House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021


Foreign Interference in Universities

5:27 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

by leave—on behalf of the member for Lindsay, I move:

That this House:

notes that the Government is committed to safeguarding Australians from foreign interference in our universities and protecting government funded research from being compromised;

(2) acknowledges that the Government convened the world’s first Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce in 2019;

(3) recognises:

  (a) the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce produced the Guidelines to Counter Foreign Interference in the Australian University Sector to ensure due diligence and to have conflict of interest polices in place to identify and mitigate risks of any foreign affiliations; and

  (b) there are examples of intimidation, threats and coercion towards researchers and their families; and

(4) further notes that the Government has invested $145 million to combat foreign interference, including $1.6 million to strengthen cybersecurity in universities.

It's a pleasure to be able to move this motion on behalf of the member for Lindsay, who I understand is in her fine electorate supporting the people affected by the flood. I'm particularly happy to see the Deputy Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in the chamber at this time. This motion goes to the heart of the security of our nation and, as you know, as a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, we currently have an inquiry into issues around foreign interference in Australian universities. This inquiry is of critical importance to our country. It's of critical importance because it sits as part of the rich fabric of security mechanisms we need in place to protect our research, our academics and those who put energy and time into building and advancing the technology, innovation and ideas for the future advancement of our nation. We also need to have security mechanisms surrounding their conduct and their research so that it advances the interests of Australia and can't be used as a back-door vehicle to seek to either influence our country and/or be a target of cyberattacks or other activities that put universities, our intellectual property and information at risk.

Only last week, on Friday, we had one of the many hearings of the PJCIS where we heard from universities directly about their initiatives and their efforts to address the attempts of foreign interference from foreign governments into their activities. To be quite frank with you, the response from the universities was mixed between those who have a substantial way to go in taking measures to protect their information and their intellectual property against governments that seek to interfere in their activities and others who have taken very proactive steps, and we would like other universities to follow their lead.

Critical to that is a real focus on making sure that there are proper cybersecurity mechanisms. We need to make sure that anything that operates in the offline world operates successfully in the online world, and that includes security mechanisms. We wouldn't leave precious records and data available for anybody to walk in and open up without proper security and locks, and there should be the same approach towards cybersecurity. That's why this government has invested $145.2 million since 2018-19 to strengthen cybersecurity in universities. While they are not necessarily a weak spot in the link, they are one of the spots in the link, and we have to be focused not just on government departments, not just on intelligence and security agencies and not just on the AFP but on any institution that is established for the purpose of advancing Team Australia.

We have also released guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector and to strengthen the resilience of universities against foreign interference. We're working across the sector, with not just the institutions but their representative and standard agencies, to make sure that they're part of the solution, as well as with the Australian Research Council. As you may be aware, Deputy Speaker Falinski, in the most recent round of ARC grants, a number of applications were knocked back by the Commonwealth because of concerns around national security. I think everybody starts from a position of saying that they would rather that that were not the case, but sometimes it's necessary. This government will never cease to take necessary action, as required, to stop foreign interference in the tertiary education sector or anywhere where nefarious agendas are being played out.

We see this as part of a rich fabric of the issues that confront our country. Addressing foreign interference in our universities is a critical part of that. We have seen programs, like the Chinese Community Party's 'Thousand Talents' program, that are seeking to directly harvest the opportunities that our academics and their ideas provide towards agendas and ends that may not necessarily be to seek the advancement of our country but for other purposes. Of course we know that there are many countries that have sought to engage in espionage or the theft of intellectual property as part of their own industrial development, for their own military or defence purposes or to advance their interests in foreign countries. Universities should not be the weak link in that sector, and the Morrison government is committed to making sure that universities are on the side of Team Australia.


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