Universities oppose foreign influence legislation

Federal legislation to track the influence of foreign governments in Australia would affect the work of thousands of academics collaborating with researchers outside the country, says Universities Australia.

The organisation has called on federal parliamentarians to support the government’s own amendments to its proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

It argues that the legislation would place significant new red tape and restrictions on Australia’s efforts to work with international partners “on cutting-edge technologies”.

The bill has also infuriated Chinese authorities who see it as an attack on China’s increasingly close links with Australian business and other organisations, including universities.

More than 170,000 students from China are now studying in Australia and they comprise a startling 45% of international student enrolments, by far the largest proportion of foreigners from just one country.

But concern has been growing among senior politicians, and many in the general public, about the influence China is trying to exert on Australian policies.

The government claims the legislation is not aimed at any individual country although China is clearly the main target. And so is Russia, following the United States’ experience with that other Communist nation during its last presidential elections.

Duncan Lewis, head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, referred to foreign threats in evidence he gave to a Senate hearing last month. Lewis described the current scale of foreign intelligence activity against Australian interests as “unprecedented”.

“Foreign actors covertly attempt to influence and shape the views of members of the Australian public, the Australian media, officials in the Australian government and members of the diaspora communities here in Australia,” he told the hearing.

Among the largest of the overseas-born communities in Australia are people from China.

In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Universities Australia said the amendments proposed by the government to its foreign influence legislation had “gone a long way” to resolve the higher education sector’s concerns with the original proposal.

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the proposed amendments were a sensible way to make the scheme more workable.

“Every time an Australian academic works together with an overseas colleague, they bring valuable new ideas and expertise home to Australia,” she said.

“These amendments mean that our incredibly talented researchers can spend more time solving Australia’s big problems, and less on paperwork.”

Speaking to the committee, Jackson thanked Attorney-General Christian Porter and the government for resolving the issues raised by the universities.

Compromise amendments

Porter has agreed to present compromise amendments to government legislation that sets out a register of foreign agents. The amendments would limit how many groups the bill would apply to.

The changes are designed to resolve criticisms of the legislation by universities, charities and others, as well as ensuring acceptance by the opposition Labor Party.

The bill for establishing the register is being considered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. On 14 June, the committee released a bipartisan report that accepted 60 amendments to counter the threat of foreign interference.

Porter said that having the legislation passed by the end of the month would allow for Australia’s new legal framework to be adopted promptly.

He said this was designed to address espionage, interference and foreign influence in Australia’s democratic processes and would be fully operational before the next scheduled general election.

The bill currently provides that people be required to register if undertaking certain activities on behalf of a foreign government, public enterprise, political organisation, business or individual.

The amendments would limit ‘foreign principals’ to foreign governments, foreign government-related entities, political organisations and government-related individuals.

“This ensures that only organisations or individuals ultimately working at the direction of a foreign government or political party are required to register,” Porter said.

In response to criticisms by universities and charities, Porter said the definition of ‘undertaking activity on behalf of a foreign principal’ would be amended.

This would mean a person would not be deemed to be undertaking an activity merely because they were supervised by, received funding from or collaborated with ‘a foreign principal’.