Monday, 11 September 2023
International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I am pleased to introduce the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023.
The bill will closely align Australia's domestic legislation with our international obligations, increase flexibility in the granting of privileges and immunities, and assist in deepening Australia's defence, science and other strategic relationships.
The purpose of the bill is to improve the functionality of the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Act and the administration of privileges and immunities in Australia.
Since the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, international organisations have become an integral part of the multilateral system. International organisations carry out critical work in humanitarian, scientific and other fields to promote international cooperation and collaboration.
It has long been recognised that international organisations are entitled under international law to those privileges and immunities necessary to ensure their independent and effective functioning.
Like diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities, these privileges and immunities serve to protect the organisation, its mission and its officials from unreasonable and inappropriate interference across the globe.
Australia passed the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Act in 1963. The act sets out which international organisations, overseas organisations and international conferences are able to be granted privileges and immunities, as well as specifying which privileges and immunities can be granted.
The amendments contained in the bill enhance Australia's ability to confer privileges and immunities in accordance with its international obligations and in the national interest.
First, they enable Australia to declare an organisation to be an international organisation under the act, even if Australia is not a member of that organisation.
This will increase the opportunities available to Australia to cooperate with such organisations—for example, by encouraging visits and promoting the exchange of information, knowledge and ideas.
It will also assist Australia to give effect to the privileges and immunities agreed to under treaties, such as those contained in the framework agreement between Australia and the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation, as a European intergovernmental organisation.
Second, these amendments enable Australia to accord the existing range of privileges and immunities under the act to categories of officials not prescribed in the act where requested by an international organisation and agreed to by Australia.
It also provides more flexibility in which privileges and immunities may be accorded to international organisations and their officials.
Finally, the bill includes technical edits to the schedules to the act to more closely align the schedules with the relevant treaty obligations.
This is a minor amendment and does not represent a shift in government policy or the operation of the act.
This bill reflects the commitment of this government to multilateralism, upholding Australia's international law obligations and promoting international cooperation by improving the functionality of the act and implementation of privileges and immunities in Australia.
It is the Australian government's objective to actively and constructively participate in the multilateral system, supporting its institutions and recognising the benefits they bring to Australia, the region and the world.
I commend the bill to the chamber.
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.
I am pleased to rise and speak on the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023. I do so after the member for Wannon and note the bipartisan offering of those opposite and note the fact that this has been a regime that has had the support of both sides of the House for some time.
Context is important, and the context of supporting multilateral organisations through Australia's foreign policy is one where over the past few years we saw the former Prime Minister come into this place and parrot some of the tropes that we've seen many in the Republican Party in the United States use, about a more isolationist approach to foreign policy. It was a concerning moment in Australian foreign policy to have the Prime Minister of Australia looking more inwards as opposed to looking at what Australia's role is in the region. I'm pleased that since then those opposite have had more sense than that instinct that was expressed by the former Prime Minister and that we are now back to a place where foreign policy and commitment to multilateral organisations is something both sides of politics, both major parties, are focused on, are committed to and are working collaboratively on.
Upon coming into government, the foreign minister made it her priority to re-establish Australia's place in not only our region but also the world. In order to do so, we need to work collaboratively with other international parties and players. We need to do so, also, through international and multilateral organisations. This bill is an enabler of that. This bill is to enable us to speak and connect with and work alongside many of the international organisations that we are a member of and also some that we are not a member of, as we look to increase and expand our scope. This bill is not just about legalities. It's about advancing Australia's national strategic interests, bolstering our defence, science and strategic relationships, and reaffirming our commitment to multilateralism.
Since the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, international organisations have become an integral part of the multilateral system. International organisations carry out critical work in humanitarian, scientific and other fields, and they promote international cooperation and collaboration. I have witnessed this firsthand in our region. I am, too, deeply committed to their work.
