The Group of Eight (Go8), which represents Australia’s research-intensive universities and undertakes some 70 per cent of all Australian university research, says it has no issue with accountability and transparency, nor with working in the national interest to protect that which must be protected.
However, legislation to be debated in the Australian Senate today will not deliver the outcomes desired by the Australian Government.
Go8 Chief Executive, Vicki Thomson, said Australia’s world-class universities are at the mercy of the Federal parliament to find a sensible and workable solution to the impact of Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020.
“Disappointingly, a Federal Senate Committee has rejected our over-riding recommendation that universities be removed from the Bill. We have been blunt from the outset – we do not consider the Bill fit for purpose. That view has not changed,” Ms Thomson said.
“The Foreign Relations Bill as it currently stands, will have a detrimental impact on how Go8 universities are going to be able to continue to attract, negotiate and then conduct our myriad of relationships, contracts, and partnerships with overseas nations and individuals for the advancement of our nation post-COVID.
“If for reasons of politics, universities cannot be removed from the Bill, then the eight amendments (see attachment) proposed by the Go8 will go some way to avoiding the damage to Australia’s economic well-being that will undoubtedly result from this legislation.”
The Bill gives the Minister for Foreign Affairs veto powers to disallow or amend any agreement or negotiation, at any time. It effectively removes the capacity of universities to confidently negotiate and sign-up to international partnerships.
“The Go8 is completely open to Government oversight, and public access of what we do and when we do it and with whom. 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’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 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 us do it from a fact base and not as a kneejerk reaction to current geopolitical uncertainties,” Ms Thomson said.
Contact: Vicki Thomson, Group of Eight Chief Executive on +61 438 047 155
The Group of Eight has proposed the following areas of amendments to Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020
- Clarify key definitions, including ‘foreign policy’ and ‘institutional autonomy’ for foreign universities and ‘operating on a commercial basis’.
- Remove the retrospective application to universities’ existing arrangements.
- Create exemptions for certain types of foreign arrangements to which universities are party. These would include, but not be limited to, arrangements beneath defined expenditure thresholds and arrangements where there are multiple Australian parties (e.g. federal government agencies, Australian corporations, public hospitals, not-for-profit medical research institutes) in addition to one or more Australian university and one or more foreign entity.
- Reduce the scope to only capture legally binding foreign arrangements to which universities are a party.
- Remove the requirement for universities to notify the Minister both at the start of negotiations with a foreign entity and when entering an arrangement with a foreign entity (i.e. removing the current double reporting requirement).
- Remove the power for arrangements to be varied or overturned once the Minister has decided not to do so within a specified period.
- Provide for procedural fairness, including the provision of reasons for adverse Ministerial decisions.
- Provide for compensation where the unilateral federal variation or termination of an arrangement exposes universities to financial loss.