Speech - Treaties Committee Report

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (16:43): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, I present the committee's report entitled Report 121: treaty tabled on 16 August 2011, incorporating a dissenting report.

I ask leave of the House to make a short statement in connection with the report.

Leave granted.

Ms BIRD: This report contains the committee's view on the agreement between the government of Australia and the government of the United States of America relating to the operation of, and access to, an Australian naval communications station at North West Cape in Western Australia done at Washington on 16 July 2008, which was tabled on 16 August 2011. The proposed agreement is intended to replace the agreement between the government of the Commonwealth of Australia and the government of the United States of America relating to the establishment of the United States naval communications station in Australia done at Canberra on 9 May 1963. The 1963 agreement provided for the establishment, maintenance and operation by the United States of a naval communications station in Australia. This agreement was terminated in May 1999 and since then an interim arrangement applied until a new treaty was concluded. The proposed new agreement will remain in force for an initial period of 25 years and, unless terminated, shall continue for subsequent periods of five years.

The new agreement provides for continued access and use of this station, officially known as the Harold E Holt Naval Communication Station, by the US and, consequently, the means through which very low-frequency, or VLF, communication for US and Australian submarines may be maintained. Continuing US access to the station will help support the maintenance of a strong and adaptable US presence in the Asia-Pacific region and is an important indication of the continuing commitment of the US government to regional cooperation. The station's capacity for communicating with submerged submarines in the Indian Ocean is unique in our region and is an important element in enabling Australian use of other VLF transmitters to communicate with Australian submarines.

The committee notes that the station is used to communicate with all types of US Navy submarines, including nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines, and that there is some concern in Australia about that aspect of the station's operations. However, Australia's hosting of the station is not inconsistent with our commitments under the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and the Antarctic Treaty. The committee also recognises that the station is part of an integrated network of communications stations and that the Australian Navy is reliant upon VLF transmitters provided by other bases operated by the US in other countries to communicate with Australian submarines worldwide. The committee accepts this is a genuine area of mutual cooperation in defence activities that assist in meeting the operational requirements of Australia's defence forces.

The committee notes the potential for the proposed agreement to pose a conflicting obligation if, at some point in its 25-year lifespan, a treaty establishing a southern hemisphere nuclear-free zone were to be established. However, this hypothetical scenario does not warrant the rejection of the proposed agreement and the potential negative effects to Australian naval communications that may arise as a result of such a rejection. The committee concludes that this treaty should be supported with binding action. On behalf of the committee, I commend the report to the House.