Wednesday, 1 September 2021
Treaties Committee; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, I present the committee's report entitled Report 197: OCCAR managed programmes participation agreement; Minamata Convention on Mercury—report, August 2021.
Report made a parliamentary paper in accordance with standing order 39(e).
I ask leave of the House for the chair of the committee to make a short statement in connection with the report.
[by video link] by leave—I wish to make a statement on the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties report 197, which reviews two major treaty actions: the framework agreement between the government of Australia and the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation for participation by Australia in OCCAR managed programs and the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
I'll address first the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which is quite an important environmental treaty. It's a global response to a chemical of global concern. By some accounts, as much as 9,000 tonnes of mercury are released around the world each year, and mercury, as many would know, is a toxic pollutant with the capacity for long-range atmospheric transport. It bioaccumulates in our ecosystems and it has significant effects on human health and the environment. There is no known safe exposure level for mercury in humans, and mercury, like other fundamental elements, can never be destroyed.
The Minamata Convention of Mercury is named after the Japanese city of Minamata, where the industrial release of methylmercury from a factory in the 1950s caused what was known as the Minamata disease epidemic—a debilitating and destructive disease which caused countless harms to newborn babies, infants and adults who consumed seafood which was rendered toxic by this mercury poisoning.
There are many good reasons for Australia to ratify this treaty. There is a need for global action to better control mercury and to control its interaction with us as human beings. But it's also important for Australia to be a responsible global citizen and demonstrate leadership in this region. Ratification of this treaty would provide certainty for and decrease the regulatory burden on Australian business and industry, which still make some limited use of mercury for industrial and other processes. Australia's ratification of this treaty would also allow us to participate in regulation-making and in shaping future decision-making under the convention. It is our understanding that Australia is already substantively in compliance with the convention, with ratification having negligible regulatory or financial impacts because Australia has existing policy and legislative frameworks in place which are robust and which manage protect the community from toxic chemicals such as mercury.
Australia has been slow to ratify this convention. It was signed initially in 2013 and entered into force in 2017. As of July this year it has already been ratified by 132 countries, or some two-thirds of the UN's membership. That's why the committee supports the convention and recommends that binding treaty action be taken. One particular recommendation the committee has made, though, is that the government does not seek an exemption to allow the continued importation of high-pressure mercury vapour lamps into Australia beyond the date of ratification. The committee heard from industry and others that such an exemption was no longer necessary and that industry—particularly the lighting industry and those which administer and install streetlighting, local councils and local government—have already made the transition away from HPMV lamps. They already have plans in place to ensure that they transition more quickly to LED lighting and other elements which are now cheaper and which, of course, are much more environmentally friendly—and, incidentally, have lower emissions. For that reason, seeking an exemption is no longer necessary for Australia and it would also put us in odd company, alongside less-developed countries with much poorer environmental stewardship credentials such as China, Iran, Madagascar and Ghana. The committee noted that no other OECD or developed country has sought an exemption of the sort that Australia is proposing. So in this regard, the committee recommends ratification of this treaty and it also recommends that the government reassess this need to seek an exemption to allow for the continued importation of HPMV lamps into Australia.
The second item addressed by this report is the OCCAR managed programs participation agreement. The evidence on this one was quite clear from the defence department and others, that allowing Australia to join OCCAR would promote cooperation in defence procurement and sustainment in line with Australian interests and with little detriment—in fact no detriment—to our own national security needs. It would allow Australian defence industries in particular a better prospect of participating in global defence materiel supply chains, which is obviously critical if Australia is to develop and sustain a sovereign defence capability. So, in this regard, the committee does recommend that the government ratify this treaty and that it enter into force as soon as possible.
Report 197 also touches upon three other minor committee actions—an amendment to the International Tropical Timber Agreement and two amendments to appendix III of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. On behalf of the committee, I commend this report to the House.