In August the Morrison government announced a new bill that sought to stop state, territory and local governments and universities entering agreements with foreign governments that were deemed to be detrimental to the country’s foreign policy objectives.

“We are deeply concerned the bill will deter international partnerships”

Under the rules, thousands of international research agreements could have been subject to review or even cancellation if the minister decided that it adversely affected Australia’s foreign relations or was not consistent with the country’s foreign policy. 

The proposed rules were met with concern from both the university sector and opposition MPs, with Universities Australia saying that they could deter international partnerships which are “the lifeblood of research”.

The government has now made amendments to the bill meaning it is unlikely that universities will have to disclose deals with counterparts in a range of countries such as the UK and the US. 

“We have no objections to the legislation’s objectives of transparency. But the Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill will not meet this goal,” Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson told The PIE News. 

“Universities have two core concerns, firstly the workability of laws that will cover thousands and thousands of agreements. Secondly, we are deeply concerned the bill will deter international partnerships which are the lifeblood of research,” she said. 

The bill seeks to establish a legislative mechanism to enable Commonwealth engagement with arrangements between State or Territory governments and foreign counterparts, as well as related entities such as local governments and public universities.

Under the bill, States and Territories and their entities, including local governments and Australian public universities, will be required to notify the minister for Foreign Affairs of existing and proposed foreign arrangements. 

Where the minister considers that an arrangement, or negotiations towards an arrangement, adversely affects Australia’s foreign relations or is not consistent with Australia’s foreign policy, they can make a declaration to prevent prospective negotiations and arrangements from proceeding, or to cancel or vary existing arrangements.

“The retrospective nature of the bill would mean that the agreements captured could go back decades”

In a previous response to the bill, Universities Australia’s Jackson said the sector believes that universities should be written out of the legislation and that if this is not possible significant amendment is required.

“Without clarification, the laws could include a huge number of ‘arrangements’. The retrospective nature of the bill would mean that the agreements captured could go back decades,” she said. 

Labour members of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee echoed some of these concerns in a report on the proposed laws

According to the report the bill provides the foreign minister with broad discretionary powers and no oversight of the regime. 

“A large number of witnesses raised concerns that this lack of oversight and wide definitions of key terms would make it difficult to assess whether proposed arrangements would be consistent with Australia’s foreign policy with certainty. 

“This opaque process and lack of certainty risks limiting international engagement by Australian entities,” the report said. 

Universities Australia told The PIE that the government has now made “important” amendments to the legislation. 

These include setting a three-year deadline for a review to determine how well the new powers have been operating and a change in definition around the  institutional autonomy of foreign institutions. 

This change in definition will mean that Australian universities only have to declare any planned agreements with foreign institutions if a foreign government is in a position to exercise substantial control over them.

“The proposed legislation should either exempt universities or narrow the types and number of agreements covered”

According to a report by The Guardian a foreign government will be considered to be in a position to exercise substantial control over a foreign university “if, and only if” certain tests are met.

These tests include an analysis of whether members of the university’s governing body are required to be members of the ruling political party, and if academic staff are required to adhere to political principles or doctrines in their teaching, research, discussions, publications or public commentary.

Based on this definition it is unlikely that Australian universities would have to tell the government about agreements with countries such as the US and the UK. 

Universities Australia’s Jackson said that it is “critically important” to strike the right balance between national security and research collaboration. 

“The proposed legislation should either exempt universities or narrow the types and number of agreements covered,” she told The PIE. 

“It is essential the bill is workable for DFAT as well as universities. We are a small population country, and we simply cannot afford to deter international research partners from working with us. 

“The consequences will be the irreparable loss of Australian jobs and know-how right when we need them most,” she added.

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