both Houses before ratification,
establish a treaties council for consultation with the states, and move for the
establishment of a joint committee for parliamentary scrutiny of treaties. The
joint committee – the current (JSCOT) – was subsequently established.
In a ministerial statement in 1996, the then Minister for Foreign
Affairs, the Hon Alexander Downer MP, foreshadowed the Committee’s establishment
and its terms of reference which included only
conducting inquiries into treaty actions once they were tabled in Parliament:
The government will propose the establishment of a Joint Parliamentary
Committee on Treaties to consider tabled treaties.
The point was acknowledged by the then Opposition:
The joint house committee will be able to look at these
matters only after they have been signed by Australia.
However, the Committee could, of its own volition, seek private informal
briefings on treaties under negotiation and/or seek a reference from a Minister
or either chamber to conduct a formal inquiry into a treaty action under
As part of DFAT’s treaty making processes, a list of current treaty
negotiations could be provided to JSCOT through the Secretariat. This would allow
the Committee’s Chair and Deputy Chair to consider whether more in-depth
briefings to the Committee are required for particular treaty actions.
JSCOT– modus operandi
Given that the Committee is examining a proposed alternative process
through which parliamentary oversight of treaties is to be conducted, the
Committee feels it appropriate to discuss how JSCOT currently reviews treaties.
Tabling of treaties in Parliament
Major treaty actions along with their supporting National Interest
Analyses (NIAs) are tabled in Parliament and are divided into three categories:
n Category 1
treaties which the Committee is required to report on within 20 joint sitting
n Category 2
treaties which the Committee is required to report on within 15 joint sitting
n Category 3 treaties
are considered to be ‘Minor treaty actions’ which the Committee generally
approves without a full inquiry.
treaty actions are generally technical amendments to existing treaties which do
not impact significantly on the national interest. A recent example is an
amendment to the International Convention Against Doping in Sport Annex I -
Prohibited List - International Standard (Appendix C, JSCOT Report 123).
Receiving submissions and public hearings
After tabling, JSCOT will invite responsible Government departments /or
agencies to nominate officers to give evidence at public hearings concerning
the proposed treaty action. Advertisements are also put out inviting
interested parties and members of the general public to review and comment on
the treaties through a submission to the Committee.
Public hearings are then held where the Committee invites the relevant
Government agencies and any other individuals or organisations it sees fit to
put their points of view.
The Committee may hold only one hearing and only take evidence from the
relevant government agency for routine treaties. However, for more
controversial treaties the Committee may take evidence from several witnesses.
For example, for the recent review of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade
Agreement (JSCOT Report 126), the Committee held three hearings and spoke
to over twenty witnesses – many of whom were critical of the treaty.
Occasionally site visits are conducted – for example the Committee may
wish to inspect a satellite ground station if the agreement is an extension of
a treaty covering that ground station’s use.
Producing a report
The Committee Secretariat then, with the assistance of the various submissions
and public hearing evidence, drafts a report on the Chair’s instructions and
the report is then presented to the Chair for review.
Once satisfied, the Chair then approves the draft being sent to the members
of the Committee and a report consideration is held where members can debate suggested
amendments. Generally, reports are agreed to by all members though on occasion
there are dissenting reports.
The final report – either with or without a dissent – is then tabled in
both houses of the Parliament. Normally, both the Chair and the Deputy Chair
will speak to the Report when it is tabled and other members are also free to
make a statement should they wish to.
Following tabling, the Government may be required to produce a response
to some of the report’s Recommendations regardless of whether the Committee
supports the treaty or not.
Each department or agency is required to prepare a response to the
particular treaty for which it is the sponsor, and responses should be prepared
and tabled within a three month timeframe. The lead department or agency is
responsible for consulting with other agencies that may be affected by the
Committee’s Recommendations. The Government’s responses, which may involve
agreement, agreement-in-principle or rejection of the Committee’s
Recommendations, are also tabled in the Parliament for public scrutiny.
2003 – The Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee,
Voting on Trade
Notwithstanding the establishment of the Joint Standing Committee on
Treaties, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee,
in its report Voting on Trade, suggested further reforms. They
recommended a scheme of parliamentary involvement in negotiation of trade
agreements and procedures for approval by both Houses of such agreements.
Their report stated:
The Committee recommends that the government introduce
legislation to implement the following process for parliamentary scrutiny and
endorsement of proposed trade treaties:
Prior to making offers for further market liberalisation under any WTO
Agreements, or commencing negotiations for bilateral or regional free trade
agreements, the government shall table in both Houses of Parliament a document
setting out its priorities and objectives, including comprehensive information
about the economic, regional, social, cultural, regulatory and environmental
impacts which are expected to arise.
These documents shall be referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs, Defence and Trade for examination by public hearing and report to the
parliament within 90 days.
Both Houses of Parliament will then consider the report of the Joint Standing
Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, and then vote on whether to
endorse the government’s proposal or not.
Once parliament has endorsed the proposal, negotiations may begin.
Once the negotiation process is complete, the government shall then table in
parliament a package including the proposed treaty together with any
legislation required to implement the treaty domestically.
The treaty and the implementing legislation are then voted on as a package, in
an ‘up or down’ vote: i.e., on the basis that the package is either accepted or
rejected in its entirety.
The legislation should specify the form in which the
government should present its proposal to parliament and require the proposal
to set out clearly the objectives of the treaty and the proposed timeline for
Citing Section 61 of the Constitution – which states that treaty-making
is the formal responsibility of the executive rather than the Parliament – the
Government responded negatively to this recommendation. The Government
believed that it would:
n be unworkable;
n circumscribe the
capacity of the Government to secure the best possible trade outcomes from
trade negotiations; and
n undermine the executive's
constitutional authority to sign treaties.
The way in which trade treaties are negotiated continues to be a matter
of controversy. The submission to the Committee from the Australian Fair Trade
and Investment Network (AFTINET) expresses concern that there has been a trend
in trade agreement practice to treat all government regulation as if it were a
tariff, to be placed at standstill and then reduced over time. It says that
excessive deregulation of banking and financial institutions in the US
contributed to the sub-prime mortgage market crisis, which then generated the
Global Financial Crisis.
Their recommendations include that:
n Trade negotiations
should be undertaken through open, democratic and transparent processes that
allow effective parliamentary and public consultation to take place about
whether negotiations should proceed and the context of negotiations.
n There should be
regular public and Parliamentary consultations throughout the negotiations and,
where possible, negotiating texts should be released. There is precedent for
this in World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations, where position papers and
draft texts are released on the WTO website.
n Before an agreement
is signed, comprehensive studies of the likely economic, social and environmental
impacts of the agreement should be undertaken and made public for debate and
The JSCOT considered these issues during its study of the Australia-Chile
Free-Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008. At the time, the Committee recommended
…prior to commencing negotiations for bilateral or regional
trade agreements, the Government table in Parliament a document setting out its
priorities and objectives. The document should include independent assessments
of the costs and benefits. Such assessments should consider the economic
regional, social, cultural, regulatory and environmental impacts which are
expected to arise.
The Committee has previously called for greater transparency and is
disappointed that the process has not been pursued.
||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.
The process through which the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was
formed evolved over a number of years in response to calls for greater democratic
accountability of the treaty making process.
Notwithstanding the activities of this Committee, there appears to
remain a conviction in parts of the community that true Parliamentary approval
can only consist of direct approval by both chambers as has been advocated by
the reform attempts described here. The Treaties Ratification Bill
2012 is another proposal in this tradition.