22
March 2021

Foreign Interference in Universities

I want to acknowledge the member for Lindsay, who proposed this motion, and her own struggles at the moment to protect and safeguard her community, and commend her on her work in that regard. Foreign interference is an important topic, and it's one we're hearing a lot about these days. It's worth delving into exactly what we mean by this concept, because last week we heard from the director-general of security, Mike Burgess, that he believes that foreign interference and foreign espionage—that whole suite of actions—already does or will shortly pose a threat to Australia greater than terrorism. If this is our biggest national security threat, what is it exactly and why is it so much a topic of concern in this parliament and elsewhere?

In Australia, particularly in the last 30 years, we have become accustomed to thinking of the conduct of state craft in a binary fashion. Either states are at war or states are at peace, and when states compete they will have different interests. These different interests are negotiated, conducted and transacted openly. What we are increasingly seeing as a tool of state craft, particularly by authoritarian states, is tactics and strategies that are more redolent of the Cold War. These are tactics that tend to be covert rather than overt, that tend to use state supported actors rather than state apparatus itself. They're tactics that by and large seek to exploit unique factors that make open-level and democratic societies such as ours particularly vulnerable to these sorts of approaches. Some call this 'grey-zone warfare'. There are a number of practitioners of it. It goes against our expectations, if you like, of a binary mindset that either we have good relations with a state or we have bad relations with a state, that either we're competing or we're cooperating. In this grey zone that operates here, you can be doing both. You can have open trading relations and diplomatic relations with a state that is nonetheless seeking to undermine your society or your institutions from within. This is why we need to be careful to make sure that, when we defend against these actions, we don't jeopardise the very institutions that make our society strong.

Universities are undoubtedly a theatre for this sort of foreign interference because they are attractive targets for influencing public opinion and public debate but also because they produce research, development, intellectual property and ideas which can be valuable to a foreign adversary. But universities thrive as well on open discourse, debate, the free exchange of ideas, interaction with counterpart institutions and universities, and, indeed, cooperation with counterpart institutions and universities. So as we go about protecting our institutions against foreign interference—and we must do this; we must harden our institutions—we need to make sure we don't sacrifice the very nature or the essential nature of these institutions, be it our liberal democracy, be it freedom of speech on university campuses, be it any number of other things. That's why I commend the government's work in this area in working in cooperation with the universities. Because, ultimately, we need them on board if we're to protect against foreign interference. Universities are the institutions that are best placed to identify attempts to subjugate their own work for the purposes of a foreign actor and the institutions that are best placed to defend against that as well.

I believe that the work we've done with the foreign interference task force with the universities—and the establishment, in particular, of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, which is being administered by the Department of Home Affairs—will boost our ability to discover, track and disrupt foreign interference. Part of that suite of measures involves the creation of new criminal offences to target that sort of behaviour and increase transparency around foreign influence related activities. We now have the Guidelines to counter foreign interference in the Australian university sector, released to help strengthen the resilience of universities to foreign interference and to help universities understand the nature and the magnitude of this threat and the vehicles by which it seeks to enter their campuses. We've also recently established a Higher Education Integrity Unit within the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency to identify and respond to emerging integrity risks within the sector, and we've strengthened conflict-of-interest and due diligence policies for Australian Research Council grant funding applicants to ensure that publicly funded research is consistent with Australia's national interest.

Universities will remain attractive targets, given their work on the technologies, medicines and practices that are fundamental to the future of Australia's economy, military capabilities and security. But it's important, as we go about protecting these universities, that we preserve the international research collaboration which will be vitally important to Australia's future economic prosperity and security.