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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 12599

Mr MURPHY (Reid) (17:59): I wish to make some comments about the amended Defence Trade Controls Bill, which has generated concern among a number of very respected scientific research academics that I have consulted with. This bill in part seeks to implement new controls on intangible transfers—that is, transfers of information—relating to a wide variety of technologies with both military and civilian applications. The academics are concerned that the legislation, including the amendments, appears to produce the unintended consequence of significantly curtailing innovative research conducted in academic institutions.

It is clear that the Defence Trade Controls Bill does not intend to place undue restrictions on academic researchers or to control activities conducted in the course of normal academic research or education. However, the academics I have spoken with are very concerned that the original bill would not adequately protect against this possibility and would require amendment in order to protect the academic sector. I am aware of what happened in the Senate yesterday and I listened to the minister today.

At issue is the scope of impact of the legislation and its potential to subject to defence controls ordinary research activities across a range of fields. In particular, I believe it is sensible to exclude from controls basic and applied academic research conducted with the intent of generating knowledge and providing for the public good. Such research poses little risk to national security. It is not related to defence, munitions or other arms but, rather, the development of new technologies that support future industry and innovation. By contrast, potentially stifling this research poses significant risk for Australia's economic prosperity.

The shortcomings of this legislation's regulatory impact statement were highlighted in the Senate FADT Committee's preliminary report. Following the committee's preliminary report the academic sector engaged in consultations with Defence chaired by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. I am pleased that the consultations have resolved many of the concerns. The Senate committee's final report makes clear that this bill should not put universities in Australia at a disadvantage relative to their international counterparts.

Submission 11B to the Senate FADT Committee provides legal advice that the legislation presented to it would put in place stringent controls on public-good applied research that do not appear in comparable legislation in the United States, thus contradicting the committee's report. I understand that the Chief Scientist has other legal advice relating to the comparative disadvantage the legislation would cause for Australian academics. However, this evidence has not been part of the public record relating to this legislation or the Senate committee's inquiry. The Chief Scientist has publicly recommended that any potential negative impacts would be assessed and mitigated during the two-year trial period associated with the legislation. I am happy that the legislation now provides for this. I am convinced that Professor Chubb will seek positive outcomes for the sector during this period.

However, given the importance of this legislation and the potential for negative unintended consequences, the scientific research academics I have consulted with do not believe we can rely on post-legislative corrections to this bill to resolve the outstanding issue of comparative disadvantage. Under these circumstances, I trust that the legislation ensures that (1) it delivers on the post-legislation transitional arrangements that have been recommended by the Chief Scientist following round table discussions with Defence, the university sector and other stakeholders; (2) Australian university researchers are not placed at a disadvantage regarding export controls when compared with their colleagues in the United States; and (3) the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee plays a role in scrutinising the implementation of the export control regime.

The government believes we should not place undue restrictions on academic researchers or control activities conducted in the course of normal academic research or education. I want to put on the record here tonight that I trust that the two-year trial period provides anxious scientific research academics with a degree of comfort in this regard.