Monday, 11 September 2023
International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023; Second Reading
The International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023 introduces new powers for the government to grant privileges and immunities—such as immunity from Australian legal processes or tax exemptions for Australian residents employed by the organisation—to international organisations and individuals. The government's stated aims are to provide flexibility in the granting of privileges and immunities, to give effect to agreed privileges and immunities under existing treaties—for example, with the OECD—and to assist in deepening Australia's defence, science and other strategic relationships.
Specifically, the amendments allow the minister, by regulation, to confer privileges and immunities in relation to international organisations of which Australia is not a member, to confer privileges and immunities on categories of officials not prescribed in the act where requested by an international organisation and agreed to by Australia, and to more flexibly grant the existing suite of privileges and immunities under the act to international organisations and their officials.
There has been bipartisan support for the privileges and immunities act since 1963, when it was introduced and passed by the coalition under Robert Menzies with the support of the then Labor government. There have been three main amendments to the act since that time—in 1982, the coalition with support from Labor; in 1997, the coalition with support from Labor; and in 2013, Labor with support from the coalition.
The amendments made in 1997 were made to keep pace with the increasing number and diversity of international organisations being established. Former senator Parer stated in his second reading speech:
Australia only grants privileges and immunities which are required under our international obligations and commitments. When negotiating privileges and immunities as part of international agreements, this Government takes the line that specific items should be included only where there is a demonstrated functional need. We have to be satisfied that the specific privilege or immunity is necessary for the effective operation of the organisation.
The longstanding approach of successive Australian governments has been a strict and conventional interpretation of what is and what is not an international organisation, so careful consideration was given as to why this approach should change now, which is why the coalition referred this bill to a committee. I thank the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for the work that they did in looking at this bill. The bill's approach arguably deviates from the approach taken by the coalition and the parliament over successive decades. However, we recognise that the proposed changes, implemented appropriately and with sufficient safeguards to prevent inadvertent expansion to organisations, have the potential to broaden and deepen Australia's engagement with the international community. The coalition will carefully monitor the implementation of the new framework to ensure that Australia continues to grant privileges and immunities when they are required under our international obligations and commitments and in ways that do not inadvertently extend the scope to other organisations.
This is the key point for the coalition. We want to continue the bipartisanship when it comes to the granting of privileges and immunities, but we want to make sure that all the checks and balances are in place to ensure that the granting of these privileges and immunities is done only where it is necessary to do so. As I've highlighted, since 1963, each time there have been amendments to the way that privileges and immunity are granted, there has been bipartisanship. That bipartisanship will continue, but with the proviso that there is close scrutiny and monitoring, and we will ensure that that takes place with the granting of these privileges and immunities going forward.