The Go8, which represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities – say the proposed Australian Foreign Relations Bill as it relates to universities may not be proportionate to risk, may lead to over regulation and could undermine the good work that has been undertaken between universities and the Government in this area to date.
As the universities that conduct 70% of the nation’s higher education-based research – the very research that the Federal Government will rely on to rebuild the post-COVID economy – the Go8 notes that it is essential for a broad consultation to occur to ensure there are not productivity-sapping consequences for the economy.
The reality of research is that universities are public institutions based on the principle of open communication of research findings. The majority of our research and our partnerships is accessible via our own, or government databases, such as those run by the Australian Research Council and the NHMRC. Our published findings are shared with the world.
Our research is already subject to a range of existing government and legislative controls, such as the Defence Trade Controls Act, Foreign Influence Transparency Bill (FITS bill) and the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2011.
The Go8 acknowledges and accepts that these are not usual times. Growing geopolitical tensions are creating complexities that must be managed. At all times we must work in the national interest and we strongly support transparency and accountability.
The Government has always been fully across and supportive that the Go8 builds very tall fences around small paddocks with “secret, nationally sensitive research” only able to be worked on or accessed by those with security access. Indeed, entire buildings have been built to express security requirements to keep this research secure and safe – as the Go8 wants, given the nation’s future and security is the top research priority for us.
For the last year, the Go8 also has taken the lead in working closely and in a truly collaborative way with Australia’s security agencies, Home Affairs and Government through the University Foreign Interference Taskforce (UFIT) to develop workable and critically, effective guidelines designed to counter foreign interference in our sector – a process that has been recognised internationally as world-leading.
All parties have worked extremely hard throughout the UFIT process to create a strong, cohesive, trusted process of engagement where the strength of the research sector can combine with the specialist knowledge and expertise of Government and the security agencies to protect critical national research assets.
The Go8 is therefore genuinely concerned that the proposed Legislation may undermine the important work undertaken to date. We are increasingly concerned at the danger that – in the name of security – Australia may be inadvertently threatening the very democratic principles it holds dear.
We have demonstrated time and again – through consultations on the FITS Bill and Defence Trade Controls Act and our collaborative work on UFIT – that we will work closely with Government to achieve outcomes that are both effective and workable.
The Go8 urges the Government to use its world leading Foreign Interference Taskforce – comprised of the sector and Government agencies – to work through any gaps it feels remain in Australia’s security landscape, while not damaging our essential research sector.