Senate Legislative and General Purpose Standing Committees
The First 20 Years 1970 - 1990

Table of Contents


The Committee and its Predecessors

Since the establishment of the Senate Standing Committees in 1970, matters presently covered by the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade have fallen, formally, within the areas of interest of the following Committees:


Current Membership

The membership of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade in December 1990 was as follows:

A full listing of membership and Committee Chairpersons on the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and other related committees are listed in an attachment to this section. Other attachments to this section include lists of committee secretaries and reports tabled by the committees.


The Work of the Committees

On 7 October 1971, the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence received its first reference for investigation and report. This reference was 'Japan'. The reference was unique for two reasons - firstly, it was customary to spell out in greater detail the terms of reference of the subject to be investigated and, secondly, it was not the previous practice for a committee of the Senate to be directed to inquire into relations with another country. This simple, one-word reference left the Committee free to determine the scope of the inquiry and the course it would pursue.

The Committee adopted a general rule that evidence would be taken in public hearing except where the national interest dictated otherwise. At first, some Ministers showed a reluctance to authorise officers of their Departments to give evidence in public hearing. This reluctance apparently stemmed from the sensitive nature of some of the areas of the inquiry. The Committee too recognised that there could be occasions when the public interest would dictate that some evidence should be tendered during in camera sessions, but considered that the public interest and the interests of the witnesses themselves could be adequately protected by the procedures of the Senate. Following assurances that the Committee would observe these procedures, the Departments concerned were authorised by their Ministers to give evidence in public, and the result was that all Departments with an interest in Japan co-operated fully with the Committee. The Committee's report, entitled simply, 'Japan' was tabled by the Chairman, Senator J.P. Sim on 27 February 1973.

For its next major inquiry, the Committee took up a matter falling within its responsibility for defence matters. On 1 May 1973 the Senate referred to it: 'the adequacy of the Australian Army to perform its necessary part in the defence of Australia'. The Committee presented its report on the reference, titled 'The Australian Army', on 28 November 1974. The report recommended that a Regular Army of approximately 38,000 was the minimum size necessary to ensure maintenance of a viable, efficient force (the actual strength at the time was approximately 30,000). The report found that most Army Reserve units, despite their importance, were scarcely viable, and had limited operational significance. Findings and recommendations were made concerning the organisation and capability of the Army, its arms, equipment and manpower, and the support provided by the RAN and RAAF. Higher command and control problems were examined, as well as the problems confronting the profession of arms in peacetime.

During 1973, the Senate referred three other matters to the Committee. These were:

However no action was taken on these references because of the priority given to completing the inquiry into the Army, and on 5 December 1974 the Chairman, Senator C.G. Primmer, reported to the Senate that the Committee had resolved not to proceed with the references.

The Committee presented its next report, 'United Nations Involvement with Australia's Territories', which had been referred to the Committee on 3 December 1974, on 30 September 1975. The reference arose from the report of the United Nations Visiting Mission to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in November 1974. As part of its program of hearings, the Committee visited the Cocos Islands during 17-23 June 1975. The Committee found that substantial changes were required to allow the Cocos Islands community adequate opportunity to develop socially, economically, and politically as an entity independent of the Clunies-Ross Estate, and recommended the development of a form of free association between the Islands and Australia.

The Committee presented two reports in 1976: 'Australia and the Indian Ocean Region', on 30 November; and 'Australia and the Refugee Problem', on 1 December. The report on refugees fulfilled terms of reference which had been given to the Committee on 11 June 1975. The first part of the report provided a factual background to the Vietnamese refugee problem and consisted of a chronological account of the events surrounding the fall of Saigon in April 1975, and the major responses to those events. In the second part, consideration was given to the Australian Government's response to the requests for assistance with the resettlement and rehabilitation of the Vietnamese and other refugees who were admitted to Australia during 1975 and early in 1976. The Committee canvassed such matters as the evacuation of refugees, criteria used for their selection, reception procedures, orientation work, and the post-hostel settlement assistance which had been provided to them. The section concluded with a chapter on the overall nature of the 'resettlement process'. The final part of the report contained recommendations for the formulation of an Australian policy for refugees, together with the necessary advisory and other administrative machinery. The report made specific recommendations concerning areas where action was needed to alleviate the problems experienced by the 1975 and 1976 intakes of Timorese, Vietnamese, and other Indo-Chinese refugees.

