Save our sovereignty

Save our sovereignty

Senator James Paterson – Menzies Research Centre – Friday 23 April 2021

You can cause great harm to a country without ever firing a shot or putting a soldier on the ground, simply by curtailing their freedom. Australia is not immune from threats not just to our physical security but also to our way of life. In recent years there have been sophisticated attempts by foreign state actors to constrain Australia’s freedom of action as a sovereign democratic nation. Foreign interference can, if unchecked, profoundly weaken the character of our country by restricting the options available to us, curtailing our freedom to navigate, and undermining our resilience and self-sufficiency. Whether it’s attempts by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to weaken our economy through the targeting of Australian products and industries for tariffs and other trade distortions, or attempts to siphon off Australian taxpayer funded research for the benefit of foreign governments and their militaries, foreign interference is a growing security risk that we cannot overlook. We are operating in a starkly different geopolitical landscape than we were only a few years ago, and Australia must be vigilant to the grey zone tactics short of war being waged against us.

That’s why the Morrison government has made significant advances to strengthen Australia from foreign attempts to constrain our way of life. One example is the recently passed Foreign Relations Bill that gives the Federal government the power of veto over agreements made by Australian universities, local and state governments with foreign powers. The Victorian government’s controversial Belt and Road agreement with the Chinese government is now dead thanks to the new laws. The Australian government has also proactively worked to diversify our trade markets to reduce our reliance on any one trading partner. We’ve successfully found new markets for almost all of our product categories that were hit by the CCP’s tariffs and sanctions.

Australia’s research sector is under heightened scrutiny amid security concerns over how some universities are managing their relationship with China. Reporting in The Australian by Sharri Markson in August last year and research by Alex Joske at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute exposed secret links between Australian academics and the Chinese Communist Party’s Thousand Talents program. The appalling persecution of student activist Drew Pavlou by the University of Queensland painted a deeply disturbing picture about the culture of UQ. Similarly, when you see reports that some Australian academics have links to surveillance technology that has been rolled out in Xinjiang against the Uyghur people, it shouldn’t need to be against the law for an Australian university to be uncomfortable with that. The law should be the absolute outer limit of what’s permissible, and universities do not need to go all the way up to that line. It’s time for Australian universities to exercise their own judgement. But if they fail to, further regulation may be necessary. That’s why the federal inquiry into foreign interference at Australian universities which I am leading as Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is so important. While the committee continues to gather evidence and prepare recommendations, including potential legislative change, it’s encouraging to see at least some Australian universities, with increased public scrutiny, are undergoing cultural change as they take their responsibilities more seriously. Universities are working closer than ever before with Australia’s intelligence agencies to protect against foreign interference – a significant change from five years ago.

These actions have made Australia a world leader in countering foreign interference from rising authoritarian powers like China. Many countries are at least two to three years behind Australia and are looking to us for advice and guidance. We will always stand with and support our like-minded international partners, because we know the security challenges we have encountered are not isolated to Australia. Groupings like the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which now has more than 20 parliaments and hundreds of individual parliamentarians from around the world as members, are a crucial forum for this task. This is a global problem driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s world view. As Australia continues to address this challenge, we need to ensure the voices of Chinese-Australians are included in this debate. We must be very careful to distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people, particularly those here in Australia, who have had no say in choosing those who rule the Chinese state. Our fight to defend Australia’s freedom, democracy and sovereignty has never been more important. There is no more vital task than keeping Australians safe and free and to do that we must stand strong against attempts to curtail our way of life.

James Paterson is a Liberal Senator for Victoria and the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

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