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Tuesday, 10 November 2020
Page: 9346

Mr BANDT (MelbourneLeader of the Australian Greens) (19:18): You always have to be suspicious when this government comes in and says that they've got a bill to deal with 'foreign interference'—in their words. Year after year, I sit and watch this government pass free trade deals that have allowed state-owned companies from other countries to come in and sue the Australian government; it has opened up holes in our labour law and our migration law that are big enough for planeloads of exploited overseas workers to be flown through; and it has created the situation where—including in my electorate of Melbourne—unions, through very good investigative work, have found many workers working in, effectively, slave-like conditions. They have been brought in under visa and labour-hire arrangements enabled by this government, with Labor's support. They're working for a few dollars an hour, sleeping several people to a room, working in unsafe conditions and being told that if they don't like it, they'll be put on the first plane back.

That is the kind of exploitation that has been allowed, and the kind of opening up of Australia's governance arrangements to overseas actors that has been facilitated by this government and by Labor. They have systematically put the needs of big corporations—and, in some instances, overseas governments—ahead of local interests. And they've done it for money. You don't hear the government being concerned about so-called foreign interference when big corporations come knocking and say, 'We would like you to rewrite our rules.'. The government just says, 'Tell us where to sign.' The government says, 'Jump,' and Labor says, 'How high?' And all of a sudden we have another free-trade deal—and another one and another one and another one.

I repeat the point: the agreements that the Liberals and Labor have signed up to allow corporations from other countries to sue the Australian government if the Australian government takes action in the interests of its own people. They can force them to have the laws changed. And the government has the temerity to come in here and say it's concerned about foreign interference! Seriously? If you were really concerned about that, you wouldn't have entered into a string of free-trade deals that essentially allow large multinational corporations, including some state owned corporations from other countries, to come in and tell the Australian government and the Australian people what to do. But that's what they've done. When they come in here and say they have a bill that's about ensuring that Australia has a consistent foreign policy, and about helping minimise what they say is foreign interference, you look at it and think, 'Okay, are they going to start to unwind some of these free-trade deals?' No. Even though those trade deals minimise Australia's ability to legislate for the benefit of people in Australia, they're not going to unwind that.

And then I looked at the bill and thought, 'Is something else going to be in there that would go a long way towards making sure Australia can operate democratically—that is, getting big money out of politics?' No, that's not in there either. Why should that be in this bill? That should be in this bill for a very simple reason. For many of the scandals that we have seen over recent years, which have been about so-called overseas actors attempting to influence the Australian political system, what has been therein? Money. Therein has been to use money to try and fund candidates in the Liberal Party or the Labor Party and get them elected and get them into parliament and then seek to influence them in that way.

Surely, if you are concerned about that and you are concerned about the integrity of the Australian democratic system, the place to start is by reforming our donation laws to get the big corporate money out of politics—because that is a way that people can be influenced. Suggestions about how this bill can be improved, if that is something the government is seriously considering, would include a ban on political donations from certain sectors, full stop, which some states have done. Let's take it across the country. Mining, property development, tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries? No, you can't donate. And then you say there is a cap of $1,000 for everyone else; that's what you can donate each year. If you do that, you close off one of the main routes of influence over politicians—and it closes off all influence. Even big corporations in Australia might not like that, because it might mean they have a bit less influence over decisions that politicians make. But it would go a long way towards restoring some integrity to our democratic system.

Again, if the government is concerned about people in Australia acting in a way they think undermines integrity and democracy here, let's have a proper corruption watchdog—not the toothless tiger that the government is proposing, where politicians won't be publicly held to account, but a proper national ICAC. Those things would have the dual benefit not just of countering potential foreign interference but also of removing the pervasive corporate influence that degrades our politics.

In relation to universities, if the federal government wants to ensure that there is no risk of foreign interference in our tertiary institutions, provide them with secure, adequate funding. That might be a start. Put universities in a position where they don't have to go cap in hand, looking for funds. Fund them properly. Legislative changes over many years have shifted the cost of university education onto students and away from government, with dire consequences for student debt and university funding. The Greens are going to keep calling for proper funding of our universities, including increasing research funding, increasing the Commonwealth contribution to enable free higher education and increasing funding per Commonwealth supported place student by 10 per cent. Then our universities won't be compelled to seek financial support from elsewhere.

Aside from the fact that the bill is ineffective in what it sets out to do, because it doesn't include the things that actually would get to the source of interference in our democratic process, we are very concerned about the inadequate consultation process leading up to this bill. A large number of Australian universities have made it clear that this bill is unworkable. I quote from the Universities Australia's submission: it will 'deter the collaboration that is the lifeblood of Australian research'. The Greens are going to move amendments in the Senate to exempt universities from this legislation. In addition to the tertiary sector's concerns, experts like Professor George Williams have flagged that there are issues with the constitutional validity of the bills. The very concept that it is only the Commonwealth that can do it is something that needs to be further consulted on.

I want to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the coalition members' recent treatment of Chinese Australian citizens. At a Senate inquiry hearing on issues facing diaspora communities in October, Liberal Senator Eric Abetz asked the only three Chinese Australian witnesses to 'unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party'. No other witnesses were singled out in this manner. To single out and question those three witnesses in that way is completely unacceptable behaviour, and Senator Abetz must apologise. The fact that he has not is an indictment on his superiors, including the Prime Minister. We must be very careful in our debate around foreign interference to ensure that multicultural Australians—particularly those with Chinese heritage—do not feel singled out. They should not be subject to loyalty tests, and nor should they feel that every time they speak about global issues or China or foreign interference they must condemn the Chinese Communist Party.

The Greens do not support these bills. We encourage the government to come back to parliament with legislation to implement donations reform and a proper anticorruption body and to reverse the trend of stripping our universities of funding and instead invest in our education system.

Debate interrupted.