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Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Page: 6382

Senator MOLAN (New South Wales) (12:58): I rise to support the passage into law of the Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 and related bill—a welcome and necessary step to ensuring Australia's sovereignty into the future. I have spoken here before about the importance of sovereignty; it's an old-fashioned word but it's still relevant. To me, sovereignty is the ability to act in our own interests as a nation. It means that the Australian people as a collective are the ultimate authority about what is good for Australia. So, when individual states, via their government or via institutions like their universities, start making arrangements that affect the interests of all Australians, we have a problem.

I was disappointed by the trite political hacks taken by the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate regarding this bill. Senator Wong, we know you are far better than this. You must realise that this bill shows that the Morrison government is indeed taking responsibility for Australia's foreign relations. The bill does exactly what you, Senator Wong, say is so important. This bill takes control by saying we need to act as a nation; we need to present a unified front; we need to stop those who would try to divide us; we need to block those who use seemingly innocuous agreements to exploit our openness so they can steal, incite and manipulate. The only way to do this is for the Commonwealth government to carefully consider the implications of all international agreements proposed by Australian governments. Only the Commonwealth government can identify the national interest and use its experts to advise the minister about the concordance of each prospective agreement with our national interests.

This bill provides an important plank in our government's broad-based efforts to protect Australia's sovereignty. Control of foreign policy is vital. It's a core Commonwealth responsibility, enumerated in section 51 of the Constitution. Commonwealth leadership provides consistency. It provides an assessment of Australian interest using information and perspectives that institutions like local universities or state government bodies simply do not have. Yet, to my amazement, Labor cannot see a public policy rationale for this bill. I say maintaining coherence in our foreign policy is an imperative, and so a rationale. If you want to know why this bill is needed, look no further than this.

This legislation will also shine sunlight on the agreements made with foreign countries. We know for a fact that the Andrews government's BRI agreement, Belt and Road Initiative agreement, was negotiated in secret. They did not want expert advice or national interests intruding on their plans. We also know that the BRI can be the Chinese Communist Party's way to interfere with their partners, apply economic coercion and give advantages to Chinese companies, as Senator Griff said, buying influence. These are aspects of the overall BRI picture that the Victorian government either did not realise or they knew, but thought they could outsmart the Chinese Communist Party. Either way, the Victorian BRI agreement highlights exactly why this bill before us today is necessary. We cannot accept the Victorian government's assurance that they will consider the national interest before committing to any activity. I simply say they cannot possibly do that because there is no way that the Victorian government understand the national interest. The Victorian government do not and cannot speak for all of us.

I cannot be anything but appalled by the Greens' excuse for opposing this bill. In their view, the universities are too busy to do due diligence on these agreements, so, in curious Green logic, we should not be making them inform the Commonwealth before they start negotiations. The Greens will just let these ill-equipped universities go on making agreements, and excuse them of any need to actually consider the implications of their actions. Theirs is a parallel universe: let universities run free with things they don't understand.

Two particular comments by those from this side of the house are worth reinforcing before we conclude this debate. My friend Senator Van, from Victoria, spoke about the need to maintain public confidence in our international relationships. He is spot on. I think the public would rightfully ask why we are not doing this already, given their expectation that Australia would have a consistent and interest-focused foreign policy. The remarks by Senator Fierravanti-Wells were also particularly perceptive.

We cannot follow business as usual in this changed world. The Defence Strategic Update, launched on 1 July this year, clearly explains how the strategic environment has deteriorated more rapidly than anyone expected. The Indo-Pacific region is now the centre of strategic competition. While we don't want this, it is happening and we must prepare. We need to make changes to the way we operate, and this bill addresses just one. We need to do this, not only in Defence but across all sectors of the economy and across the nation. We need to prepare ourselves to meet challenges to our interests in whatever shape they come and through whatever vector they may follow.

Countering foreign interference is just as important as physical defence when it comes to maintaining our sovereignty. That's why we need this bill. I give this bill and the amendments proposed by the government my wholehearted support. I also hope that it shows us all the importance of having a coordinated, strategic approach to protecting and promoting our sovereignty.

One last note: this approach should be articulated through a national security strategy. Such a strategy would explain our goals and ways to coordinate activities like this, and explain this bill in context. It would provide benchmarks for success. It would help guide and explain how the measures proposed in this legislation will act in concert with others to promote Australia's future. I support this bill.