Australia warns universities’ foreign ties may be ‘lobbying’

Institutions with overseas links seen to be acting ‘on behalf of’ foreign interests

January 11, 2021
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

Australian universities’ international partnerships face pressure from yet another quarter, after the federal attorney-general’s department signalled that any links with foreign governments or their agencies could be interpreted as lobbying on their behalf.

The department has warned that universities could be flouting a legal obligation to declare activities that they perform on behalf of “foreign principals” by logging those activities on a government register. In a submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the department flagged a potential crackdown.

“Universities and other entities in the higher education and research sector have a vital role to play in supporting robust debate and inquiry,” the submission says. “This is likely to include…working to reduce undisclosed foreign influence.”

The concerns involve universities’ interactions with the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. Introduced in late 2018, it obliges Australian organisations and individuals to register if they undertake political or parliamentary lobbying on behalf of foreign governments or political organisations, including government-owned entities.

Universities fall under its scope if their foreign research collaborations involve applications for federal funding or issues that could influence government policy.

The scheme targets foreign “influence” – legitimate attempts to shape policy or decisions on issues of mutual concern – as opposed to foreign “interference”, which is defined as clandestine or coercive efforts to subvert national interests. The scheme aims to ensure that foreign influence is undertaken in an open and transparent way.

But the department has warned that the scheme’s effectiveness is blunted when people fail to register. While such oversights may be deliberate, the submission highlights “inadvertent” situations where people are “unaware they have registration obligations”.

“For example, the person may be unaware that a foreign government holds more than 15 per cent of the issued share capital of a company or that the board or executive committee…is accustomed to act in accordance with the wishes, instructions or directions of a foreign…political organisation.”

An activity is deemed to be undertaken “on behalf of a foreign principal” if it is “undertaken under any arrangement with the foreign principal”, the submission adds. A foreign principal can be a foreign government or political organisation or a related entity or individual.

University of Sydney historian David Brophy said that this interpretation corresponded with a broader trend where researchers who worked with foreign academics were seen as lobbyists for foreign interests. “If you’re collaborating on a policy-related issue with someone at a public university overseas, you’re technically engaged in foreign influence on their behalf,” he tweeted.

The submission says that the attorney general’s department takes a “cooperative compliance approach” to failures to register by appraising offenders of their obligations. But it stresses the department’s powers to demand information, issue “transparency notices” and act on “criminal offences” for non-compliance.

The submission is one of dozens to the committee’s inquiry into national security risks affecting higher education and research – one of several government efforts to increase scrutiny of universities’ perceived security vulnerabilities. Others include the new foreign relations act, which allows the government to terminate universities’ overseas partnerships.

Canberra has also brought universities under the scope of a critical infrastructure bill and a proposed federal anti-corruption agency, while research grants and overseas students’ and scholars’ visas have been delayed or quashed on security grounds.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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