Canberra seeks veto over university links with foreign powers

Proposed legislation could ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, opposition warns

August 27, 2020
China embassy
Source: iStock

Australia’s opposition has reacted non-committally to a government plan to assume veto powers over agreements between universities and foreign governments.

Shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek said the Labor Party had not yet adopted a position on the legislation, which was expected to be introduced into parliament in late August or early September. Ms Plibersek said it was important to safeguard universities’ intellectual property rights over their research, but this should not impede “beneficial” international collaborations.

“Some of our greatest breakthroughs have been in cooperation with other nations,” she told the ABC. “They’ve been beneficial for Australia. They’ve underpinned Australian jobs, and they’ve been beneficial for humanity as a whole. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The legislation would give the foreign minister the power to revoke agreements struck between public agencies – including universities as well as state, territory and local governments – and other nations.

The move was thought to have been prompted by developments such as Victoria’s controversial 2018 memorandum of understanding with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Northern Territory’s 2015 leasing of Darwin Port to Chinese company Landbridge – although commercial arrangements with companies would not be covered by the proposed law.

The proposal coincides with heightened attention on Australian universities’ deals with their Chinese counterparts. A 20 August report criticising China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) recruitment scheme, compiled by Canberra thinktank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has been followed by articles in The Australian newspaper suggesting that universities may have unwittingly ceded their intellectual property rights through their academics’ involvement in the scheme.

Grilled over the claims, education minister Dan Tehan said the issue would be scrutinised by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Intelligence and Security. “If there has been illegal activity where…patents have been recognised against the will of researchers or scientists, that will be investigated, and measures will be put in place as best we can to try and prevent that occurring again,” he told Sky News.

Prime minister Scott Morrison wants to go further than merely investigating such activities. He said deals that state and territory governments and their entities struck with foreign governments, without having to inform Canberra, interfered with the federal government’s “exclusive responsibility for conducting Australia’s foreign affairs”.

Such deals included university research partnerships, he stressed. “Arrangements that adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or are inconsistent with our foreign policy could be prevented from proceeding or terminated,” he warned in a statement.

Foreign minister Marise Payne said the government wanted to review all current and prospective agreements with other nations, with an audit of university arrangements forming “part of the stocktake process”. She told the ABC that universities would be given six months to furnish information about such agreements.

Labor senator Kim Carr said the proposal would have an impact on “collaborations in health, science, the public sector, cultural groups, tourism, sport, trade and the economy”. Mr Carr also criticised media reports about the TTP, saying “smears and insinuations” had been directed at researchers “who the journalists themselves say have done nothing wrong”.

“No one has declared any evidence of any breach of the Defence Trade Controls Act,” he told parliament.

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