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 2019–20 were coordinated by the International and Parliamentary Relations Office, which incorporates the Parliamentary Skills Centre, with input from all four parliamentary departments. The International and Parliamentary Relations Office is administered by the department, and receives some funding from the Department of the Senate.
The International and Parliamentary Relations Office manages incoming and outgoing delegation programs, membership of international parliamentary organisations, and the international interests and travel of members and senators. Within the office, the Parliamentary Skills Centre 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.
The International and Parliamentary Relations Office administers parliamentary regional networks and parliamentary country groups, as established under the auspices of the Australian National Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It also administers the parliament’s non-country friendship groups.
In 2019–20 the budget allocation for this activity was $2.426 million and expenditure was $1.767 million. Results against performance criteria are summarised in the annual performance statement (page 19); staff levels are shown in Table 12.
The majority of parliamentary delegation travel occurred during the latter half of 2019. From early March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on international travel, with outgoing and incoming delegations ceasing. As at the end of the financial year, Australia’s international borders remain closed and the parliamentary delegation program remains suspended. Engagement with parliamentary regional networks and parliamentary capacity-building activities has transferred to virtual platforms, where possible, pending lifting of travel restrictions.
During 2019–20, the International and Parliamentary Relations Office coordinated 15 official overseas delegation programs, involving visits by 40 delegates to 19 countries; this included attendance at nine assemblies, conferences, workshops and seminars, and other visits, including Presiding Officer visits (see Appendix 7). There were also 17 visits to Australia from other countries: three hosted visits by parliamentary delegations (see Appendix 5) and 14 other visits (see Appendix 6), as well as 14 parliamentary capacity-building activities completed (see Appendix 8).
The delegation program had a Europe–Asia focus through the first half of 2019–20. Of the visits to Australia, 13 were from parliaments representing Europe or Asia, including a visit by a delegation from the European Union. Of the 15 overseas visits from Australia, 10 were to countries in Europe or Asia, including a visit by the Presiding Officers to attend the G20 Speakers’ Summit in Tokyo, Japan, in November 2019.
During the reporting period, the Australian Parliament welcomed visits by a number of Presiding Officers, including His Excellency Mr Demetris Syllouris, President of the House of Representatives of Cyprus and Mr Wolfgang Kubicki, Vice President of the German Bundestag. Other parliamentary visits included members of the Japan–Australia Parliamentary Friendship Association and the France–Australia Senate Friendship Group.
The work of outgoing and incoming parliamentary delegations continued to be reported on the Parliament of Australia website.
Outgoing and incoming delegations and diplomatic representatives gave positive feedback on the quality of the programs, both at debrief meetings and through correspondence. For example, the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany thanked International and Parliamentary Relations Office staff for their ‘efforts and the insightful program’, with the program of meetings and discussions planned for a delegation from the German Bundestag ‘an excellent reflection of the broad Australian–German relationship’.
Use of an online survey emailed to delegates continued to provide opportunities to obtain feedback from members of outgoing delegations. All survey respondents for outgoing delegations indicated that they were either ‘satisfied’ or ‘highly satisfied’ with the arrangements made by the International and Parliamentary Relations Office.
The Australian Parliament maintained its strong commitment to regional and international parliamentary cooperation in 2019–20. Delegations attended the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, the United Nations General Assembly, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-Parliamentary Assembly and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference (for more detail, see Appendix 7).
From March 2020, a number of international inter-parliamentary meetings were delivered virtually. International and Parliamentary Relations Office staff participated in webinars and facilitated the participation of Australian delegates.
Hosting of the 28th Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum
The Australian Parliament hosted the 28th Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum (APPF28) in January 2020, welcoming over 340 delegates from 19 APPF Member Countries and 10 observer countries. A founding member of the APPF, the Australian Parliament last hosted this annual meeting in 2000. Providing organisational support for hosting APPF28 was a major undertaking, led by a dedicated secretariat within the department and drawing on the assistance of volunteers from across the four parliamentary departments.
Following the death of the Honorary President, Hon Yasuhiro Nakasone, the forum expressed its condolences to Japan and the family of Mr Nakasone, and elected the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives as President of the APPF until the next meeting scheduled to be hosted by the Republic of Korea in 2021. International and Parliamentary Relations Office staff have been providing ongoing secretariat support to the Speaker in his capacity as President of the APPF, including support for the Speaker’s engagement with his regional counterparts on organisational matters and in promoting the APPF as an international parliamentary forum.
The Parliamentary Skills Centre 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 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 Parliamentary Skills Centre continued to coordinate activities under the Pacific Parliamentary Partnerships Fund with applications for equipment and other support approved for Nauru, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The COVID-19 pandemic and closure of international borders impacted on the ability to deliver some items to the Pacific, with laptops and Hansard equipment procured for Nauru and Tuvalu being stored in Canberra until delivery corridors are re-established into these countries.
Support was provided to the parliament of Vanuatu through the United Nations Development Programme. A research officer from the Department of the House of Representatives joined a group of researchers to work with the local secretariat to support the drafting of budget materials for parliamentarians.
Two staff from the department travelled to Myanmar in July and October 2019 to assist with training at the Myanmar parliament in a program coordinated and funded by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the United Nations Development Programme, and Myanmar parliamentarians visited the Australian Parliament as part of a political mentoring program run by the International Women’s Development Agency.
Departmental staff and colleagues from all parliamentary departments, with coordination by the Parliamentary Skills Centre, contributed to study programs for visiting members and staff of numerous overseas parliaments including Fiji, Malaysia and Samoa. Feedback from participants in study visit programs was consistently positive.
Following successful study visits by senior officers from the Lok Sabha (lower house of the parliament of India) to the Australian Parliament in 2017 and 2018, staff from the Lok Sabha again participated in a study program on parliamentary procedure and administration in October 2019.
In the first half of 2020, parliamentary capacity-building activities were increasingly restricted by the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. The annual Inter-Parliamentary Study Program for parliamentary staff had been scheduled for March 2020, with participants from 14 international parliaments including Botswana, Brazil, Malaysia, Nauru and Uganda. The program was indefinitely postponed in response to the rapidly evolving situation and increasing travel restrictions.
Between March and June 2020, the Parliamentary Skills Centre worked with regional counterparts and the United Nations Development Programme to consider remote delivery options for parliamentary capacity-building work.
The temporary ceasing of delegation travel in 2019–20 provided an opportunity for the International and Parliamentary Relations Office to review operational policies and standard procedures. A number of efficiencies were identified, and new manuals and procedural guides were developed to standardise planning and support knowledge-sharing.
Development work commenced on the International and Parliamentary Relations Office Virtual Office in collaboration with the department’s Parliamentary and Business Information Services Office and DPS. Once complete, the Virtual Office will streamline work processes and provide the International and Parliamentary Relations Office with a central project management capability for all delegation-related activity.
The year ahead presents continuing challenges for parliamentary engagement, with many annual inter-parliamentary activities cancelled or postponed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and parliamentary capacity-building opportunities similarly restricted. Resumption of incoming and outgoing delegations will be subject to the lifting of travel restrictions.
International and Parliamentary Relations Office staff will continue to provide secretariat support to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Australia Region, Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (Australia Region) and the Asia-Pacific Parliamentary Forum.
The Parliamentary Skills Centre 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. The Australian Parliament largely relies on funding from government or other sources, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to support much of its parliamentary strengthening work with other parliaments.