'Australia and the Indian Ocean Region' fulfilled terms of reference which had been referred to the Committee on 31 March 1976. A report on the Indian Ocean region had been presented by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in 1971, and the Senate Committee decided on the approach of updating and supplementing the Joint Committee report. The Senate Committee's report discussed the character and economics of the region, the influence of external powers, its military significance to Australia, the superpower presence, and Australia's dependence on the region. (This report was the first from the Committee to receive a formal Government response, which was tabled in the Senate on 22 November 1979.) In the response, the Minister for Foreign Affairs remarked that the Committee's report had been 'notably comprehensive, balanced and wide-ranging', and had gained a reputation as `a valuable handbook of information'.

The Committee presented its next report, 'Australia and the South Pacific', on 13 April 1978, fulfilling terms of reference which had been given it on 23 September 1976. In tabling the report the Chairman, Senator J.P. Sim, observed that, 'because of the Committee's inability to travel overseas as a committee, it was very aware of the danger of reflecting only comment and opinion gathered in Australia'. The report was extensively reviewed in the March 1979 issue of Pacific Islands Monthly, which also made the point that the Committee's inquiry had been handicapped by its inability to travel to the South Pacific countries. In his response to the report (22 November 1979) the Minister for Foreign Affairs said: 'In general, I found the Committee's recommendations in accord with the policies being pursued by the Government. Many of the points raised are either already being acted on, or will be. The report serves as a useful additional guide to the Government in deciding its particular priorities'.

On 20 February 1979, the Committee presented its report, 'Australian Representation Overseas - The Department of Foreign Affairs'. The terms of reference had been given to the Committee on 1 March 1978, and the main reason for undertaking the inquiry had been to assess whether the Department charged with the major role of implementing Australia's foreign policy and representation overseas had the resources and organisational ability to carry out its allotted role. The Minister for Foreign Affairs tabled the Government's response on 22 April 1980, and praised the `comprehensive and systematic character' of the report, saying it had been widely circulated and closely examined as a guide to future action.

On 27 April 1976 the Senate referred to the Committee the matter of: 'the implications for Australia's foreign policy and national security of proposals for a new international economic order'. The Committee presented its report on the reference, entitled 'The New International Economic Order', on 19 February 1980. Proposals for a new international order (NIEO) had been formalised in two resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly in May 1974. Encouraged by the actions of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in relation to oil prices the previous year, the developing countries had presented a cohesive and vocal stand for a revision of the world's economic system, which they felt in its current form worked to their disadvantage. The developed countries, including Australia, had expressed reservations about many of the proposals. As a result of its inquiry, the Committee concluded that an approach to the NIEO that simply looked critically at proposals put forward by the South and found them wanting rather than making positive and constructive alternative suggestions had dangers for the North and for Australia. One of the principal recommendations of the Committee was for a more systematic means at departmental and ministerial levels of ensuring that decisions affecting relationships with developing countries in an NIEO context be made with a full knowledge of the broader national interests. In his response on behalf of the Government to the report (on 18 September 1980) the Foreign Minister said in relation to the foregoing recommendation that Ministers had given it careful consideration: 'I shall also be writing to fellow Ministers formally advising them of the need to address this requirement and the Senate Committee's recommendation, in the development of policies for which they are responsible on related international economic matters'.

