The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has a history dating from the 1949 election campaign which resulted in the return to power of a Menzies Government. Foreign policy in the immediate post-war years had been dominated by the Labor Government foreign Minister, Dr H V Evatt KC, who had maintained a high profile in the international arena. During the 1949 campaign, Opposition Leader Menzies, having observed that foreign policy should not be 'the preserve of one party, indeed one Minister', asserted that 'there should be an all-party Parliamentary standing committee on Foreign Affairs to act, not as a creator of policy (which is the privilege and responsibility of the government of the day) but as a source of information to Parliament and therefore to public opinion.'
In October 1951 the Menzies Government introduced a resolution into the Parliament to redeem this promise.
The first Resolution of Appointment of the Committee effectively subordinated it to the Minister for External Affairs. It could only meet privately and all reports had to be submitted to the Minister for his decision as to their tabling in Parliament and printing. The Minister alone could refer matters to the Committee and it was his sole prerogative to decide what information, 'persons, papers and records' should be made available to the Committee.
The Labor Party in opposition strenuously objected to these early constraints on the Committee's activities and branded the Committee as a toothless study circle.
As a direct result of the position adopted by the Government, the Labor Party refused to participate. The Labor Party maintained its position on non-participation for more than 15 years, with the result that the Committee, re-appointed in each Parliament, was composed wholly of Government Members. Early in the 26th Parliament, in May 1967, External Affairs Minister Hasluck, expressing his wish to make the Committee 'more widely representative of the Parliament' (House of Representatives Debates, 5.5.67, p. 1786), moved an appointing resolution which finally met the main objections of the Opposition. Opposition Leader
Mr E G Whitlam QC referred to an Australian Council of Churches submission which reflected his view of what the Committee should do for the Parliament and for the community. The submission expressed concern:
...at the lack of informed public debate and at the absence of any system whereby knowledgeable private individuals can give evidence that would be of assistance not only to the Government but also to the public in helping it make up its mind on important matters having to do with external affairs...it [is] very important for an inter-party parliamentary committee on external affairs to operate effectively. We feel that without it there is a serious barrier presented to informed public opinion on external affairs ... considerable knowledge of private individuals is being lost to the Government ... we would ask both parties to consider primarily the high importance of establishing within the governmental system a system providing opportunity for informed public debate and bringing to the Government the evidence of knowledgeable Australian citizens.(ibid., pp. 1787-88)
In the first fifteen years under the restrictive Resolutions of Appointment, the Committee presented 5 reports. More than 100 reports have been presented since then.
The Committee's powers and area of focus were broadened after the 1972 election to include defence. After 1973 the Committee was known as the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, assuming the title Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade following the 1987 election. The title Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was adopted in the 37th Parliament. The Committee has been re-established with this title in successive Parliaments.