Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, the Group of Eight, have been saying for months that national security threats are a lot like COVID-19 — you can try to eliminate them and devastate your economy or you can focus on the areas of greatest risk, suppress them and learn to live with it by quickly picking up weak points and putting a stop to them.
Clearly the latter is the preferred and most realistic option, but to achieve this we need to be smart. As a middle power up against increasing foreign influence and interference threats — including from state actors with enormous security infrastructure and capabilities — we need to have a pragmatic approach that is sophisticated, integrated and above all else effective.
That’s why the legislation that comes before federal parliament today — Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 — is so disappointing, particularly in its treatment of universities and research.
The bill is effectively an elimination strategy, putting at risk Australia’s research co-operation with other nations. Although country agnostic, it risks being viewed through the prism of the current geopolitical challenges we face with China, our largest trading partner.
The issues with this bill go to the heart of how the Go8, which undertakes 70 per cent of Australia’s university-based research, is going to be able to continue to attract, negotiate and conduct our myriad relationships, contracts and partnerships with overseas nations and individuals for the advancement of our nation post COVID-19. Research is a borderless pursuit and there is no better example of this than the global determination of research partnerships to find a COVID-19 vaccine we can all share.
The Go8 has no issue with accountability and transparency, or with working in the national interest to protect that which must be protected. But this legislation will not deliver that.
This bill is akin to a deep-sea trawling expedition — casting a net far, wide and deep, scooping up everything, relevant or not.
But there is a larger problem here. In casting the net so wide, the risk is that the government trips over itself in content and intent. Trawling through the net will create a whole new industry for our federal bureaucracy.
It also will stymie the research innovation Australia needs now more than ever.
This legislation does so much more than add another layer of regulation. It enables the foreign minister to disallow or amend any agreement or negotiation, at any time. It effectively removes the capacity of universities to negotiate confidently and sign up to international partnerships.
Who would sign up to an agreement under these terms? Would a homebuyer enter into a contract with a seller or builder if one party had the power of veto? Unlikely.
The Go8 is completely open to government oversight, and public access of what we do and when we do it and with whom. We have already demonstrated our commitment to transparency through our successful partnership with Australia’s security services on the university foreign interference guidelines through the University Foreign Interference Taskforce.
We also have a longstanding and effective partnership with the Department of Defence to ensure sensitive research does not leave the country, through the implementation of the Defence Trade Controls Act.
Universities are already subject to a raft of compliance and regulatory oversight mechanisms.
Disappointingly, a Senate committee has rejected our overriding recommendation that universities be removed from the bill. We have been blunt from the outset: we do not consider the bill fit for purpose and that view has not changed.
We are at the mercy of the federal parliament to find a sensible and workable solution, and in that spirit we have offered up eight areas for amendment. These go to clarification of the fundamental underlying principle of defining foreign policy and institutional autonomy as well as looking at exemptions for certain types of agreements.
If, for reasons of politics, universities cannot be removed from the bill then these amendments will go some way to avoiding the damage to Australia’s economic wellbeing that undoubtedly will result from this legislation.
The Go8’s international reach across all areas and its soft diplomacy skills are highly recognised. We are a trusted international partner. Our research arrangements are the ultimate free trade. We see ourselves as a natural resource in the context of our post COVID-19 economic recovery. Our future as a nation could be compromised if our reputation is damaged by this bill.
We are not suggesting Australia should avoid tackling security issues; in fact, the opposite.
But if the government wants us to tackle these issues then let’s do it from a fact base and not as a kneejerk reaction to current geopolitical uncertainties. Universities can be both secure and world leading.