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23 November 2021

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today condemned the Coalition Government’s abuse of Australia’s treaty making process as it seeks to rubberstamp its nuclear submarine scheme. 

“Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Government is absolutely rorting Australia’s treaty making process in an effort to avoid scrutiny of their nuclear submarine scheme,” Senator Patrick said today.

“While the Government is clearly anxious to advance its nuclear submarine evaluation prior to the election, they are treating the Australian Parliament with absolute contempt, with the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Treaties allowing just three days for submissions from non-government experts and members of the public.” 

“Liberal MP Dave Sharma, Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties – JSCOT – has announced today that his committee will conduct a review of the new Agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America for the Exchange of Naval Nuclear Propulsion Information.” 

“That treaty-level agreement was signed by the three government’s yesterday, 22 November 2021 and tabled in the Parliament that same day.”

“Mr Sharma’s media release indicates that the deadline for submissions to the inquiry is Friday this week, 26 November.”

“That’s right – just three days will be allowed for submissions on what is the first step in the Government’s nuclear submarine acquisition scheme, a proposed project that the Government itself claims to be of tremendous strategic and diplomatic significance.”

“Whatever one’s views of the nuclear submarine scheme, this agreement should be subject to rigorous expert and public scrutiny, especially with regard to the extent and effectiveness of technology and information transfer, implications for nuclear non-proliferation safeguards, and Australia’s ability to manage future nuclear safety issues.”

“To point to just one potential issue, Article 1 of the Agreement provides that classified and unclassified naval nuclear propulsion information may only be communicated ‘provided that the communicating Party determines that such cooperation will promote and will not constitute an unreasonable risk to its defence and security’.” 

“To what extent will this mean that Australia’s nuclear submarine scheme will always be hostage to American and British assessments of Australia’s protective security arrangements, or indeed to wider defence and diplomatic considerations?” 

“Similarly the Articles relating to the security and dissemination information, and intellectual property are complex, and need close consideration, including in regard to the other international obligations of the three countries, including public and classified US-UK agreements on the exchange of classified information.” 

“This can’t be responsibly done within little more than a week.” 

“Mr Sharma has further indicated that JSCOT will conduct a single public hearing in just six days, on Monday, 29 November. Although no date is given for JSCOT to report, it appears that Mr Sharma intends to rubber stamp the treaty before the Parliament rises at the end of next week.”

Senator Patrick said: “It would be unprecedented for a treaty dealing with such important strategic questions to be dealt with in such a cursory and obviously predetermined way.”

“As a former Australian diplomat, Mr Sharma is obviously well aware of the importance of Australia’s well-established treaty making process including parliamentary scrutiny. Unfortunately, it looks like he’s taking his instructions direct from Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s office.”

“Ironically the Government is trashing the treaty making system that was established by former Liberal Foreign Minister Alexander Downer in 1996.”

“If this is how the Coalition Government intends to pursue this scheme, abusing over well-established processes of parliamentary scrutiny, one can have very little confidence in the ultimate outcome.”