Australian government narrows scope of foreign ties veto law

Opposition dissatisfied with ‘drafting’ of controversial bill, but vows not to oppose it

November 11, 2020

Australia’s opposition appears unlikely to persuade the government to redraft its contentious foreign relations bill, which would give the foreign affairs minister veto powers over partnerships the country’s public universities establish with overseas entities.

However, an amendment introduced by the government itself could ease universities’ nerves by narrowing the scope of deals that universities must notify it about.

The amendment tightens the definition of foreign partner universities which come under the legislation’s purview because they lack “institutional autonomy”. This now only applies if a foreign government is “in a position to exercise substantial control over the university”, either by planting its apparatchiks in the governing council or by forcing the university or its academics to abide by “political doctrines”.

In effect, this would limit the veto threat to deals with universities in countries such as China, where the government imposes far more control over universities than in Western democracies.

Debate on the bill has resumed in the House of Representatives, where the Labor opposition asked the government to “redraft the bill and re-present it to the parliament at the earliest opportunity”.

Labor said the proposed law needed better oversight and review mechanisms, as well as more clarity in the definition of terms like “institutional autonomy”. It also said the government should extend the bill’s scope to private universities.

However, Labor made it clear that it would not oppose the bill.

The government signalled that it would not agree to Labor’s request, but a formal vote was deferred.

Labor backbencher Tony Zappia told parliament that his party did not oppose the bill’s “intent”, but the way it had been drafted.

“If we want to ensure that the national interest is protected, the best way we can do that is not to allow it to be subjected to the whims of the minister of the day, but by drafting legislation that makes absolutely clear how that national interest is going to be protected,” he said.

Mr Zappia said bilateral tensions had already led China to discourage students from coming to Australia, putting a vital university revenue stream at risk. “If we’re going to jeopardise that even further with legislation, we need to think very carefully as to whether the legislation is properly structured.”

A separate government amendment mandates a review of the legislation once it has been in operation for three years.

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