House debates

Monday, 22 March 2021


Foreign Interference in Universities

5:53 pm

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

I'm pleased to speak on this motion. I do want to note that we do absolutely, in a bipartisan way, need to be committed to safeguarding Australians and Australia's important institutions, such as universities, from being compromised. That's really what we're talking about here.

We welcome the government's commitment to safeguarding Australians from foreign interference broadly, and specifically, in this motion, our universities. Equally, we welcome any measure that ensures government funded research is safe from compromise. Possibly in no other recent epoch in time have we seen just how important it is to have well funded research. As we stare down COVID-19, the universities of the globe have been looked at through a lens no greater than ever before for a solution to this pandemic. We understand that, like COVID-19, foreign interference poses a real and significant threat to Australia's national security. As ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess pointed out just last week, foreign interference in Australia has increased in both scale and complexity, targeting both state and federal institutions online and in real life. This demonstrates just how important our national security funding is. These activities can undermine Australia's national security and sovereignty as well as its democratic institutions. It's the staff of agencies like ASIO that are truly the unnoticed heroes that keep our country safe as well, and I want to commend Director-General Burgess and his staff for the work that they do.

This motion goes to addressing concerns around intimidation, threats and coercion towards researchers. It's quite frankly unfathomable that researchers could be threatened. I understand they may be coerced, but having them even being threatened here on our home soil is something most of us hope would never happen. Yet it is happening.

We must do more as a parliament to protect our academics. It's essential that Australians and Australian institutions are adequately protected against this threat and, indeed, any other. Universities need to be supported by their government, and truly this starts by ensuring that they are well funded. Sadly, under this Morrison government funding has gone backwards. However, motions like this continue to put the spotlight on vulnerabilities caused when universities aren't sufficiently supported,. We know that during COVID-19 17,000 jobs have been lost across the university sector. This is a honeycombing of the university sector that we just can't afford. Also, knowing that teaching hours are being greatly reduced, remuneration for preparatory hours for lecturers and tutors has been greatly reduced, this puts more and more pressure on that institution all around.

We in this place understand that legislation alone will not combat the complex threat. Building a resilient Australia resistant to foreign interference should involve buy-in and participation from all Australians. Quite frankly, that has to start with a respect of universities and these institutions from the government. That's something that I've really found lacking from this government in recent years. While on one side of the equation they talk about the importance of research, the importance of STEM subjects, the importance of growing and deepening our economic base and all the subjects that are required to do that, on the other side of the equation they surely do not balance it by cutting funding to universities. We know that desperate, cash-strapped universities have had to seek other forms of income, and this makes it very difficult for them.

So from a strategic point of view universities are institutions that we must hold in the highest esteem. They must be places that are safeguarded from foreign interference. We must maintain our strategic alliances and defence relationships that are so critical to our national security. This can be done via universities.


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