The Committee presented its report, 'Australia and ASEAN', on 4 December 1980, fulfilling terms of reference which the Senate had given it on 22 March 1979. The Committee reported that it had felt that for this reference views and information from the ASEAN countries were necessary to balance the material derived from Australian sources. To obtain this, and as only a few written contributions were received from people in the ASEAN countries, the Committee sought the Prime Minister's assistance to visit the ASEAN countries. Although this request was refused, three Committee members together made a private visit. The information gathered during the visit proved most valuable, and subsequently provided the Committee with a first hand record of how people and leaders in ASEAN countries viewed Australian-ASEAN relations. In its response to the report on 9 April 1981, the Government said it welcomed the public attention which the Committee's inquiry and report had attracted to Australian relations with ASEAN: 'the report has served to underline the important place of ASEAN and the ASEAN countries in Australia's foreign policy'. The Chairman of the Committee, Senator J.P. Sim, commented that he was pleased with the Government's promptness in responding to the report.

On 15 November 1979 the Senate referred to the Committee the following topic: 'The Indo-Chinese Refugee Situation and Australia's Role in Assisting the Refugees, with Particular Reference to the Report of the Committee 'Australia and the Refugee Problem', tabled in the Senate on 1 December 1976'. The Committee presented its report on the reference, titled 'Indo-Chinese Refugee Resettlement - Australia's Involvement', on 16 February 1982. The final chapter of the report set out the recommendations of the Committee's 1976 report, and the action taken by the Government since then on those recommendations. A Government response to the 1982 report was made on 15 December 1983. The response noted that there had been a change of Government since the report had been tabled, and said: 'because of the significant passage of time since the report was tabled the Government does not propose making a substantive or detailed response'.

The Committee presented its report, 'The Human Rights and Conditions of the People of East Timor' on 8 September 1983, fulfilling terms of reference which had been referred to it on 26 November 1981. The report highlighted difficulties the Committee had experienced in gathering evidence during its inquiry. Particular problems in this regard had resulted from the inability of the Committee to travel overseas to collect evidence and inspect particular areas `on the ground', and from its inability to meet the cost of bringing witnesses to Australia. The Minister for Foreign Affairs tabled a response to the report on 16 November 1983. The response drew attention to the report of the Australian Parliamentary Delegation to Indonesia (composed of members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence) which had been tabled in Parliament on 6 September 1983, two days before the Senate Committee report. 'It must be accepted', said the Minister, 'that the proximity of these reports and the fact that they deal with much the same subject matter, means that consideration of the one cannot preclude consideration of the other. They must be considered together'. The Minister went on to observe that the Senate Committee's report was largely prepared from evidence given by refugees, much of it relating to the immediate aftermath of the 1975 Indonesian invasion. The report of the Parliamentary Delegation on the other hand, was compiled from first hand experience and observation as a result of its visit to East Timor from 28 July to 1 August 1983. The Government rejected virtually all of the recommendations of the Senate Committee's report.

Following the completion of its report on East Timor, the Committee commenced work on an inquiry into 'Australia's Defence Co-operation Program', which had been referred to the Committee on 15 October 1981, and been deferred while the East Timor inquiry was undertaken. The report, 'Australia's Defence Co-operation with its Neighbours in the Asian-Pacific Region', was tabled on 23 October 1984. While the Committee supported the concept of a defence co-operation program, it had reservations regarding the functioning of the current program. The Committee was concerned that there were insufficient resources directed to program development, evaluation and monitoring. The Government responded to the report on 6 December 1985, saying that it had welcomed the increased community attention which the Committee's inquiry had caused to be drawn to the Defence Co-operation Program.

The Committee's principal inquiry in 1985-86 was into proposed Army land acquisition in New South Wales. This matter was referred to the Committee by the Senate on 9 October 1985. The Committee visited a number of existing Army facilities and conducted a series of public hearings in Sydney and Canberra. The First Report of the Committee on this reference was tabled on 30 May 1986. A Government response was tabled on 5 December 1986. The Committee had recommended that land in the Cobar region be rejected as unsuitable for an Army manoeuvre training area, and the Government's response stated that it had been decided not to proceed with the proposal to establish such a training area in the Cobar region.

The Committee's main inquiry in 1986-87 was into safety procedures relating to nuclear powered or armed vessels in Australian ports or waters. This matter was referred by the Senate on 17 September 1986. The Committee received a number of private briefings on the reference and held three days of public hearings. In February 1987, the Committee inspected Lucas Heights Research Laboratories in Sydney.

