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Opening Statement to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Review of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 – Vicki Thomson

February 21, 2023

Thank you and the Go8 appreciates this opportunity to expand on our submission of 29 November 2021 and to reiterate our key recommendations – which have not shifted significantly since that submission was made almost 16 months ago.

It goes without saying that Go8 universities remain committed to protecting national security. We are not asking for special treatment but are approaching this critical task with a sharp outcomes focus – protecting national security – and with the big picture in mind, where we see the FITS as part of a broader suite of measures.

We have demonstrated this commitment very clearly through our hard work and determination to drive the development of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, UFIT, of which I am one of the founding members, and importantly, to ensure UFIT is effective.

UFIT is held up as an exemplar by our five eyes compatriots and by Europe more widely. The Go8 is extremely proud of that fact. Indeed, we are hosting a discussion tomorrow in Canberra with the US Embassy and the Director of the US Based National Science Foundation on precisely this issue.

That said, we are missing an opportunity to utilise the UFIT both on this and other security related legislation capturing Australian universities.

I think it is worth stating upfront as a framing point to this discussion that the FITS is aimed at foreign influence, which is distinct from foreign interference. Influence is, by its nature, open, transparent, and part of normal diplomatic relations. Interference, in contrast, is clandestine, coercive, deceptive, or corrupting.

The FITS is looking at the influence part of the puzzle. It does not attempt to capture interference. We have other legislative tools for that. These two issues often get conflated, so I think it is helpful to be mindful of this distinction upfront.

While FITS extends to all sectors and the Go8 accepts that that is where we are, we do want further clarity as outlined in our submission.

We also question whether FITS provides any information about a university’s arrangements not captured by other mechanisms.

The financial cost of compliance has been significant with one of our larger members – and remember we invest some $7.7 billion annually in research and undertake 70 percent of all university-based research in this country – reporting a significant initial impost of assessment and administration due to the FITS representing an entirely new area of compliance.

This is a financial cost that is not only not contributing efficiently to the safety of our nation, but which could otherwise have been spent on conducting high quality research, educating students, working with industry, or all of the other contributions that universities make to the health of our society.

This has been partly exacerbated by a lack of clear definitions within the legislation.

This in turn is made worse by the fact that we still have no clarity as to what is expected from universities in relation to the legislation.

That does not mean we cannot do better and continual improvement in the national security space is both Go8 ethos and mantra.

Since the FITS Act came into effect in December 2018, universities have, as I have alluded to become subject to a range of additional foreign compliance measures, most notable the UFIT Guidelines, which in contrast have proven to be extremely effective.

So, we are not being arrogant here – we believe that protecting our research from foreign interference is a shared responsibility and never a case of ‘job done’.

But we wish to reinforce to the Committee that the Go8 is unified in its view that Government’s time, especially as we head into AUKUS, would be better spent unravelling its spaghetti junction of overlapping and at times dead-end security regulation and legislation.

It’s a convoluted mess with the right hand too often having no idea what the left hand is doing, and neither having taken the time to understand how our research-intensive universities operate both here and internationally.

This doubling up and the sheer inefficiencies are not in the national interest financially nor as it relates to delivering national security outcomes. It means that Australia is not getting the best out of the mechanisms we have in place, and effort that could go to doing something useful is being misdirected and wasted.

This statement is not new to Government. We said this repeatedly to both the Morrison and Turnbull Governments.

We had then – and continue to have – one simple message.

Utilise UFIT and other mechanisms when considering new legislation so that the specifics of the higher education and research sector are considered when creating new legislation. This will ensure that the provisions of any Bill are meaningful in that context.

As I stated up front the Go8 is committed to the protection of Australia’s security. We will continue to work hand in in hand with government and its security agencies to ensure there is an effective guardrail against foreign interference, to protect that which must be protected.

Thank you.