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Adjournment debate, Foreign Relations Bill, Senate, 31 August 2020

Speaking in the Senate on the Morrison Government’s much needed Foreign Relations Bill that ensure all arrangements between states, territories, councils and universities and a foreign government are consistent with Australian foreign policy.

I rise in this adjournment debate to recognise the importance of the proposed foreign relations bill, the details of which were announced last Thursday by the Prime Minister and the foreign minister, Senator Payne. This is indeed groundbreaking legislation. The bill ensures that all arrangements that states, territories, councils and universities have with a foreign government are consistent with Australian foreign policy. The bill will safeguard Australia’s national sovereign interests from any such arrangement which seeks to undermine Australia’s foreign policy and national interests. It is, of course, imperative that our nation speaks with one voice, consistent with our national sovereignty, our values, our foreign policy and our national interests.

Our Constitution provides that it is the federal government which has responsibility for foreign policy, yet there is no legislative requirement that a state or territory, local council or university must consult with the federal government before entering into any sort of arrangement or agreement with a foreign government. The foreign relations bill gives the foreign minister the power to terminate an existing arrangement or prohibit a proposed arrangement which is not in accordance with Australia’s national interests or values.

The proposed scheme establishes an approval regime and a notification regime. Under the approval regime, state and territory governments will be prohibited from entering into arrangements with foreign governments unless the foreign minister has given approval. Under the notification regime, states and territories, local governments and other state entities such as universities established by state or territory legislation must notify the foreign minister before entering into an arrangement with foreign entities. This includes an arrangement between a local government in Australia and a provincial government in a foreign country. If deemed necessary, the foreign minister will be able to prevent negotiations or finalisation of an arrangement or require the termination or variation of an existing agreement. We will also establish a public register to make these arrangements transparent. This will feature information about the arrangements and decisions made by the foreign minister. This new law will cover not just legally binding arrangements under Australian and foreign law but non-legally binding arrangements such as memorandums of understanding.

Commercial corporations, whether private or state owned, are not covered by this bill, and foreign universities are also not covered by this law unless those foreign universities are arms of a foreign government, and a good example of that is a government military university.

In applying the test, the foreign minister will ask: is the arrangement likely to or does it adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations, and is the arrangement likely to be or is it inconsistent with Australian foreign policy? Within six months of the bill being enacted, states and territories, local councils and public universities will have to complete a stocktake and notify the Commonwealth of their existing arrangements with foreign governments.

As I mentioned, this is groundbreaking legislation. This will shine a very important light on a number of arrangements about which our government currently has no knowledge. This will make states and territories, local governments and universities accountable. An initial limited stocktake of existing arrangements has revealed that these arrangements will broadly cover the following subjects: cultural cooperation, education, environmental management, health cooperation, infrastructure, public sector cooperation, science cooperation, sister city state relationships, tourism cooperation, and trade and economic cooperation.

I think it’s very important to point out that this is not about excessive intrusion into the business of states and territories. This law is designed to give the Australian people confidence in relation to the arrangements entered into by the states and territories, by local government and by universities. Of course, what is also very important is that subsidiary arrangements entered into under the auspices of a non-approved arrangement such as a construction contract or an infrastructure agreement, depending on their legal status, may also be invalidated or required to be terminated.

It is, of course, regrettable that this sort of law is necessary, but some recent agreements entered into between some Australian universities and foreign states have given rise to some deep concerns that such arrangements are not in the national interest and therefore this bill, this new law, is essential.

Of course, perhaps the most concerning agreement of all, one about which I have spoken out very strongly, is Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement. As I have said consistently over many months, it defies belief that Premier Daniel Andrews thought this was a good idea. The Chinese Communist Party’s objective through its belt and road program is to exert influence and dependency in the arrangements it seeks to make with other nations. Premier Andrews’ agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission focuses on infrastructure, innovation, trade development and market access. This agreement follows a memorandum of understanding which Victoria entered into with China on the BRI in 2018.

As the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has made very clear—and I might say as home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, and the Prime Minister himself has made clear—the BRI is not in Australia’s national interest. ASPI says, ‘the BRI is a strategic path to assert China’s growing power’. While the Victorian government plan to involve Chinese companies in Victoria’s so-called $107 billion infrastructure big build, there is no doubt that this is at the expense of Victorian jobs and the interests of Australian companies. But much more than that, as ASPI makes very clear, this would involve the Victorian government signing up to bring a whole set of Chinese communications control and collection technologies, along with the so-called big build. This may, therefore, present prima facie a concern to our national interest and, potentially, to our national security interests.

The bottom line is that the Morrison government takes the threat of foreign interference and influence very, very seriously. We are taking a broad range of actions to protect Australia’s interests. This groundbreaking legislation makes it very clear that this nation, when it comes to foreign policy, when it comes to our national interest, will continue to speak with one voice.

In recent years we have done an incredible amount of work to combat foreign interference and foreign influence, including the espionage and foreign interference act, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and the new electoral funding and disclosure reforms. Today I was very pleased that, following a reference from home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will hold an inquiry into foreign interference in Australian universities. The inquiry will not only examine universities, but examine all publicly funded research and grants, and the extent to which intellectual property and knowledge is being transferred to foreign powers in a manner that is contrary to our national interests.

I commend the Morrison government on implementing this very important law, the foreign relations bill, which will tell all countries that we stand in Australia’s interests only, whether it is protecting our national interest or our national security interest.

31 August 2020

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