Go8 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security

30 Jan 2018

30 January 2018


Review of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017

Go8 Opening Statement – Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive


Thank you for the opportunity to put the Go8’s position on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill before you.

As Go8 Chief Executive, my Board has asked me to communicate to you that we are here this afternoon to be constructive, not obstructionist.

We acknowledge the need for Australia to develop adequate national security protections against foreign actors wishing to interfere in our democratic process.

However, we do believe that the legislation, as it is currently drafted will have unintended consequences and that the right thing to do is to delay the legislation until we are absolutely sure its content is fit for purpose.

We ask for the Committee’s support that delay be the best way, the only common-sense way, forward.

Nothing can be more important than the security of our nation and its people.

There is no debate to be had on that point.

What we are here to communicate, is that we would like to have, and, frankly, to have already had, more opportunity and time to work with the Government on the decisions it takes with this suite of legislation.

We see such consultation as important.

It is important, so that together we can not only better ensure the security of all Australians, but also protect our nation’s social and economic fabric and future.

From the Go8’s perspective, the consultation timeframe and depth – to date - has been worryingly inadequate for something so vital.

We would contend that we have much to offer in the way of information that would ensure the government is protected against unintended consequences of such legislation; in particular the current definitions within section 11 which are far too wide and damaging in their ambiguity and stretch.

In considering this legislation, it is surely in all our interests to ensure we do not have a repeat of the unintended consequences which could have resulted from the changes to the Temporary Work Visas framework.

While those unintended consequences have now been corrected with the much-appreciated help of Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, the global reputational damage continues, and unfortunately will continue for a long time.

This was relayed in no uncertain terms to two Australian Government Ministers and an Australian delegation - of which I was part - in India just last week for the Australia India leadership dialogue.

We all must remain alert to the fact that such legislative errors leave a costly tail, both financially and reputationally.

So, the Go8 asks that we please do not have a reoccurrence.

As it relates to the University sector specifically, we appear before you with a genuine wish to assist.

The Go8 has been surprised that there appears to be little understanding within Government and the bureaucracy about why the university sector is so concerned about the legislative package… after all, we are Australia’s third largest export earner.

Speaking from a Go8 perspective, as our submission sets out, we conduct the majority of Australia’s research, in particular medical research of which Health Minister Hunt is a strong advocate, and with a deep understanding of our contribution.

It is fact that the Go8 carries out, in total, some $6 billion of research each year, more than 99 per cent of that rated as world class or above. The Government pays for just $2.5 billion of that.

Much of our world class research is carried out with global partners.

A significant percentage of that research is co-financed by global partners, and in the case of medical research, it is able to be advanced to market often only with the financial assistance of global drug companies.

A significant percentage of that research is carried out with the assistance of researchers from other nations.

Universities are a global community.

Universities have no borders.

That is the only way research can succeed.

As I have already stated publicly, it is unrealistic to expect that universities can remain globally ranked high quality institutions supporting a multi-billion-dollar education export sector without having significant international connections across a range of areas.

One example of such an area is that of Quantum Computing. Quantum Computing has seen significant overseas investment in the work of 2018 Australian of the Year – Professor Michelle Simmons of UNSW – with part of her work funded by the US Army Research Office.

Similarly Microsoft is investing in a quantum computing partnership with the University of Sydney. This is emergent breakthrough technology that is the subject of an international science race with international investors looking to back the winner.

It is critical to your health, both economic and medical, both personal and national, that we can receive scholars and research funding from other countries and global companies.

We are not asking for NO security steps. Indeed, it should be noted that Australian universities are subject to extensive regulatory and compliance obligations including state and federal measures, including:

·         The Defence Trade Controls Act 2012,;

·         Compliance with Autonomous Sanctions Regulations 2011;

·         Compliance with Australia’s visa framework;

·         Compliance with State and Territory auditing frameworks;

·         Compliance with the funding rules governing use of competitive research grants, e.g. the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC); and

·         Institutional policies, including Codes of Conduct, policies around receipt of donations, and transparency of research contracts, etc.

What we are asking for are security steps that avoid costly unintended consequences.

We will work with increased security decisions, of course we will.

What we cannot work with is a lack of understanding of what will be irreversibly damaged, if how the university sector operates, and what it delivers for the nation, and the world, is ignored in this process.

Of primary concern is whether, and to what extent, university research and related academic activities will be captured by the new registration scheme.

 The broad scope of some of the key aspects of the Bill include activities undertaken ‘on behalf of’ a foreign principal; and activities undertaken ‘for the purpose of political or governmental influence’ including Parliamentary proceedings.

Given the scope of these concepts, and the myriad of international partnerships and collaborations our universities are engaged in, it is likely that some of these would fall within the current scope of this Bill. 

The Bill does list the inclusion of “appropriate exemptions” and we would strongly urge the Committee to recommend that provisions for universities and academics conducting legitimate activities should be added to this list.

The commercial transaction exemption might cover some of our activities some of the time. However, universities need a specific academic exemption for research and the communication of research, teaching, developing of joint intellectual property (whether for commercial purposes or not), and other similar activities.

There are research projects, philanthropically funded projects and potentially even some joint teaching arrangements that might be caught because of the breadth of the Act and it would be hard to argue that they are commercial transactions.

Every so often there is a point in a nation’s legislative development when you stand on the edge of a precipice.

Make one wrong move and it is a mistake from which there can be no return.

It is not too melodramatic to state that this legislation - as it is currently drafted - fits that description.

In isolation it is essential.

In context it is flawed.

It does not have to be discarded but it does have to be redrafted to fit the global economy in which we work and live.

In closing I would like to give you three very short few examples of what I have been describing.

First example – A Senate Committee is established to review the laws regulating the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Assume that the Committee summons an Australian researcher whose research into the medicinal use of cannabis is funded by an American pharmaceutical company.  Then, if the evidence given to the Senate Committee by the researcher relies on any research funded by the pharmaceutical company and the researcher believes that evidence could impact government policy  -  the researcher has engaged in a registrable activity.

Second example – A US Foundation provides philanthropic funding to support research to a leading Australian cancer researcher. The Professor finds that a chemical contained in common household products is linked to the specific cancer. She lobbies government to ban the use of this chemical in household products as the most cost-effective way of minimising deaths. This activity may be caught by the legislation as it involves direct foreign funding and an attempt to influence government policy.

And finally - An Australian university research group working on water preservation enters into a research relationship with a research body/university in China that is controlled by the government. The research team develops a number of proposals to optimise water usage that include changes to public policy. They communicate these results through the Chinese and Australian media. The research group or university may well fall into the definition of foreign public entity. The Australian university would be ‘Acting on behalf’ of the Chinese partner if it could be shown to be ‘collaborating’ with it (which would be almost always the case) or if there was any funding or supervision by the Chinese partner. If the Australian researchers were then to use the outcomes of the research to try to influence public policy or legislation in Australia, they may fall under the Act.

We doubt that the intent of the legislation is to capture this type of collaboration, foreign financing or public policy advocacy. However, given the severe – and criminal - penalties for breaches, and the uncertainty created by the vast grey area established by the broad language of the Bill, it is likely that without an academic exemption, universities will act in a precautionary way.

We are a far more sophisticated global nation and partner than this poorly drafted legislation gives us credit for.

We really do need to take a step back to take a step forward here.

The Go8 would like to hope that the Government has the wisdom and the determination to get this legislation right.


Contact:               Vicki Thomson, Group of Eight Chief Executive on +61 417 808 472