IN COMMITTEE Tricky Business of Treaties

There was time, not so long ago, when international treaties were negotiated by Foreign Affairs and Trade and signed off by the Government; leaving Parliament (and the average New Zealander) out of the loop entirely. An efficient enough system no doubt, but one which – in the case of treaties which were binding in law – committed New Zealand to legal frameworks which our law makers had had no role in creating.
Parliament successfully demanded that all proposed treaties should in future be submitted to select committee for scrutiny.
Problem solved – or so it seemed until the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety 2000 turned up. The Protocol seeks to ensure an adequate level of protection in the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms that may have adverse effects on conservation and biological diversity.
In line with the way things are now done, it was referred to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee on 1 November 2004, along with national interest analysis prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade; all of which was passed on to the Primary Production Committee who reported back just 11 days later simply saying that “it had no matters to bring to the attention of the House”.
And there matters would have rested had not set of Cabinet policy papers, released under the Official Information Act 1982, popped up showing that the Ministries of Economic Development, Justice, and Research, Science and Technology, and the Treasury, recommended deferring decision; while the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry considered that ratifying the Protocol was not in New Zealand’s interests. All of which was news to the members of both select committees.
As the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee subsequently stated in special report it made to the House early March, “had this information been available to us, it is likely that greater attention would have been paid to the Protocol”.
It justified the two committees’ laxity in this matter by pointing out that “there is no requirement in Standing Orders to identify the position of individual government departments”. Indeed, to do so, would “go against Cabinet convention”.
That said the committee went on to argue that it would be appropriate for the national interest analysis to indicate which government agencies and community groups supported proposal, and which did not.
“The House relies on national interest analyses to inform it fully and accurately of the reasons behind executive decisions on treaties. The analysis is the major document from which the House interprets treaty and therefore it is important that it represent all views in fair and balanced way.”
All this was of course diplomat-speak. What the committee members were really pointing out to the House was that, in an important aspect of international treaty decision making, it was as far out of the loop as it ever had been, and that it had better do something about it. It will be interesting to see if Parliament takes up the challenge.

Julie Collier is editor and publisher of Select Committee News.

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