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Speech: Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020

Speeches in Parliament
Mehreen Faruqi 30 Nov 2020

I rise to speak to the Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020. The Greens will be opposing this ill-thought-out overreach by the government, which comes before us after a rushed and insufficient consultation process. Senator Rice's contribution and dissenting report to the limited inquiry into this legislation reflect the broader terminal issues with this legislation. I want to highlight the impact it will have on the work of our universities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has carved a path of destruction through the higher education sector this year. He has allowed tens of thousands of jobs to be lost; performed legislative gymnastics to deny universities JobKeeper; abandoned international students to long queues outside food banks; slashed more than a billion dollars each year from core funding for teaching and learning; and more than doubled the fees for some degrees, to create decades more student debt for a generation of young people facing flat wage growth and skyrocketing unemployment. His justification for refusing to come to the aid of university staff whose jobs were being cut by ruthless management was to appeal to the principle of university autonomy. The Scott Morrison of early 2020 would have you believe that the government ought not interfere with the independence of universities. Well, then it suited them financially to ignore universities but now it suits them ideologically to meddle where there is no need for them to do so—and no good will come of it.

Across the university sector, staff and university management alike are gravely concerned about this legislation. The extraordinarily broad scope of this bill means that the minister, seemingly on a whim dressed up as concern for the government's conception of national interest, can tear up the kinds of agreements between Australian universities and overseas organisations or governments that underpin vital research and arrangements for joint degrees, cultural and student exchanges and happenings as basic as jointly held academic conferences. The potential and, indeed, opportunity for ministerial overreach created by the bill shouldn't be understated, particularly keeping in mind the tendency for Liberal ministers to meddle at every available opportunity, as they've done in the past with local research grants they didn't like the sound of.

It took the government making last-minute amendments to its own legislation to address the question of what counts as institutional autonomy, which was left wide open by the legislation introduced into the other place. But even with the government's own amendments to circumscribe the range of universities and overseas education providers the bill applies to, its scope is still too broad. The bill defines 'an arrangement' as 'any written agreement, contract, understanding or undertaking'. It should be no surprise to anyone that universities have thousands and thousands of agreements that are captured by this definition. Perhaps the Minister for Education was distracted by cutting uni funding while this was drafted and he neglected to mention it to his colleagues. It should come as no surprise that most of the agreements, contracts, understandings and undertakings captured by that definition are entirely mundane and the broader effect will be, as submitters to the inquiry put it, to create a huge administrative burden on both them and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I know that some of that concern might have been addressed, but it is still a big issue.

Curiously, while the bill captures public unis it does not extend to other entities that routinely deal with the governments and institutions of other nation states, such as private universities, other NGOs and private corporations. I'm not suggesting it should but indicating how baffling it is that were it not for the Liberals' particular ideological vendetta against public unis it would be entirely unclear why the government chose to include them.

With respect to our unis, I note also that they already point to the University Foreign Interference Taskforce that was set up to scope out and address the exact issue this bill is now wading into. The preference of universities, as autonomous institutions that should be free to pursue collaborations and research, is quite clearly to continue their work with the government in identifying and mitigating genuine risks, without allowing the minister to arbitrarily rip up agreements that the coalition doesn't like. I should note, of course, that it's not any old kind of foreign interference in our universities that the government is concerned about. They have no concern about the rivers of gold that weapons manufacturers use to associate their names with the likes of United States studies centres to improve their PR or to promote a sympathetic research agenda. It's selective concern about China that's been driving this from the very start. This picking and choosing of when interference is bad both offends the principle of university autonomy and muddies our foreign policy. If the government were truly concerned about safeguarding university autonomy and protecting against interference then they would have approached the issue holistically, not try to ram through this bill crafted to suit the Liberals' approach to China. We hear the concerns of the university sector about this legislation and its impact. The government's two minor amendments pour a glass of water on a bonfire of this legislation. The problems remaining far outnumber those solved. The only appropriate course is to remove universities from the scope of this legislation. I will be moving an amendment to do so.

If the government is genuine about reversing costs and getting into the business of protecting university independence, then reversing their cuts and giving them financial independence is the first necessary step. In complaining about universities' dealings with groups in other countries the government is pointing to the symptom caused by decades of systemic underfunding that they've been the biggest champions and cause of.

The Greens' commitment to massive new investment in our unis; lifelong, free university and TAFE for all and building university democracy and the power of staff and students is the solution needed here. This work is only made more urgent by the Liberals' ongoing attacks on our unis. The issues with this bill are not limited to its impact on unis. In the first instance, it simply doesn't do what the government claims it will. They are now talking up the supposed alignment of agreements with the national interest, but when they hit the media to discuss it it's all about imposing the Liberal-National vision of the world on states, territories, local governments and unis in an entirely unprecedented way. At its core it ignores that the country benefits from a plurality of approaches to foreign policy and countless links between our communities and the rest of the world. It is not up to the government, and it never should be, to be the sole arbiter of foreign relations and to dictate every moment of every Australian institution's relationship with global organisations.

The consultation around the bill too has been woeful. This is legislation introduced during a pandemic, when the government claims they're too busy to deal with the federal ICAC or the dodgy deals and questionable characters running wild in their ranks. There was no exposure draft, no preliminary consultation and an undemocratically short committee process with only two public hearings into complicated legislation. The government can't explain properly how this will work in practice. The organisations affected haven't been given the time or information to determine its impact, and the parliament hasn't been given the opportunity to scrutinise it appropriately.

We shouldn't be surprised at this behaviour from those opposite, but we will add one to the rapidly rising count of major changes they're rushing through as far from the public eye as possible. Universities Australia put it well in their submission:

Apart from the inherent issues with the Bill, its workability and the potential to deter the collaboration that is the lifeblood of Australian research, there is a range of outstanding questions. These apply to the Bill, but also to the rules that will accompany it… Further detailed consultation is required with the sector on the core issues with the Bill, as well as the many questions inherent in it.

Add to that the questions of constitutional validity, the absurd scope of the proposed framework and the broad or completely absent definitions of key terms in which the implementation turns, plus the lack of the ability to properly review ministerial decisions, and you've got another ideological mess from Scott Morrison. This bill should be opposed.

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