Coalition urged by backbench to launch inquiry into foreign interference in Australian academiz

Coalition urged by backbench to launch inquiry into foreign interference in Australian academiz

Daniel Hurst – The Guardian – Friday 28 August 2020

The Morrison government is facing calls from its backbench to launch its own inquiry into foreign interference in Australian academia, with the head of the powerful security committee saying he is ready and willing to take on the task.

Andrew Hastie, the chairman of the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, told Guardian Australia the inquiry should be broad enough to investigate “murky, undeclared” research collaboration along with foreign interference in academic freedom on university campuses.

Hastie’s concerns included that China’s Thousand Talents Plan – a research collaboration program – may be “designed to harvest research and talent and intellectual property from other countries for the benefit of the Chinese government”.

Labor is also open to backing such an inquiry, with Guardian Australia learning that senior opposition frontbenchers are seeking a briefing from security and intelligence officials to hear about their concerns very soon.

The major parties are considering their position after independent MP Bob Katter gave notice that he would move a motion in the lower house next week calling for an investigation into alleged efforts by the Chinese Communist party “to exert influence over Australia’s universities” – a proposal that the Liberal MP Craig Kelly has said he would second.

Katter’s motion also references concern over the 13 Australian universities that have Confucius Institutes – Chinese language and culture centres that are linked to China’s education ministry.

Katter said PJCIS members would have the “courage” to fully investigate the issues and he sensed the government was open to an inquiry. “I think that we are watching tectonic plate movement here,” Katter said.

It is understood Coalition backbenchers are lobbying ministers to take the initiative rather than leaving it to an independent’s motion.

There has been intense focus on China’s Thousand Talents Plan after reports in the Australian newspaper this week indicated some Australian participants were subject to secretive arrangements and an understanding that China would retain the intellectual property of any inventions or research.

The intelligence agency Asio has been briefing universities on the risks of such programs.

Hastie said while no one was opposed to research collaboration, it should be done transparently. He said he was concerned that Australian taxpayers “may be indirectly funding Chinese military research” and “research that further grows the unblinking eye of the Chinese surveillance state”.

“If the Australian government’s committing millions and millions of dollars towards research, every single taxpayer has a stake in that research,” Hastie said in an interview.

“Many of us aren’t confident that our universities are properly regulating themselves, or that they’re managing conflicts of interest, or that they’re actually aware of what’s going on with many of these scientists who haven’t declared their involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan or indeed the transfer of technology and intellectual property to China.”

Hastie said there was a fair amount of support on the backbench for a thorough inquiry, and the PJCIS was willing and able to conduct the inquiry if referred.

“We’re ready to go,” Hastie said. “We already have a number of relationships of trust across across government and our intelligence and law enforcement agencies. We can do both classified and unclassified hearings.”

He said the inquiry should also address academic freedom – such as the case of University of NSW adjunct lecturer Elaine Pearson being censored over an article on the Hong Kong crackdown, for which the university apologised.

When informed of Hastie’s position, the Labor deputy chair of the committee, Anthony Byrne, said he was “happy to support the chair in this matter proceeding to the PJCIS if required”.

“I think there is now sufficient evidence in the public domain to warrant an appropriate inquiry into this matter,” Byrne said. “I’m aware of the excellent work that’s been done by the agencies tasked with countering foreign interference but there is more to be done and I do think we need to shine some sunlight on this issue.”

Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, confirmed her party was “certainly open to a discussion about it”.

Wong noted she had spoken last year “about the importance of the government actually giving universities greater guidance and more resources to understand how to manage” these engagements.

Pressed on whether such an inquiry could be done without becoming a witch hunt, Wong said: “Unfortunately we’ve seen, at times, a fair bit of theatre, but I hope people can be sensible about these issues.”

The Liberal senator James Paterson said an inquiry would help deliver “complete transparency about foreign government attempts to recruit Australian academics”.

A spokesperson for the education minister, Dan Tehan, said decisions about parliamentary inquiries were “for the parliament” to make.

The spokesperson said Tehan had already arranged for the education department to provide private briefings on “the government’s work to strengthen protections against foreign interference” to several committees including the PJCIS.

The debate comes as the government pushes for new powers allowing the foreign affairs minister to cancel agreements between public universities and foreign government entities.

Universities have already been under intense financial pressure over the loss of revenue from international students during the Covid-19 crisis and an inability to access the jobkeeper wage subsidy, with many announcing job cuts.

The Universities Australia chief executive, Catriona Jackson, said the sector was working alongside government agencies in the Universities Foreign Interference Taskforce on “robust guidelines that build on measures to keep our institutions and intellectual property secure”.

But she said it was important to “strike the right balance between national security and the research collaboration which is driving so many advances in knowledge – including the search for a Covid-19 vaccine”.

Wang Xining, the deputy head of China’s embassy in Australia, defended the Thousand Talents Plan at the National Press Club this week, when he said his country was not interested in interfering in Australia’s internal affairs or undermining its sovereignty.

Wang said many of the criticisms were based on “hearsay and gossip”. While diplomats and scientists were “trying very hard to spread sunshine over our relationship”, some reporters were “trying to cast a shadow”.

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