‘Draconian’ security laws for universities irresponsible: Brandis

Former attorney general turned security professor says avoiding ‘overreach’ is as important as protecting public safety

六月 23, 2022
Sydney, NSW, Australia, October 11, 2020. Birds like to perch on top of CCTV posts that give them a 360-degree view of their surroundings
Source: iStock

Politicians should avoid “overreach” when they impose security-related legislation on universities, according to Australia’s former first law officer and high commissioner to London. And national security issues are no more fraught than they were four years ago, when George Brandis left parliament.

“There are some politicians who would happily pass very draconian laws and say to the public, ‘we’re doing this to keep you safe’,” said Mr Brandis, who has been appointed professor in the practice of national security at the Australian National University (ANU). “That’s not a responsible attitude.

“Protecting public safety [is] extremely important. Not overreaching, and limiting that protection to what [is] necessary to be efficacious, [is] equally important.”

As a long-standing attorney general in the coalition government, which was ousted from office in last month’s election, Mr Brandis had ministerial responsibility for domestic national security policy. He oversaw the intelligence agency Asio and served on the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Perceived threats to Australia’s security, particularly from China, have escalated since Mr Brandis left politics in 2018 to become Australia’s top diplomat in the UK. But he said national security issues were no more challenging than they had been during his time as attorney-general, when the terrorist threat environment had been “elevated by Asio”.

“It’s always hard,” said Mr Brandis, who takes up his position at ANU’s National Security College on 1 July. “The more serious the threat, the harder it is. But that shouldn’t affect the principles you adopt – to give the agencies the powers they need to keep people safe, while…not forgetting about the importance of keeping those laws as limited as efficacy permits.”

Mr Brandis declined to comment on whether that balance had been struck in the current security rules pertaining to universities. “I’ve been away for four years, and I don’t have a detailed knowledge of where the regulatory framework sits right now.” But he said protection of intellectual property was a straightforward “enforcement issue”, particularly in cases where research had been published.

“It’s essentially a question of how to apply the existing acts of parliament, like the Copyright Act. And if something is in the public domain…issues of theft don’t arise.”

But the risk of “dual use” – where research undertaken with benign intentions was harnessed for nefarious purposes – was a “more complicated” question. “When I was drafting [Australia’s] foreign interference laws, I found their impact on universities potentially to be one of the most difficult areas,” Mr Brandis said.

“Universities, particularly great universities, depend on international collaborative partnerships and sharing research findings, sometimes in quite sensitive areas. We can’t tie the hands of universities in their international collaborations. But…there are some universities in some other countries…whose use of that collaboration may be inimical to Australia’s interests.”

While declining to say whether he was “comfortable” with universities’ management of this dilemma, Mr Brandis endorsed their approach of developing a code in consultation with Australian government agencies.

“Governments and universities have made a very conscientious attempt to mitigate risk. That’s not a fail-safe position. But the problem some years ago was indifference to – or even ignorance of – risk. I think that is gone. There’s not indifference to, and certainly not ignorance of, risk. There has been a front-of-mind attempt to address and mitigate it, which is a good thing.”




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