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Second reading, Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020, 30 November 2020

It is my great pleasure to rise and speak on the Australia’s Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020, which is an incredibly important piece of legislation. This bill is required because the Commonwealth has responsibility for foreign policy. It has the expertise.

Yet there is no current requirement for states and territories to consult properly with the Commonwealth on arrangements with foreign governments. This bill is not about excessive intrusion into the states’ and territories’ business. This is about providing governments, institutions and the Australian people with confidence that due diligence is given to international arrangements to ensure they are consistent with our national interest and with our values. It is wholly unremarkable that the Commonwealth seeks to ensure that the states and territories consult with the Commonwealth in relation to foreign arrangements. It is a pity, I might say, that this legislation is now necessary. It is necessary because there has been a wide range of arrangements, including between state governments and universities and foreign states, which have caused the Commonwealth significant concern. This bill now puts in place the measures required to ensure that, at the forefront of any arrangement with any foreign state, the national interest is paramount.

It also reflects the fact that the Commonwealth, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has the expertise necessary to assess whether arrangements with foreign governments are consistent with our foreign policy and, therefore, in our national interest. Without appropriate consultation, the Commonwealth has no opportunity to review the proposed arrangements and apply its expertise. Without due diligence, without this consultation, we as a nation risk having a patchwork of contracts, MOUs, relationships and collaborations that could run counter to, or have an adverse effect on, our foreign policy. So what this says to the states and territories and to our universities is that we need to work together on the world stage and speak with one voice.

I’m incredibly proud of the many measures that our government has introduced to combat foreign interference and so I do really take issue with the characterisation of the Greens that this is a rushed approach. Nothing could be further from the truth. In recent years, we’ve recognised and implemented many different measures to reflect the fact that foreign interference can threaten Australians’ sovereignty, our values and our national interests—Australia’s way of life. It involves, by very definition, coercive, clandestine, deceptive or corrupting activities undertaken by, or on behalf of, a foreign actor and which are contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests.

Our bill is not focused on any particular country and neither have any of our measures. They include: the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018, which criminalised covert and deceptive activities of foreign actors that intend to interfere with Australia’s institutions of democracy; the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018, which requires people to register if they engage in parliamentary lobbying, general political lobbying, communications activity or donor activity on behalf of a foreign principal; the Security of Critical Infrastructure Act 2018, which introduced a range of measures, including a register of critical infrastructure assets that gives the Australian government visibility on who owns and controls these assets; and the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Act 2018, which restricts political donations from foreign governments and state owned enterprises. In December 2019, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce to disrupt and deter those attempting to undermine our national interests. Another measure is the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which aims to provide the public and government decision-makers with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and political processes.

We’ve also made very major improvements to our foreign investment and takeover laws so that the Foreign Investment Review Board has the power to assess the sale of critical state-owned infrastructure assets to private foreign investors. This was an issue I raised in my first speech in this place. Keeping our critical assets in Australian hands is incredibly important, and now the Treasurer has a range of powers, including the last resort review power, which does give him the power, when he deems necessary, to require the divestment of foreign interests in a business entity or piece of land.

So the bill before the Senate today aims to ensure that state and territory arrangements with foreign governments are consistent with Australia’s foreign policy. Australian public universities established under state and territory legislation and the Australian National University will be required to notify the foreign minister of all existing and proposed arrangements they have with foreign entities, including with foreign universities that do not have institutional autonomy.

So this legislation is not about stopping arrangements which benefit Australia. The vast majority of university arrangements will continue as normal. But this will ensure that there is greater transparency of activities between the states and the territories and universities which involve foreign governments, and the Morrison government has now introduced amendments to the bill to describe the circumstances in which a foreign university lacks institutional autonomy, and, under the definition, a foreign university does not have institutional autonomy if a foreign government is in a position to substantially control the university’s internal governance, education, research or academic staff.

Of course, this issue has been of particular interest in my home state of Victoria, where the Victorian government has entered into a very contentious agreement with the Chinese Communist government, the Belt and Road Initiative. Of course it is very clear, and we have made very clear, that this bill does not target any country, at all. But certainly there have been very serious concerns raised about these arrangements and, once this bill, as we hope, is law, the Victorian government will then be subject to proper scrutiny and accountability in relation to the agreement that it has reached with the Chinese government, because, at the end of the day, this is all about ensuring that, no matter whether it’s a state, a territory or a university, any arrangement with a foreign government must be such that it does not adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations or is not inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy. Australia faces many challenges across the globe. This bill before the Senate today is another critical step in ensuring Australia’s national security and that our national interests are at the forefront at all times.

30 November 2020

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