The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties 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 on:
- 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;
- 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
- 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 treaty-making process provides for all major treaty actions proposed by the Government to be tabled in Parliament for a period of 15 or 20 joint sitting days depending on the categorisation of the treaty, 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 (major treaty actions) automatically stand referred to the Committee for inquiry and report upon tabling in the Parliament. The Committee will generally report on these treaties within 20 and 15 joint sitting days respectively, but can decide that a proposed treaty ought to be subject to a more rigorous inquiry process and therefore an extended timeframe.
There is also scope for urgent or sensitive treaties to be exempted from the usual requirement to be tabled for 15 or 20 joint sitting days. This would generally only occur where necessary to safeguard Australia’s national interests, including commercial, strategic or foreign policy interests.
When tabled in the Parliament, the text of proposed Category 1 and 2 treaties are accompanied by a National Interest Analysis (NIA) which considers the treaty, outlines the treaty obligations and any regulatory or financial implications, and reports the results of consultations undertaken with government agencies, state and territory governments, industry and non-government organisations.
The Committee advertises its inquiries on its website, inviting submissions 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 inquiry.
Category 3 treaties or minor treaty actions are generally technical amendments to existing treaties which do not impact significantly on the national interest.
Minor treaty actions are not tabled in the Parliament but are referred to the Committee by the Minister with a short Explanatory Statement. The Committee has the discretion to formally inquire into minor treaty actions or accept them without a formal inquiry and report.