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Inter-parliamentary relations and capacity-building

The Australian Parliament’s international program focuses on strengthening engagement and cooperation with parliaments internationally, with an emphasis on parliamentary relations with countries in the Asia–Pacific region.

The program’s activities and projects in 2017–18 were coordinated by the International and Parliamentary Relations Office (IPRO) and the Parliamentary Skills Centre (PSC), with input from all four parliamentary departments. IPRO and PSC are offices administered by the department, and IPRO receives some funding from the Department of the Senate.

A decision taken last year, to co-locate the two offices and for these to be managed by one director, continues to provide efficiencies in management of work and knowledge-sharing. IPRO manages incoming and outgoing delegation programs, membership of international parliamentary organisations, and the international interests and travel of members and senators. PSC is responsible for all parliamentary strengthening and capacity-building programs of the Australian Parliament, including study programs for visiting parliamentarians and staff of other parliaments.

IPRO manages the administration of Parliamentary Regional Networks and Parliamentary Country Groups, as established under the auspices of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It also administers the parliament’s non-country Friendship Groups.

Information security issues remain a concern for international parliamentary travel. Hence, IPRO continues to facilitate the provision of security advice to members and senators travelling overseas as part of official delegations and also for travel in a private capacity.

In 2017–18, the budget allocation for the program was $1.922 million and expenditure was $1.877 million. Results against performance criteria are summarised in the annual performance statement (page 21); staff levels are shown in Table 12.

Performance summary

A comprehensive program of incoming and outgoing visits during the year strengthened bilateral relations with several national parliaments. The Australian Parliament continued to support the capacity-building of parliaments in the region, and played an active role in parliamentary associations to which it belongs.

Parliamentary engagement

During 2017–18, IPRO coordinated 23 official overseas delegation programs, which involved visits to 31 countries; attendance at seven assemblies, conferences, workshops and seminars; and other visits, including Presiding Officer visits (see Appendix 7). There were also 34 visits to Australia from other countries: four hosted visits by parliamentary delegations (see Appendix 5); and 30 other visits, including for a range of capacity-building activities (see Appendixes 6 and 8).

A regional focus was maintained in the visits programs. Of the 34 visits to Australia, 16 were from parliaments in the Asia–Pacific region, including the annual visit by a combined delegation from Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries. Of the 23 overseas visits, nine were to countries in Asia or Oceania.

The Australian Parliament’s participation in MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, the Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia) continued, with the President of the Senate attending the third annual Speakers’ Consultation in Istanbul, Turkey, in October 2017.

During the reporting period, the Australian Parliament welcomed visits by a number of Presiding Officers, including His Excellency Mr José Carlos Mahia, Speaker of the parliament of Uruguay; Mr Urban Ahlin, Speaker of the parliament of Sweden; and the Right Honourable Trevor Mallard MP, Speaker of the parliament of New Zealand. Other high-level visits included Mr Fahri Hamzah, Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Republic of Indonesia; Professor Norbert Lammert, former President of the German Bundestag; and the Right Honourable Dr Keith Rowley MP, Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

The work of incoming and outgoing parliamentary delegations continued to be promoted through the Parliament of Australia website, including publication of short articles and video interviews with delegation leaders.

Outgoing and incoming delegations gave positive feedback on the quality of the programs, both at debrief meetings and through correspondence. For example, the Ambassador of Uruguay commented that the delegates ‘were very pleased with the diverse agenda … that showcased a variety of ideas and industries of interest to the members of the delegation’. The Swedish parliament thanked IPRO for ‘organising such a great programme in Australia’ and said ‘the whole delegation is extremely happy about the visit, and all the logistics worked perfectly too’. The German–Australian Chamber of Industry and Commerce conveyed ‘a huge thank you for the outstanding, very friendly and professional support provided during our first-ever Canberra Delegation’.

To create further opportunities for outgoing and incoming delegations to provide feedback, an online survey was introduced in 2017–18. The survey seeks to gauge the level of satisfaction with the arrangements made by IPRO and provide an opportunity to make suggestions for improvements. All delegation members are emailed a link to the survey. All survey respondents for outgoing delegations indicated that they were either ‘satisfied’ or ‘highly satisfied’ with the arrangements made by IPRO, and all survey respondents for incoming delegations were ‘highly satisfied’ with logistical and program arrangements made by IPRO.

Parliamentary cooperation

The Australian Parliament maintained its strong commitment to regional and international parliamentary cooperation in 2017–18. Delegations attended Inter-Parliamentary Union assemblies; the United Nations General Assembly; the ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Assembly; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Parliamentary Assembly; and the Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum (for more detail, see Appendix 7).

In June 2017 the Presiding Officers convened a meeting of all interested senators and members, which agreed that the parliament should apply to reconstitute the Commonwealth of Australia branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA). The parliament’s branch had withdrawn from the CPA in 2012, owing to concerns over the governance arrangements and financial accountability of the CPA. Noting that progress had been made to address the parliament’s concerns, senators and members in attendance unanimously agreed to apply to reconstitute the branch. The decision to readmit the branch was ratified by the CPA General Assembly, which met in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 7 November 2017. The branch formally re-joined the CPA with effect from 1 January 2018.

