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Motion: Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2021

Mehreen Faruqi 22 Nov 2021

I rise to speak on the Security Legislation Amendment (Critical Infrastructure) Bill 2021 and I associate myself with the comments made by my colleague Senator Thorpe. The bill gives considerable—and too much—power to the minister, under the guise of protecting critical infrastructure. It creates the potential for government security agencies to intervene and take over businesses and operations. This bill is not supported by key stakeholders, including the logistics, technology and higher education sectors. As the Greens spokesperson on education, I'll focus my comments on how this bill could impact the higher education sector. In a nutshell, this bill will require the higher education and research sector to have, and comply with, a critical infrastructure risk management program. It will require universities and research bodies to notify the government about cybersecurity incidents, under increased regulatory obligations. The government will be able to directly intervene and take over their computer systems when they experience a cyberattack.

National security is important, but there is no clear or compelling reason for the powers this bill gives the government nor for the burdens that it places on higher education and research. This is a misguided bill. I recognise the concerns of various universities that this bill, as it applies to the university sector, is not proportionate, is not workable, is not risk based and is not carefully targeted. The definitions of 'critical education asset' and 'critical infrastructure asset' are too broad in scope. Universities have tens of thousands of staff and students. They have cafeterias, gyms and swimming pools. None of these assets are distinguished in the bill. Instead, everything in a university would fall under this law. As a number of universities and their umbrella organisations noted in their submissions to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry related to this bill, the regulatory obligations imposed by this bill are likely to be extensive and quite costly for them. The government doesn't even intend to offer financial support to critical infrastructure owners and employees to meet the proposed obligations.

The innovative research universities have concluded that imposing further legislation on universities without a clear overarching strategy risks blurring the lines of responsibility for action, adds complexity to large diverse organisations and highlights compliance over effective responsive action. The Group of Eight universities have said that the regulatory impact and the costs that may accrue in the sector and for its members will be significant—far greater than so far estimated by the government, especially when added to the regulation cost already borne by the sector for compliance with other foreign interference laws. For the Group of Eight, the catch-all nature of the legislation proposed for higher education and research is highly disproportionate.

We know universities are in crisis as the government has cut funding, hiked fees and offered no support to them or to their international students during COVID-19. Thousands of staff have been let go already, casualisation is rampant and wage theft is systemic. What does the government do to address the devastation and problems that the universities are facing? Nothing. But here we have a bill that makes life more difficult for them. It's clear that this government has no plan for universities beyond a slash-and-burn, anti-intellectual, anti-education agenda. We can't sit back and expect that the government will take any approach other than the one that they have taken for the last eight years. That's why the rest of us have to proactively take back some power and reimagine what the universities in future should and hopefully will look like.

Last week I published a new discussion paper on what that could look like. The Greens propose a range of bold ideas that would completely transform higher education in this country. The government should fully fund learning, teaching and research by providing a big boost to funding. Education should be free and student debt should be abolished. Moreover, universities should be places where you can be guaranteed a secure job, where casualisation is reversed and where wage theft has ended. Staff and students deserve so much better than what they are experiencing at the moment. Universities should be places where student activism is encouraged, academic freedom is assured and political expression is part and parcel of campus life. Universities should be institutions that are equitable and antiracist and that provide a platform for First Nations knowledge, research and leadership.

This paper contains Parliamentary Library data which we have analysed that reveals that, over the past 20 years, the number of elected members on the governing bodies of Australian universities has decreased by 43 per cent, from 274 elected members in the year 2000 to 155 elected members in 2020. As a proportion, in 2000 more than one-third of positions on these bodies were elected, but by 2020 that was down to fewer than one in four. This is nothing less than a crisis of democracy in freefall at our universities.

The corporatisation of universities by government and neoliberal university management has occurred while staff and student representation on government bodies has shrunk massively. This business model sees staff and students as expendable cogs in the machine of a corporate campus that makes a mockery of the notion that the university is a public good. Universities are at crossroads. They can continue hurtling down a path of corporatisation, austerity and job insecurity, or they can chart a new course based on democracy, equity and the collective public good.

Rather than focusing on the real issues that universities face, this government is imposing another unnecessary, disproportionate burden on university communities. The government is once again trying to grow its ever-expanding surveillance powers under the guise of national security. It presents a real threat to the independence and autonomy of the university sector. It allows the government to extensively intervene in university operations.

The ability of government agencies to reach into and possibly take over external systems, including those of our education sector, raises serious issues of organisational integrity and autonomy, and this ever-increasing surveillance creep should be concerning for all of us here. Let's not become desensitised to how much surveillance power we are giving this government. The Greens will not be supporting this bill.


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