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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12598

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (17:54): To assist the House, I will put some brief comments to indicate why the coalition will be supporting the minister in his opposition to amendment (9).

On the subject of history: it is important to note that Prime Minister Howard signed the treaty between the government of Australia and the government of the United States of America concerning defence trade cooperation in September 2007 and that the Rudd government signed off on the subsequent implementation arrangements on 14 March 2008. Furthermore, the US Congress passed implementing legislation in September 2008, and the treaty received ratification consent by the US Senate on 29 September 2010. For two years they have been waiting for us to reach a point of decision.

This bill creates provisions for the establishment and management of the Australian defence industry in exporting goods and services to the US defence industry. Currently, Australian companies which need access to defence items or technology from the United States must seek an export licence from the US Department of State in accordance with the International Traffic in Arms Regulations: ITARS. The treaty removes the requirement for these licences to be obtained. The existing control regime has a focus on the export of physical goods, but the growth of technology and the provision of services over the intranet or through brokers is currently not being captured.

We firmly believe that there was insufficient consultation on this bill and on the resulting regulations—especially with the university sector, which will bear the full brunt of the legislation. The reaction has been mixed. Many concerns have been raised over the role of the US Department of State in approving Australian companies or individuals as trusted members of the Australian community. This process, in gaining such approval, is seen in some quarters as cumbersome, costly and time-consuming. Coupled with these concerns is the lack of confidence within the defence industry in the Australian defence controls office in making consistent decisions on what strategic goods can or cannot be exported. What is being proposed by the government remains unacceptable to the university sector, for reasons that have been made clear in submissions by Universities Australia and the University of Sydney.

There continues to be a fundamental difference of opinion between Defence and the sector about the scope of export controls in the US pertaining to research conducted in universities. The outcomes of the Chief Scientist's round table process are not sufficient because they do not guarantee that the university sector's key concerns about the scope of research activities to be controlled by the bill will be addressed. The government is asking the Senate, the Australian public research community and the House to accept its assurances that the government amendments will address unintended or unforseen consequences arising from the proposed trials. We are a little short of accepting the government's assurances on many issues. Given the complexity of the bill and the clear potential for negative impact on the public good—and, in particular, on the research sector—the Senate committee report reviewed the reforms proposed by the government and acknowledged that they were far from ideal. Both Universities Australia and the University of Sydney have suggested that the critical issue of Defence's controls of intangible supplies pertaining to university research, compared with the arrangements currently in place in the US, remain unresolved. At the very least we urge the government to ensure that Australia's system for the control of intangible supplies is no broader or more stringent in scope than the equivalent arrangements currently in place in the US and that they are in accord with the legal advice from White & Case.

We introduced amendments in the Senate to provide for the exclusion of research education information to be published in the public domain. The government has indicated to us in the strongest possible terms that our amendments will render the bill ineffective. The government's reasoning on this has been largely unconvincing; however, there is a time when it is necessary to err on the side of caution. This is one such time, given the serious subject matter encompassed by this bill and given the fact that the minister knows that I take bipartisan support on military operations and military engagement seriously. That bipartisanship means that I err on the side of caution if sufficient reasons have been raised that there could be an issue. We have been assured that the two-year transition period—it is in the Greens amendment, to their credit—which has been agreed to will give everyone breathing space with no penalties to be provided. The transitional period which the government has agreed to will enable all stakeholders to acquire an understanding of the bill's practical application. If it is proven to be unsatisfactory in any aspect, the bill can be amended at a later date, and I will champion its amendment if indeed the reassurances prove insufficient.