Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020, Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2020; Second Reading
I rise to make a brief contribution to the debate on Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 and Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) (Consequential Arrangements) Bill 2020 because I consider the merits of these bills to be fairly self-evident, and I think that's been reflected so far in the debate around the chamber. I want to place on the record my appreciation for the offer of bipartisan support for these bills that opposition senators have made. I think it is a very important signal that Australia sends at a time like this that we are all united in ensuring that the aims of these bills are reflected in our legislation, and that is that Australia's national interest will be set by Canberra on behalf of the nation and is not to be undermined by any subnational entity.
What these bills do is what most Australians think is already the case. When Australians were told that it wasn't the case that Canberra had control over Australia's foreign relations and its external affairs, it came as a surprise to many of them. They think that it is just common sense that the government here in Canberra should be in charge of Australia's international relations and they think it is bizarre that a state government, a territory government, a local council or, indeed, a university could in any way undermine Canberra's view of our national interest and detract from it.
Of course, these bills do not seek to prevent harmless or positive international engagement by subnational entities, as are most international engagements made by our state and territory governments, local councils and universities. But these bills ensure, though: firstly, that the federal government is at least aware of every instance of international engagement by these subnational entities; secondly, that the federal government retains the power to veto any agreement that it believes is not in our national interests; and, thirdly, that we have the opportunity to speak on the global stage with one voice. In the geopolitical environment that we are now operating in that is more crucial than ever, and so it's vitally important that members of this parliament stand together this week—hopefully today—to send that message.
Unfortunately, in recent years, our united international position has been undermined. It has been sadly undermined, in my view, by my home state of Victoria and the Andrews government, which unwisely, against advice and in contradiction to the premier's own party's platform at the federal level signed up to the belt-and-road agreement with the Chinese Communist Party. No other state, no other territory and no other leader in our country, Labor or Liberal, has sought to do that—in fact, they all made clear that they would not do so. And, despite the calls from many in this place, on a bipartisan basis, for the Andrews government to change direction on the BRI, that government has refused to do so. That is one of the reasons this bill is necessary. If a state refuses to consult, refuses to see sense, refuses to consider our national interest, then they must be forced to do so.
There has been one other group that has objected to their inclusion in this bill, and that is our higher education sector. In particular, I want to draw attention to a remarkable contribution to the debate by Vicki Thomson, the head of the Group of Eight, our elite universities. Writing an opinion piece for The Australian newspaper on 12 November, she said:
Australia's leading research-intensive universities, the Group of Eight, have been saying for months that national security threats are a lot like COVID-19—you can try to eliminate them and devastate your economy or you can focus on the areas of greatest risk, suppress them and learn to live with it by quickly picking up weak points and putting a stop to them.
Essentially, what our elite universities are saying, through Ms Thomson, is that we should learn to live with foreign interference, that we should tolerate a little bit of foreign interference and that it is an inappropriate public policy goal to seek to eliminate foreign interference in our democracy. There have been a few other more powerful examples of exactly why this bill is necessary and exactly why our universities must be included in it.
Sadly, many of our universities have demonstrated a lack of prudence in their international engagements and, in particular, their engagements with China. They have demonstrated an overreliance on international students from China and they have demonstrated an inability to manage the financial, reputational and standards risks that exposes them to. It is sadly necessary for the federal government to have oversight of those relationships, as has been clearly demonstrated by the university's contribution to this debate. This was one of those very unfortunate what appeared to be pithy lines that you come up with as a lobbyist trying to influence public policy debate. It's an awkward analogy that unfortunately reveals more than I think it intended to about the view of our universities.
To return to where I began, the merits of this legislation are self-evident. That is why I hope it will shortly pass this chamber with bipartisan support. Australians agree that Australia's national interest should be set from Canberra, that it should be set by the federal government and that there should be no capacity for any subnational entity to undermine it.