Since re-joining the CPA, the branch has met, adopted rules to govern its operations and elected an executive committee. The branch currently has 63 members, more than a third of whom (22) are women parliamentarians. A meeting of women members of the branch was convened, and a Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians group for the parliament was re-established.

Parliamentary strengthening

The PSC has responsibility for coordinating the parliament’s capacity-building activities. With the generous support of members, senators, former members and colleagues from throughout the parliamentary service, as well as some state and territory parliaments, the centre facilitates the Australian Parliament’s capacity-building and parliamentary strengthening activities with the parliaments of Pacific island nations and other countries.

The PSC continued to coordinate activities under the Pacific Parliamentary Partnerships program and the Pacific Women’s Parliamentary Partnerships Project (PWPP), which was funded under the Australian Government’s Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative. The major focus of the Pacific Parliamentary Partnerships program during the year was work with the parliaments of Fiji and Samoa.

Support for the parliament of Fiji was arranged in conjunction with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It included placements of parliamentary researchers from DPS and the Victorian parliament to assist with the Fiji parliament’s budget analysis and provide mentoring support for Fiji’s parliamentary sittings.

A seminar was held in Apia, Samoa, for members and staff of the Samoan Legislative Assembly on the topics of parliamentary privilege, procedure and ethics (see news report on page 61). This was conducted with the help of a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms Anna Burke, and senior officers from the department. Two staff undertook attachments to the Samoan Legislative Assembly to assist with committee and procedural support. Comprehensive handbooks for members and staff were prepared to provide guidance on practical matters, procedural rules and conventions.

The Samoa project concluded in 2017, whereas the Fiji program was extended until January 2020.

During the year, the major activities of the PWPP involved organising the fifth PWPP forum in Honiara, Solomon Islands, and facilitating research scholarships for parliamentary officers from the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), Fiji and Samoa. Feedback on the project and the forum in Honiara was positive, with the Speaker of one Pacific island parliament observing ‘the women’s full participation, strong and serious discussions, openness with no reluctance to share and obvious tremendous confidence’, and saying ‘I was pleased to observe the changes in the women, comradeship as a big family of supporters for each other’. The PWPP concluded at the end of 2017.

Departmental staff and colleagues from all parliamentary departments, with coordination by the PSC, contributed to study programs for visiting members and staff of numerous overseas parliaments including India, Kenya, Myanmar and the Philippines. Feedback from participants on the study visit programs was consistently positive.

The department continued to support the UNDP’s parliamentary strengthening program at the Myanmar parliament. The Clerk and a senior executive officer delivered executive and mid-level management training to parliamentary staff, and another departmental officer supported a program for committee development work.

The annual Inter-Parliamentary Study Program was conducted for senior parliamentary staff, with 15 participants from overseas parliaments including Brazil, China, India, Morocco, Nepal and Vietnam. There were also two participants from the Victorian and Northern Territory parliaments, which are in twinning arrangements with two of the Pacific participants: Fiji and Niue.

In November 2017, an inaugural Inter-Parliamentary Study Program for Deputy Speakers of Pacific island parliaments was held at the Australian Parliament. Twelve participants from across the region benefited from a unique professional development and networking opportunity with their peers, and from a program that involved input from the Deputy Presiding Officers, former Speaker Mr Harry Jenkins AO and senior officers from the department.

Improving performance

The streamlined approval process for all overseas delegation travel by the Presiding Officers—made possible by the Parliamentary Business Resources Regulations 2017—continues to allow flexibility and agility in the strategic management and forward planning of the international program. The co-location of IPRO and PSC also continues to allow for greater knowledge-sharing between the offices, and efficiencies in the coordination of the international program through the sharing of resources.

Increasingly, delegation members make use of the online delegation portal (where appropriate), as a secure and effective way to electronically access visit information and written briefs in a timely manner, both before and during official visits. Delegates’ responses lodged via the new online survey platform are helping IPRO to refine its processes.

Outlook

The year ahead will include a full program of delegation visits, with the continued implementation of the 2016–19 delegations program, as approved by the Presiding Officers. In the first half of 2018–19, 15 outgoing delegations (including committee visits, a parliamentary field visit and attendance at assemblies) and five official incoming parliamentary delegations are scheduled.

Activities associated with the parliament’s membership of the CPA will continue and are likely to increase.

Parliamentary strengthening programs administered through the PSC will remain a priority area for the international program. An Inter-Parliamentary Study Program will be offered for Speakers of all Pacific island parliaments, and study visit programs are planned for delegations of members and staff from parliaments of African and Indo-Pacific countries.

The Australian Parliament largely relies on funding from government or other sources, such as the UNDP and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to support much of its parliamentary strengthening work with other parliaments. The PSC will continue to respond to invitations to the Australian Parliament to collaborate on parliamentary strengthening, giving due consideration to the limited resources available for such work.

Delegation of ASEAN parliamentarians together with the Presiding Officers (centre), President of the Senate, Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon Tony Smith MP, and Hon Mark Coulton MP (right), November 2017. Image: Penny Bradfield, Auspic/DPS.