Concurrently, the Committee received a series of briefings on matters of current interest. These included Project Jindalee and the Dibb Report on Australia's Defence Capabilities. The Committee also took part in the RAN's 75th anniversary celebrations in October 1986, visiting HMS Illustrious and USS Missouri.

When the Committee was re-formed as the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade at the beginning of the 35th Parliament on 22 September 1987, several matters which had been referred to the former Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence and which had not been disposed of before the dissolution of the 34th Parliament were referred to the Committee. On 19 November 1987 the Committee presented a report to the Senate on several of these references, upon which it had been decided that, for various reasons, no further action would be taken. These references were:

The Committee completed its inquiry into the adequacy of current contingency planning for dealing with the accidental release of ionizing radiation from visiting nuclear powered or armed vessels in Australian waters and ports, and presented its report on 16 August 1989. The terms of reference for the inquiry did not relate to arguments for or against visits by nuclear armed or powered warships. They took as their starting point the fact that the visits took place. The Committee conducted its inquiry accordingly. The Committee concluded that the likelihood of an accident was extremely low and that contingency plans were in general adequate. Its report of nearly 500 pages recommended a number of ways in which planning might be enhanced. The Government's response on 13 December 1989 welcomed the report as an independent assessment of the visit arrangements and for its contribution to public awareness, and stated that the recommendations of the report had been or were being carried out with the co-operation of Federal, State and Territorial governments and relevant agencies.

On 3 November 1988, the Committee reported to the Senate that it did not propose to take action on another of the matters which had not been disposed of by the former Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence during the 34th Parliament, namely, an inquiry into the Australian Army's rapid deployment force. The reference had been given to that Committee on 26 March 1985.

The Committee was given terms of reference for an inquiry into Australia-India relations on 29 September 1988. Submissions were called and hearings were commenced in Perth on 27 April 1989. The inquiry was part of an expression of renewed interest in Australia's relationship with India, of which the Prime Minister's visit to that country in February 1989 was an example. The Committee was aware that India had been, for various reasons, a comparatively neglected area of Australia's foreign and trade relations and felt that it was timely for measures to be taken to remedy that neglect. The second most populous country in the world, it was the largest of the Indian Ocean states. Even seen simply as a market for Australian goods, India demanded attention. One of the main concerns of the Committee was to explore ways of increasing two-way trade. The significant development of the Indian defence forces in recent years, particularly the expansion of naval capability, had been of interest to international observers. As neighbours in the Indian Ocean, Australians shared an interest in maintaining stability in that region. While India sought to expand its naval presence, its strategic importance for the region could be expected to increase. The Committee presented its report, 'Australia-India Relations: Trade and Security', to the President of the Senate on 24 July 1990. The Committee found that, despite recent initiatives, the past neglect of India by Australia had not been overcome completely. There were few signs in the short term of a significant expansion of Australia-India trade. If the opening up of selected sectors of the Indian economy to foreign trade continued, long term opportunities would occur in sectors where Australia was competitive.

The report recommended that Australia encourage the Indian Government to relax trade and investment controls detrimental to Australian business. The Committee was critical of the lack of coordination between Australian Government departments and authorities over the development of trade with India. The report recommended greater emphasis by government on the need to support Australian business seeking to export by providing more responsive, high quality, commercial intelligence, and by offering greater country expertise to solve specific problems faced by Australian exporters in dealing with complex foreign government regulations, like those in India.

The Committee found that India was already an important regional power, but not a threat to Australia's security interests or those of our Southeast Asian neighbours. There was little conceivable basis for the view that India might develop unfriendly intentions toward Australia. Nevertheless, India's development of a nuclear weapons capability and an intercontinental missile capability could affect Australian regional security interests.

