V-cs fear uncertainty as Australia passes foreign ties veto law

New regime injects element of doubt into all foreign negotiations, research universities say

December 8, 2020
Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, government, politics
Source: iStock
Parliament House, Canberra

The Australian parliament’s passage of a controversial foreign relations bill will hamper universities in committing fully to negotiations with any overseas partner, the Group of Eight (Go8) has warned.

Go8 chief executive Vicki Thomson said that the new legislation, which was passed by both houses of parliament on 8 December, would prevent Australian universities offering the guarantees needed to give partners certainty during contract negotiations.

They could range from discussions about simple student exchange programmes to joint research funded by schemes such as the European Union’s Horizon Europe or US agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, she said.

The legislation gives Australia’s foreign affairs minister veto powers over deals that the country’s public universities – along with state, territory and local governments and their agencies – strike with overseas governments and their entities.

Universities unsuccessfully campaigned to be excluded from the bill, insisting that their foreign ties were already comprehensively scrutinised through other mechanisms and the new legislation would saddle them with an enormous compliance burden.

Ms Thomson said universities were also worried about the uncertainty introduced by the new regime. She said that partners would be reluctant to sign agreements that could be torn up by Canberra for undisclosed reasons.

That risk would have to be specified at the outset, she said. “You couldn’t in good faith enter into a contract without saying: ‘We’ve got to tell our government – and there’s a possibility that our government could say no at any point in time, if the foreign policy context changes.’”

The uncertainty is partly a result of the government’s insistence that the new law is “country agnostic”, in a charade designed to avoid inflaming tensions with China. Commentators say the legislation was always aimed at deals with China – a fact implicitly acknowledged last month, when the government tightened the definition of foreign partner universities covered by the bill.

Under the change, Australian universities are only required to notify the government about deals with partner institutions that lack “institutional autonomy” because a foreign government is “in a position to exercise substantial control” over them.

While this definition excludes Western universities, Western governments have not been similarly exempted – including Australia’s “Five Eyes” security partners of Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Ms Thomson said that while Canberra was clearly unlikely to veto agreements with the governments of such countries, that could change in the future. She cited Hong Kong as an example of a like-minded foreign jurisdiction where the policy context was already shifting.

Ms Thomson said that under an amendment approved by the Senate, the foreign affairs minister was required to report decisions made each year under the act. But a further Senate amendment, which would have subjected the minister’s decisions to judicial review, was rejected by the House of Representatives.

This meant that decisions “with major financial or other consequences” could stand without transparency or accountability, Ms Thomson said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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