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Media Statement: Opening Statement to Senate hearing of Foreign Relations Bill

13 October 2020

Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee
Public Hearings

Opening remarks from Group of Eight (Go8) Chief Executive Vicki Thomson representing Australia’s leading research-intensive universities with seven of its members in the world’s top 100 universities.

The Go8 carries out 70 per cent of Australia’s university research and 99.6 per cent of this research is ERA- rated as world class or above

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Thank you.

The issues with this Bill go to the heart of how Australia’s leading research-intensive 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 overseas individuals.

And let me be clear: these international relationships are not only critical to the success of our leading universities – they underpin the research and innovation that Australia will rely on to rebuild our post-COVID recovery.

As I know everyone on this committee is well aware, our Go8 universities have always worked within the ethos that research has no borders and we list the Five Eyes nations, as well as the European Union, China, Japan and others among our international partners. The world’s most effective research discoveries often come from global teams.

This ethos is carried out by the Go8 in the national interest, and with national security taken seriously; that is the truth of the matter despite the recent innuendo, not facts, innuendo, suggested otherwise in the media and elsewhere.

But the Go8 does not have its head under the doona.

We know the world is changing around us. We know that the geopolitical situation is so fluid it is changing as fast, if not faster than the technological advances that can harm us. We accept that.

Our aim therefore, for the sake of Australia’s economy and for the lives and living standards of every Australian, is to be able to maintain our place as world research leaders while working cooperatively with Government on related national security, and by being at all times proactive to any potential threat and shutting it down.

The Go8 will, as we have done in the past with the FITS Bill and the development of the UFIT guidelines and a myriad of other pieces of legislation, regiulation and public policy, work closely and cooperatively with Government to find the most effective regulatory boundaries. Why will we do this? Of course, it is in our interest to do so. We carry out 70 per cent of Australia’s university research. But we do this first and foremost because it is in the national interest.

Regulatory boundaries must absolutely protect security, but they must also enable economic and societal growth.

This Bill is like a fishing expedition – casting a net far and wide to ascertain what can be scooped up.

But there is a larger all-encompassing problem here – in casting the net so wide the risk is that the Government trips over itself in both content and intent.

Universities are subject to a raft of compliance and regulatory oversight mechanisms – all advanced by different Government agencies, who do not seem to always know what each other has been asked to do, or is doing, or what we at the Go8 have already done at the behest of Government to increase security.

Importantly there doesn’t seem to be any awareness within agencies that when universities conduct secure and protected research, often in conjunction with the Department of Defence, the protections are such that even the Vice Chancellor and Senior Management team might not be cleared to know about them.

Today it is the Go8’s plea that we facilitate communication between agencies and that we all work together to deliver what this Bill is seeking to achieve.

This is a process we have already demonstrated we can do effectively, and efficiently.

We have been blunt from the outset – we do not consider the Bill fit for purpose. That view has not changed and cannot when only a small percentage of our research is actually either not already public or is so secure and ringfenced we do not have security access to know of it.

We don’t want the Bill to ensnare potentially tens of thousands of contracts which pose no risk because of the unintended consequences of drafting. This drafting may be eminently sensible for State and local government

– but we are not them.

Ensnaring us in the net will damage the economy. There is nothing surer.

It will damage the potential for future technologies, future manufacturing, future jobs. The Go8 can’t afford such a hit and neither can Australia.

With its previous 29 years of economic growth Australia has never really had to delve into the detail of the cut- throat global competition the Go8 deals with daily for research partnerships and contracts.

It’s not that things simply land easily here. It often requires years of hard work to secure a research partner, be they an overseas university or a multinational.

Our competitor nations loom large – from Canada and the US to the UK, the EU, Singapore, Israel and Japan.

National security threats are a lot like COVID – you can try to eliminate it and suffocate your economy and still fail or you can suppress it and then learn to live with it by identifying the weak spots quickly and putting a halt to them (and locking them down).

They need to be managed with a sophisticated level of understanding of our competitive global environment.

This Bill is an elimination strategy.

We all need to work together more closely because there is nothing surer than we actually do want the same outcome; a prosperous but security aware and alert nation.

To that end, our final plea is that you give genuine consideration to the amendments outlined in our submission.

They will not mitigate all of the problems of the Bill but they will go some way towards protecting the future of Australia’s world class research.

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