A major problem in the overall Australia-India relationship appeared to be a lack of forward thinking in Australian policy analysis. The Committee considered a more coordinated national strategy towards India was needed, based on long-term assessments of India's potential importance in international trade and politics within the next decade. The Committee recommended the establishment of an active program for the regular dissemination of assessments on India to important user groups in the community, including the release by the Department of Defence of appropriately declassified intelligence assessments.

The establishment of an Indian Studies Centre for advanced academic study of a range of India-related disciplines was recommended by the report, as was the setting-up of an Australia-India Council to develop a more informed relationship and foster wider contact between the two countries.

The Government's response to the report, which was tabled in the Senate on 21 December 1990, stated that the Government had approached the report with great interest, and found much in its findings and recommendations with which it could readily agree. Senator Maguire expressed pleasure that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade supported the idea of establishing an Australia-India Council, and his indication that he would seek funds for the Council in the 1991-92 Budget. Senator Maguire also expressed pleasure that the Minister had given in-principle support to the idea of an Indian Studies Centre.

The Committee's report has been widely circulated in India, and reviewed in the Indian press. It has also acted as a catalyst for a heightened interest in, and activities such as seminars on, Australia-India relations by academics and the business community in Australia.

On 7 September 1989, the Committee received terms of reference for an inquiry into the implications for Australia of economic and political reform in the Soviet Union, with special reference to strategic relationships in the Asia/Pacific region and the opportunities for expanded Australian trade with the Soviet Union, particularly the Soviet Far East and Siberia. Hearings for this inquiry were held in Canberra in November and December 1989, and Melbourne in February 1990. Witnesses at hearings included representatives of the Soviet Government, Australian officials and businessmen, and a senior Australian academic.

The Committee's report, entitled 'Perestroika: Implications for Australia-USSR Relations', was tabled in the Senate by Senator Maguire on 21 December 1990. In his foreword to the report, the Chairman noted that the inquiry had proceeded at a time of dramatic change and turbulence in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, which marked a turning point in twentieth century history.

During the course of the inquiry the Committee was very conscious of a continuing high level of uncertainty over future developments in the Soviet Union, uncertainty over decision making, uncertainty over accountability, and uncertainty about future directions in both the political and economic fields. The Committee concluded that these developments were of significance strategically for Australia. It made recommendations on both security and economic aspects of the relationship between Australia and the Soviet Union.

With regard to security, the Committee recommended a Cabinet review of Australia's strategic environment. In particular the Committee considered that the review needed to address the question of appropriate mechanisms for regional security consultations, the overall levels of armament in the Asia-Pacific region and measures to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region.

The Committee also recommended a series of measures to improve trade and business relations with the Soviet Union. As in the case of improving trade with India the Committee concluded that there was a need for Government departments and agencies to provide more responsive, high quality commercial intelligence about the Soviet Union to the Australian business community. The Committee further recommended the establishment of a high level joint working group, comprising both Australian and Soviet government representatives, businessmen and academics to identify potential trade and investment projects. Moreover representatives of the Soviet republics should be included in these arrangements as necessary. Other measures recommended included improving credit arrangements, giving greater attention to high technology joint ventures and improving education and business training for Soviet citizens. The Committee proposed that a training program, similar to the Australian Programme for Training in Eastern Europe (APTEE) be established.

On 30 May and 21 December 1990 the Committee presented Reports on Annual Reports which dealt with a total of nineteen reports.

The Committee commenced an inquiry into Australia's participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, under terms of reference given by the Senate on 20 September 1990. In announcing the inquiry, Senator Maquire said that, at a time when the United Nations peacekeeping role was increasing, it was appropriate to examine Australia's experience with United Nations peacekeeping activities, and to draw any lessons to improve our contribution in the future. A recent example had been the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia in 1989-90, where an Australian contingent had assisted in an operation which oversaw the end of conflict, the holding of elections and the transition to an independent state.

Senator Maguire said that the inquiry would investigate the effectiveness of past Australian participation in United Nations peacekeeping operations, look at the costs and benefits to Australia of involvement, and assess the ability of the Australian Defence Force, as well as non-military and non-government organisations, to contribute to future operations.