Senate debates

Thursday, 11 October 2012


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee; Reference

3:44 pm

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

As senators will perhaps recollect, I was just getting warmed up on this committee reference. I want to remind the chamber of exactly why I have taken the decision to tie up a little more time than is usually devoted to committee references being nobbled. Recommendation 1 of the dissenting report was signed by me and coalition Senators Eggleston, who is the deputy chair of the committee, Johnston, who is the shadow spokesperson on defence for the coalition, and Senator Fawcett, who knows a great deal about these issues and has a background in the area. Yesterday the four of us co-signed a brief dissenting report, which effectively reflects on the majority report and says, 'Can somebody please read this document?' Recommendation 1 says:

The Committee undertake a further inquiry into the government's amendments to the bill, to ensure that serious concerns raised throughout the inquiry have been addressed, and that until this has occurred, the bill should not be debated.

This morning we were told by whips that the three signatories had mysteriously disappeared. I would like to know what happened last night. I would like to know whose arms got twisted. These three coalition senators know what they are doing in this portfolio space. Senator Johnston has joined us now, so I am looking forward to some kind of explanation. Suddenly this motion will fail; it will not prevail. The government will vote against it and the coalition will vote against it, which means that the chamber effectively is going to be flying blind. We will shortly be debating 10 pages of hastily cobbled together government amendments against the express opposition of a number of extremely important stakeholders, including the Australian academic community.

Earlier today, Universities Australia issued a press release effectively congratulating the work of the committee and saying that, if the work of the committee is undertaken and if the amendments reflect the unanimous recommendations of the committee, probably there is a way forward. That is what I was emphasising in my contribution this morning. I was emphasising that there probably is room for a compromise here and that I believe there is some way that can be found that would at least keep the university and the research sector happy. But it is not going to happen unless these amendments are given the thorough airing that they deserve. That means calling witnesses, over probably a half-day or a day's hearing, to identify issues and put the blowtorch on the government. This has been a flawed process from the beginning and I am not confident at all, from my brief reading of the amendments since the first time that this was debated earlier today and now.

It is very clear from the submissions made to the committee that some of the agreed outcomes from the roundtable discussions are not reflected in the amendments to the bill put forward by the government. I have had the opportunity to take a look at what has been circulated by the government and it is not up to scratch. I would much prefer if the coalition would reconsider its voting intention on this matter. I am not going to get much comfort from Senator Johnston but I can hope. If that were to happen, the committee would be able to do its work, have a half-day hearing, call some of the key witnesses who presented before, call the department and perhaps call the Chief Scientist or the Chief Defence Scientist—I do not even mind what the witness list is—and subject these amendments to the rigorous scrutiny that they deserve.

What we find in the amendments is a whole new offence for the publication or other dissemination of DSGL technology to the public or sectors of the public by electronic or other means. That was not even in the original bill. We have a new offence. The publication or a wider concept of dissemination is now to be a criminal offence. This is what we are talking about. We are talking about putting some kind of a freezing effect on basic, applied or pure research right across all the different disciplines in the Australian research community.

The amendments do not provide for any exclusions other than those that are already incorporated into the Defence Strategic Goods List—this is the 300- or 400-page piece of work that I was referring to earlier in the day—which have been known to the university sector since the commencement of discussions with the Department of Defence. The consequence of the new definition of DSGL technology does not alleviate the concerns that were voiced as part of the consultation process. The definition of DSGL technology and what is controlled as part of the export control regime is defined as 'technology or software as defined in the Defence Strategic Goods List and within the scope of that list'.

The amendments note that the DSGL contains exemptions relating to technology or software in the public domain and to basic scientific research. It looks to me that was it is occurring is that Defence are trying to blanket the whole research space just in case things may end up having defence applications—and many things do and I guess I can understand why they would do. Many elements of basic research will eventually have some kind of defence application. Defence operate across such a vast space of research, applications of technology and so on that it is perhaps not surprising to see Defence wanting to do this. But the chilling impact that this will have on the entire research community is that a set of strictures designed, in effect, to prevent the spread of extremely sensitive nuclear weapons technology—and I put on the record before that I thoroughly support the mindset that, if people are going to be researching nuclear weapons technology we would want the spread of that information to be restricted as much as possible—is now going to be applied to basic research across all kinds of different areas. The exclusions from the regulatory net that the sector was concerned to achieve, as part of the initial consultation process with the DoD, for applied research and information that is ordinarily published and shared within the scientific community are not contained in these latest amendments.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! Senator Ludlam, your time has expired. The clocks were set with a 10-minute error initially but you have had your full allocation of time.

3:50 pm

Photo of David JohnstonDavid Johnston (WA, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to agree with everything Senator Ludlam has said but the coalition have more broad considerations than the matters that he has raised. We will not be supporting his motion. I take no comfort from that. We filed a dissenting report. The ground has moved since then. There have been imperatives brought to my attention and I have spent some many hours reviewing 20 pages of amendments that were lobbed in my office yesterday morning.

The situation is this. Australia is confronted with one of the most incompetent, ignorant governments in our history. This legislation is a disgrace. It is inadequately prepared and it is inadequately thought through but the fact is it contains a very important diplomatic tool for Australian defence industry participants, and that is a treaty with the United States.

Having bolted that onto the defence export control legislation, the coalition is bound to support it. It is wanted by industry, notwithstanding that it is extremely poorly drafted. As I have said, it is ambiguous. All of those problems were highlighted in evidence to the committee by various industry players. The fact is that the ITARS provisions, which have existed for Australian defence industry participants, are still available to be used in the event that the provisions are not adequate or are vague and uncertain.

Insofar as the second part of this legislation is concerned, the defence export control legislation, it is typical of this government—a really sloppy, poor piece of legislation. We are bound to support it for the reasons I have set out. I have no doubt we will be moving some amendments. I am working my way through 20 pages of amendments in the hope that we can see some daylight in having a workable regime in order to comply with the Wassenaar agreement.

The politics of this have been dictated by a government which has cynically and quite stupidly sought to bolt these two pieces of legislation together. There is nothing the opposition can do about it other than to highlight to this chamber the fact that this is poor legislation. We will endeavour, I think on 29 October, to repair it as best we can, but I do not hold out much hope. The fact is that the government is incompetent and we have to live with it.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the motion moved by Senator Ludlam be agreed to. I think the noes have it.

Photo of Scott LudlamScott Ludlam (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The ayes have it.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will reluctantly grant the division, but there was no original call. A division is required; ring the bells.

The question is that business of the Senate notice of motion No. 3, moved by Senator Ludlam, be agreed to.