Uni lobbies tell intel committee they have national security covered

They need, really need their case to convince

At an October Senate committee hearing on how state government agencies (including universities) managed relations with foreign powers Senators Abetz and Fierravanti-Wells (both Liberal) and Kitching (Labor) got stuck into university lobby groups over member links with China’s government and agencies (CMM October 14).

It was tough stuff, but nowhere near as important to universities anxious to defend their reputations as the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security inquiry into national security risks in universities and research agencies.

This shows in the approach and detail of peak body submissions to the Intel committee inquiry.

The Group of Eight committed its considerable resources to demonstrating its members have policies in place to protect the national interest while continuing research and teaching ties (the latter mainly meaning Confucius Centres).

The risk, the Eight argues, is that government might muck things up by sticking too many interfering bibs into complex issues. Thus, the Go8, “urges the committee to consider recommending that it is in the national interest, to provide clarity as to how the various pieces of legislation intersect and operate aa a cohesive whole.

“Failure to do so could risk the effectiveness of Australia’s foreign interference response, by leaving potential loopholes or gaps that can be exploited by adverse actors.”

And it suggests the in-place Defence Trade Controls Amendment Act is “an excellent model for good process.”

The Australian Technology Network, with its pal Uni Newcastle, also argues national security is covered by existing arrangements, pointing to the University Foreign Interference Taskforce. “The existing and incoming legislative and regulatory framework governing the operation of universities is significant, rigorous and effective … it is made more effective when it has been developed in close partnership between government, security agencies and the sector.”

This may not be enough to silence Coalition sceptics and their pals in the press who believe universities are too keen to take Beijing’s shilling.

Independent federal MP Bob Katter (Queensland) for one is a fierce critic of the University of Queensland for disciplining student and human rights activist Drew Pavlou, who denounces the university for its links with the Chinese Government.

In his submission to the committee’s inquiry Mr Katter urges the committee to “examine the influence exerted by private companies that facilitate and or are involved in the establishment of agreements between Australian universities and Chinese Communist Party entities,” and “analyse the extent to which China’s People’s Liberation Army seeks to exploit Australia’s universities to further its strategic interests.”

This is a big deal for universities. The intelligence and security committee is as grown-up as parliamentary oversight gets and its members will make up their own minds. If they accept the argument that existing processes have national security covered the higher education lobbies will go on as they are. But if the committee finds a need for more oversight the implicit (probably explicit) criticism of university behaviour will be very bad indeed.