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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 8135

Senator MASON (Queensland) (11:38): I rise to speak on the Defence Trade Controls Bill 2011. The bill's primary purpose is to give effect to the Australia-United States Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty signed by the Howard government in 2007. The main benefit of the treaty is relief from a restrictive export control regime that has hampered the Australia-US defence goods and defence industry trade. The coalition supports this bill though with some concerns, concerns which have been ably addressed, as always, by my friend the shadow defence spokesman, Senator Johnston. Not only is the Australia-United States Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty itself an achievement of the previous coalition government but more broadly the ANZUS Treaty, military cooperation with the United States and the Australian Defence Force have no better friend and no stronger advocate in the Australian parliament than the coalition.

I want to speak briefly this morning with two hats on, first as a member of the coalition and second as the shadow spokesman for universities and research. One would not necessarily think that a defence trade control regime would have a significant impact on the work of academics and of researchers, but knowledge can indeed be power, including military power, so our universities have not escaped the scrutiny of this bill. I want to note that some stakeholders, including Universities Australia, are concerned that the export restrictions introduced in this bill will have an inordinate impact on the everyday work of our universities and will unreasonably impinge on their mission to create and then disseminate knowledge. That is what universities do. That is their job and that is their glory. As Universities Australia explained in their submission to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill:

The Bill will make it an offence for a university to supply information, assistance or training in relation to goods listed on the Defence and Strategic Goods List … in prohibited circumstances without a permit. While current laws regulate the movement of DSGL goods, universities are not particularly impacted by these laws as they do not generally deal in goods … The acquisition and transmission of knowledge goes to the heart of the activities of universities.

The DSGL comprises 353 pages, listing thousands of goods. Many goods listed are routinely held by universities as they are needed to teach students and to conduct research into the fields of science and technology. This includes teaching and research in faculties of information technology, medicine, science, engineering and pharmacy—

even pharmacy.

The outputs of these faculties are qualified doctors, pharmacists, engineers, scientists and computer experts (to name just a few), and the research findings in each of these fields … routinely transform our way of life. As currently drafted, the Bill will significantly impact the training and research conducted by universities in these fields.

The Bill prohibits an Australian university engaging in the supply of information, assistance or training to any person who is not an Australian resident or citizen or corporation … In November 2011 Australian universities had 242,478 enrolled students who are not Australian, with a further 96,627 expected to commence in 2012. As presently drafted, and without certainty regarding an exemption that may be provided, the Bill means that for each of these students enrolled in courses in the fields of science or technology, a university will need to apply for a permit to continue or commence their education in this field, or otherwise discontinue their education.

That is what Universities Australia said in their submission to the committee. Universities Australia and others are concerned that the new regime, if strictly interpreted, will mean that such seemingly innocuous activities as addressing a conference, communicating with a colleague overseas or even teaching an international student might in some circumstances require a permit from the Department of Defence. Either way, many stakeholders are concerned that the new export regulations regime will put a whole new layer of complex compliance on universities and create legal hazards for our academics and researchers where none or few operate now.

Further, some argue that under the new export controls regime Australian researchers and academics will not just be significantly impacted but be more significantly impacted than their American counterparts operating in the United States. They posit that US researchers in accredited higher education institutions enjoy broad exclusions from export control, particularly relating to intangibles, dual-use technology, and basic and applied research in science and engineering that is ordinarily published and shared with the scientific community. This can be quite a technical debate. Indeed, the debate this morning has illustrated that; nevertheless, it is a very important one, and all senators would at least agree on that. Universities play an important dual role in our society, as engines of both economic growth through educating our workforce and producing quality research and preserving and growing the shared values and culture that connect us with the past and, of course, unite us in the present.

The contribution of higher education to our economy is certainly significant, and it is very hard to overstate that. I always seem to be repeating myself but I would like to say it again to remind all senators and those listening that international education services contributed $16.3 billion in export income to the Australian economy in 2010-11, of which higher education accounted for about $9.4 billion in export income. It is our fourth largest export and our largest services export industry. So we are not talking about chicken feed or a second rate issue here; this is central to the Australian public interest. We educate more international students per capita than any other country on earth. Research, too, plays a very important role. Some estimate that commercialisation of research results in average returns of 20 per cent. It is one of the best public investments a government can make—and my friend Senator Carr would no doubt agree with that. Australia has gifted to the world numerous inventions, mostly but not exclusively in the field of medical science. The work of our researchers has been saving millions of lives around the world for decades now and improving the quality of life for countless others.

I note, too, that yesterday the Prime Minister released the white paper entitled 'Australia in the Asian century'. I was looking at it this morning and noted that the paper acknowledges that universities and their research is a critical aspect of our engagement with Asia. Universities are vital to the success of our engagement with Asia and, more importantly, vital to our success as a high wage and innovative country. There is nothing more important than universities and their research in achieving that outcome. That is why caution is needed when enacting new laws which affect the way universities are able to pursue their mission.

I know that for a long time people have often seen universities and research as some of sort of boutique issue, as some sort of issue that should be sidelined; it is not as important as digging up rocks and those sorts of exports. But it is true that Australia increasingly relies on scholars and teaching overseas students as much as it does on digging up things or growing things and exporting them. I say this because Australia is good at a few things. We mine very well. Minerals is a huge industry, of course. Agriculture is also a huge industry in this nation. But education is our most significant services export industry by far and, for too long, I think probably all parties and perhaps even the parliament have done insufficient to recognise that. So I just hope that over the next few years, as we enter the Asian century, this will not be forgotten.

The while paper is quite right to raise higher education, universities and research as being central to our engagement with Asia. We should not forget that. Many stakeholders are clearly concerned by the possible impact of the new defence trade control regime. It is the government's duty to listen to them and either to take on board their concerns or to explain to them why their concerns are really unfounded. I just do not think the government, which is in a bit of rush to enact this bill, has quite fulfilled that duty. This is my concern.

However, I do note, as Senator Stephens mentioned before, that Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, has suggested that, if this bill is passed with its current amendments, research and research collaboration should not be jeopardised. This does give me some comfort, and I accept that. Indeed, it should give all senators some comfort. However, it has not satisfied all those in the university sector—and I think that is fair enough to say—because concern remains that the bill unduly intrudes upon the scope of research activities undertaken by universities. The coalition is proposing amendments, which Senator Johnston has ably outlined, which we feel address the potential problems identified by universities and researchers. I hope that the government will show some good will to ensure that we end up with the best possible legislation.

I do not think for one second that this is a partisan or really a political issue. It is to my mind an issue of good public policy. It does not necessarily depend upon partisanship at all—or certainly it should not. We all want to see the Australia-United States Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty given effect. We are all looking forward to a new and fruitful chapter of defence cooperation between our two countries.

I am delighted to say a few words on behalf of universities and researchers this morning in the Senate because too often we take for granted universities and what they do for this country. We should not do so. As we progress within the Asian century we will be hearing a lot more about the important role of universities and research as we understand that our future lies with Asia, understanding them and educating many of their students.