Treaty process under review

AUSTRALIA is aiming to tighten its treaty making process with other countries or international bodies so as to provide greater transparency and public accessibility.

Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer said the timeframe for parliamentary consultation with interest groups would be extended, while official information on treaties and the process would be made freely available on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website

Public submissions on treaties sent to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties have almost doubled in the past three years and, according to Mr Downer, this threatens to distract from the quality of the committee’s reports.

In response to the flood of public submissions the matters dealt with by the committee will now be divided into two categories – those of major political, economic or social significance, and others.

The former will attract considerable public interest and debate. Consultation periods on these will be increased from 15 to 20 sitting days, boosting the real time from five to eight weeks.

The remainder of the treaty actions, representing around two-thirds of those currently under consideration, will continue to be dealt with within the current 15-day sitting period.

An Australian Treaties Database linked to treaty documents is being designed for the department’s website summarising key treaty action dates.

“These initiatives are part of the ongoing process to facilitate parliamentary scrutiny of the treaty making process and public accountability and reflect the Government’s determination to ensure continuous improvement,” Mr Downer said.

Issues subject to treaties have grown with the globalisation push. Australia is now a party to agreements on postal, shipping and social security and health arrangements, defence and security, nuclear non-proliferation, the environment, civil aviation, maritime delimitation, technological exchanges, the law of the sea and international trading systems.

Most recently, the establishment of effective international regimes to combat criminal activity that does not respect national borders, including terrorism, has taken on a new urgency.

Under Section 61 of the Australian Constitution, the power to enter into treaties is the formal responsibility of the executive rather than the parliament. This has led to concerns from community groups about the transparency of the treaty making process.

Decisions about the negotiation of multilateral conventions and the parameters within which the Australian delegation can operate, and the final decision as to whether to sign and ratify are taken at ministerial level and in many cases, by Cabinet.

The treaty is generally tabled in parliament after Australia has already signed it but before it has become binding under international law. The parliament is still left with the role of introducing legislation, which puts the treaty into force.

They are tabled with a National Interest Analysis, which notes, among other things, the reasons why Australia should become a party to the treaty and its direct financial costs.

Treaties, which affect business or restrict competition, are also required to be tabled with a Regulation Impact Statement.

A treaty may be called a treaty, convention, protocol, covenant or ex-change of letters.

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