In a previous post, I pointed out how the Australia-India nuclear cooperation agreement departs from Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements. In particular, there is a risk that the follow-on 'administrative arrangement' could deprive Australia of the ability to track and account for Australian uranium supplied to India.
It is not too late to address this problem in a way that ensures the agreement is meaningful and can command bipartisan support in Australia. There will be a crucial role here for the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), which will have the opportunity to scrutinise the agreement and to ask the necessary and difficult questions about the administrative arrangement.
Here there are two practical issues: the administrative arrangement has not yet, as far as we know, been negotiated, so it will not be available when JSCOT commences its review of the agreement; and in any case it is the usual practice to treat administrative arrangements as being confidential.
The Abbott Government should proceed no further with the agreement unless it can give an assurance that all of Australia's longstanding safeguards requirements will be met. Of course, the Government may try to dismiss any discussion of the administrative arrangement as being merely speculation. The problem is that, in considering the potential impact of such a confidential document, the public and the Parliament may never know the facts. Yet, a way needs to be found to ensure that a confidential document does not negate the effective operation of a treaty-level agreement.
Therefore, when the agreement is brought to JSCOT for review, the Committee should insist on examining the terms of the proposed administrative arrangement. If necessary, given the sensitivities, this can be done in a closed session. The key question for JSCOT will be whether the terms of the administrative arrangement will enable Australia to confirm that its safeguards conditions are fully met and that Australian uranium and other nuclear material subject to the India agreement is properly accounted for.
This may take some time. The Committee may need to withhold its final conclusions on the agreement until the text of the administrative arrangement is available. It would help if the Government were to make the text publicly available.
Both major parties in Australian politics now support the principle that Australia should be able to sell uranium to India to help it meet its energy needs, subject to proper safeguards. However, a nuclear agreement with India should be on the same conditions Australia applies to our other partners, not terms dictated by India.
Even some supporters of closer Australia-India ties have made the point that safeguards should discriminate neither against India nor for it. Australia has demonstrated good faith to India by reversing our longstanding policy with respect to the NPT and signing a civil nuclear agreement. It is up to India to demonstrate good faith by accepting the same safeguards arrangements as all our other nuclear partners.
John Carlson AM is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was Director General of the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office and its predecessor the Australian Safeguards Office from 1989 to 2010.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user YY.