Just as diplomatic and consular privileges and immunities protect the mission of embassies and their officials, these provisions are designed to shield international organisations, their missions and their personnel from undue interference on a global scale. Australia has a longstanding history of engagement with international organisations. In 1963, as the previous member said, we passed the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Act, which laid the foundation for our approach to granting privileges and immunities. However, as the world has evolved, so too must our legislation to keep pace with the changing dynamics of international systems.
The three key parts of this bill are as follows. Firstly, these amendments will empower Australia to declare an organisation as an international organisation under the act, even if we are not a member of that organisation. This is all about expanding our scope of cooperation. It's about encouraging visits and facilitating the exchange of information, knowledge and ideas, and it will foster deeper partnerships with a broader array of international organisations. It will also help us uphold the privileges and immunities agreed to under treaties, further strengthening our international commitments. Secondly the amendments in this bill enable us to extend the existing range of privileges and immunities to categories of officials not explicitly prescribed in the act, provided such extensions are required by international organisations and they have been agreed upon by Australia. This flexibility is important in tailoring our support to the specific needs of international organisations and demonstrates Australia's willingness to work collaboratively with our international engagements. Finally, the bill includes technical edits to the schedules to the act to align them more closely with relevant treaty obligations.
These adjustments are minor in nature and do not represent any significant policy shift or change in the operation of the act. Rather, they are all about ensuring that our domestic legislation reflects our international commitments accurately. This bill is a reflection of the Albanese Labor government's commitment to multilateralism, international law and promoting global cooperation. Through the passage of this bill, we reinforce our dedication to actively and constructively participate in the multilateral system, so upholding the institutions that serve as pillars for international cooperation. We do not take steps forward by taking steps back.
In Australia our commitment to our region and the global rules based order has been on display since we came into government. We on this side of the House want to see a continuing leadership role for Australia as a middle power taking its rightful place in international arenas. But we do so knowing that as a responsible international player we need to engage constructively, to look outwards, to invest in our region, to invest in the people in our region and to ensure that the security of our region outlasts any of our careers in this place. We seek to do so constructively. We seek to engage with our friends and our partners and we seek to engage with those with whom we don't currently have some of the more formalised relationships because that is what good international citizens do. We do so in a way that seeks to deepen defence cooperation, science and strategic partnerships. We do so with the acknowledgement that it is best done on a bipartisan basis. I hope the commitment to multilateralism and to the international rules based order remains exactly that, and I commend the bill to the House.
I thank all honourable members for their contributions to this debate on the International Organisations (Privileges and Immunities) Amendment Bill 2023. I thank the member for Wannon for recording the strong history of bipartisanship shown by this parliament on this issue and those opposite for their good-faith engagement in the parliamentary committee review process for this bill. I also acknowledge my friend the member for Macnamara for highlighting the important role that this bill plays in Australia's engagement with the global multilateral system. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs has pointed out in the past, Australia may not be a global power, but we have global interests and to pursue those interests we need to work closely with the other members of the international community. Multilateral institutions are, for that reason, more important for Australia than for some other larger countries. For that reason the bill will benefit Australia by providing new opportunities to cooperate with international organisations and will assist Australia to give effect to our international obligations, aligning our domestic laws more closely with the treaties to which we are a party. It will increase flexibility in which we grant privileges and immunities we agreed to in Australia in our national interest.
The changes proposed by the bill are small but important. First, they will enable Australia to accord privileges and immunities to international organisations of which Australia is not a member. This includes, for example, the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation, with which Australia has concluded a framework agreement. Second, the amendments will allow Australia to grant privileges and immunities to classes of officials not set out in the act where requested by an international organisation and agreed to by Australia. Finally, Australia will have more flexibility in granting the existing suite of privileges and immunities under the act to international organisations and their officials. Australia grants privileges and immunities when they are required under our international obligations and commitments. We do so in accordance with international law, including international human rights law.
The Australian government's objective is to participate in the multilateral system actively and constructively. To achieve this, we need to support its institutions and recognise the benefits that international organisations bring to Australia, the region and the world. The bill reflects the commitment of this government to its objectives, and, on that note, I commend the bill to the chamber.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.