The Treaties Committee has been appointed by the Commonwealth Parliament to review and report on all treaty actions proposed by the Government before action which binds Australia to the terms of the treaty is taken.
The Committee was first established in 1996 as part of a package of reforms to improve the openness and transparency of the treaty making process in Australia.
Resolution of appointment
The Committee's resolution of appointment empowers it to inquire into and report upon:
(a) matters arising from treaties and related National Interest Analyses and proposed treaty actions and related Explanatory Statements presented or deemed to be presented to the Parliament;
(b) any question relating to a treaty or other international instrument, whether or not negotiated to completion, referred to the committee by:
- either House of the Parliament; or
- a Minister; and
(c) such other matters as may be referred to the committee by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and on such conditions as the Minister may prescribe.
The process of parliamentary review
The reformed treaty making process requires that all treaty actions proposed by the Government are tabled in Parliament for a period of at least 15 (or in some cases, 20) sitting days before action is taken that will bind Australia at international law to the terms of the treaty.
The phrase 'treaty actions' has a broad meaning. It covers bilateral and multilateral agreements and encompasses a range of actions including entering into new treaties, amendments to existing treaties and withdrawal from treaties.
Category 1 and Category 2 treaties are referred for inquiry and report. The Treaties Committee will generally report on these treaties within 20 and 15 sitting days respectively.
Category 3 treaty actions are identifiably minor treaty actions (mainly minor/technical amendments to existing treaties) which do not impact significantly on the national interest. Category 3 treaty actions will be tabled with a one-page explanatory statement. The Treaties Committee has the discretion to formally inquire into Category 3 treaty actions or indicate its acceptance of them without a formal inquiry and report.
The one exception to the rule that treaties be tabled before binding treaty action is where the Minister for Foreign Affairs certifies that a treaty is particularly urgent or sensitive, involving significant commercial, strategic or foreign policy interests.
When tabled in Parliament, the text of proposed Category 1 and 2 treaty actions is accompanied by a National Interest Analysis (NIA) which explains why the Government considers it appropriate to enter into the treaty, and other associated documents. An NIA includes information relating to:
- the economic, environmental, social and cultural effects of the proposed treaty;
- the obligations imposed by the treaty;
- how the treaty will be implemented domestically;
- the financial costs associated with implementing and complying with the terms of the treaty; and
- the consultation that has occurred with State and Territory Governments, industry and community groups and other interested parties.
The text, NIA and other associated documents relating to each proposed treaty action are automatically referred to the Treaties Committee for review. The Committee advertises its reviews in the national press and on its web-site, inviting comments from anyone with an interest in the subject matter of the proposed treaty action. The Committee routinely takes evidence at public hearings from government agencies and also may invite people who have made written submissions to appear.
At the completion of its inquiries the Committee presents a report to Parliament containing advice on whether Australia should take binding treaty action and on other related issues that have emerged during the review.