Australian law ‘should cover commercial aspects of foreign deals’

Sydney sociologist says universities should go further than merely notifying government about overseas ties

November 11, 2020
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Australian universities should do more than merely notifying Canberra about their deals with overseas governments, so that it can decide whether to quash them, says University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones.

Dr Babones says that commercial details of the agreements should also be disclosed. But the government should avoid saddling universities with “massive compliance burdens” by exempting most countries from the arrangement.

In a new paper, Dr Babones accuses the government of both underreach and overreach in its foreign relations bill. The contentious legislation would give the minister for foreign affairs the power to veto deals that universities – along with state, territory and local governments and their agencies – strike with foreign powers.

Dr Babones argues that this is warranted in China’s case, because agreements with China are unlike agreements with other nations. But the government should also compile a “trusted partners list” to avoid imposing “bureaucratic overhead” on “perfectly innocent relationships that are completely in the public interest”.

The list should include major English-speaking democracies, European Union countries, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, Dr Babones told Times Higher Education. “Countries that have similar legal systems, rule of law, democratic governments – it’s damaging for us to be subjecting agreements with those countries to the same kind of scrutiny we need for agreements with China,” he said.

The paper ridicules suggestions that the bill is not aimed squarely at China, insisting that Beijing is almost unique in its preference for intergovernmental memoranda of understanding (MOUs) to support “even the most routine” types of engagement. While this is partly because China’s government departments tend to handle work typically done by independent institutions in the West, there is also a darker motive at play.

“China prefers to unnecessarily push agreements up to the intergovernmental level in order to better leverage them for political purposes,” the paper says, citing the Victorian state government’s 2018 MOU on China’s Belt and Road Initiative – a development thought to have motivated the bill in the first place.

The MOU and an associated framework agreement are not legally binding, the paper notes, arguing that this unenforceability is their “most troubling” aspect. “These are political accords being entered into for political purposes, which are left unspecified and thus unverifiable,” it says.

A Melbourne newspaper reported that Victoria had been shielded from Chinese trade bans and tariffs imposed earlier this year. Dr Babones says it is impossible to know whether this was a “coincidence” or a reward from Beijing.

He says that similar questions surround educational and scientific agreements with China, such as research collaborations and Australian universities’ hosting of Confucius Institutes – arrangements often targeted by “suggestion and innuendo” instead of “hard facts”, the paper says, because those involved have “worked very hard to ensure that relevant hard facts are not available for analysis”.

“Have Australian institutions internalised China’s point of view such…that they reflexively toe [Beijing’s] party line even in the absence of any specific threat? We simply don’t know, and given Australian public institutions’ relatively low levels of transparency, we can’t know.”

The paper says that in its current form, the bill excuses universities from disclosing information deemed commercially sensitive – the very content that would allow the deals’ “propriety” to be evaluated, it says. “Allowing [them] to do business in the dark is a recipe for ensuring that they continue to be vulnerable to foreign influence.”

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