House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021


Foreign Interference in Universities

5:32 pm

Photo of Anthony ByrneAnthony Byrne (Holt, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I also support this motion. As someone who has a strong interest in this particular sector and also the issue of foreign interference, I always think that, as John Garnaut would say, the more sunlight we can shine on this issue, in terms of what is happening to our universities, our society and our communities, the better off we're going to be. We need to be educating not just the education institutions but the Australian public about the threat of foreign interference in a lot of sectors of our economy and our society. Therefore, I support this and have been supporting the people who have worked so hard behind the scenes within the national intelligence community to bring us up to speed to protect our universities and research sector, which is the particular motion that we are talking about today.

It's also important at the start of my contribution to point out that a lot of this has been driven by the actions and words of the Director-General of Security, Mike Burgess. He detailed this in his first annual threat assessment, when he said:

The level of threat we face from foreign espionage and interference activities is currently unprecedented. It is higher now than it was at the height of the Cold War.

I remember talking to the previous Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, with respect to that. It was something we actively discussed. Some in the public say, 'They're just words,' but for the men and women of our intelligence and security agencies and our police forces they're not just words; they're actions. They need to take action. They're threats. They need to deal with the threats. This threat, this specific manifestation of this ongoing and enduring threat that we will face as a country for 25 to 50 years plus of our lifetimes—for the foreseeable future of our country—is immense. So I support that particular statement made by the Director-General of Security.

With respect to the higher education and research sector, they are one of the threat vectors. They are one of the areas of strategic importance to us as a functioning democracy and as an economy. They are a threat vector point for those that seek to do us harm, those that seek to exploit us economically or steal research information from us. Our higher education and research sector generates about $32.4 billion—that's the figure I've seen—as part of the export sector of the economy. I was looking at this in relation to the research that we do and how we punch above our weight in the products we deliver to market, that can be commercialised—that is, the collaboration of our university sector and the commercialisation that comes from that. The bionic ear, Gardasil, the medical application of penicillin, the Google Maps platform, the black box flight recorder, wi-fi, solutions for sleep apnoea, polymer bank notes, the ultrasound scanner—I could go on and on and on about the value of research in our tertiary sector. That research is absolutely critical. But, because of our success and our openness as a democracy, those that seek to do us harm, that seek to exploit that, are unyielding in their efforts.

In terms of describing the threats specifically to the sector, I couldn't actually say it better than the testimony of Chris Teal, His current position is Deputy Secretary, Social Cohesion and Citizenship in the Department of Home Affairs, but he's also, very importantly, chair of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce. He is someone who has been intimately involved in this sector. Let me use the words of Mr Teal to describe the threat to the sector. For the committee's benefit, Mr Teal talked about the method and aims of foreign actors who seek to engage in foreign interference in this sector. He said:

… foreign actors who seek to engage in foreign interference in the Australian higher education and research sector, through the following means …

          He then said the aims of foreign actors and those who undertake the activity are important to understand. They include:

                    I have to commend the work of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, and I also commend those who came before us on Friday on behalf of the universities. There has been a marked cultural shift that stands us in good stead to deal with the enduring threat. In the meantime, I support this motion. We've come from behind. We've got a lot of work to do. There is a lot of work ahead. (Time expired)


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