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Tuesday, 1 December 2020
Page: 6383

Senator PAYNE (New South WalesMinister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women) (13:05): Let me begin by thanking senators for their contributions to this important debate on Australia's Foreign Relations (State and Territory Arrangements) Bill 2020 and the related bill. The government recognises that, internationally, Australia's strength is greatest when we are united, consistent and speaking with one voice. This is the purpose that this bill serves. The bill will assist in ensuring a consistent approach to Australia's international relations and help to ensure that Australia is able to speak with one voice internationally.

The bill reflects the Commonwealth government's fundamental role in conducting Australia's foreign relations, negotiating treaties and representing our nation internationally. Importantly, in terms of addressing the question of speaking with one voice as government, particularly internationally, it remedies a gap in our existing system by implementing a formalised method by which states and territories must consult with the Commonwealth on their arrangements with foreign governments. The mechanism set out in the legislation will protect our national interest and address the consistency of our foreign policy across all levels of Australian government.

This bill is the next step in a number of measures the government has taken forward in recent years to protect our national security and our sovereignty. These measures are complementary, but they cover different issues. For example, the Foreign Investment Review Board regime, the FIRB, regulates significant foreign investments to ensure they are in the national interest. FIRB reforms announced earlier this year will strengthen this regime with a new test addressing national security concerns arising from individual investment proposals which would otherwise be below screening thresholds. It is this regime that applies to the acquisition or leasing of critical infrastructure, such as ports.

Separately, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, FITS, is designed to provide the public with visibility of the nature and extent of foreign influence on Australia's government and politics. Individuals acting on behalf of foreign governments are therefore not dealt with under this bill. Those matters are covered by the FITS. Further, the investigation of foreign interference against Australia and our democratic institutions is also dealt with under our foreign interference and espionage laws, passed with cross-parliamentary support in 2018.

The coalition government has also made decisions and implemented reforms to protect our telecommunications sector and our cybersecurity. These reforms, together, protect Australia's interests in relation to issues that this bill is not intended to cover. This bill is not intended to regulate purely commercial arrangements by corporations, even where a corporation is wholly or partly state owned. Arrangements by or with corporations are only within scope where they are entered into pursuant to a foreign arrangement with a state or territory entity and if the minister has deemed that arrangement as likely to be, or inconsistent with, Australia's foreign policy, or as likely to adversely affect our foreign relations. Corporate arrangements are also in scope if entered into pursuant to a state or territory arrangement with a foreign government that was not notified to the minister. While each piece of legislation addresses distinct processes, these reforms, taken together, demonstrate the government's very clear and strong commitment to protecting and preserving Australia's interests and our liberal democratic values.

I thank the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee for their review of the bill and their recommendations. The government has made amendments to the bill to define when foreign universities do not have institutional autonomy and to require a statutory review of the legislation after three years of operation in response to a number of the committee's recommendations. The rules allow the government to respond to changing circumstances without the need to amend the act in order to minimise regulatory impact when necessary, including by exempting arrangements that are less likely to impact on foreign policy. The draft rules to be made under the bill have been published on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. These rules exempt core foreign arrangements that deal solely with the sharing of information or resources for the management of a declared emergency in Australia, foreign arrangements that deal solely with minor administrative or logistical matters, and minor variations of foreign arrangements that do not alter the substance of the arrangement.

I acknowledge the significant contribution that states, territories, local governments and universities make to Australia's international engagement, including through arrangements with foreign governments. The bill does not seek to prevent these arrangements, nor does it seek to interfere in states' and territories' business. What it does do is put in place a robust, proportionate process to assist states and territories in undertaking effective, appropriate and informed international engagement with foreign governments so that everyone can be confident that the arrangements they take forward are consistent with Australia's foreign policy. The vast majority of arrangements will remain unaffected by this bill, because they will be consistent with our foreign policy and in Australia's national interest. However, it is our view that if an arrangement is inconsistent with Australia's foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations then it should not proceed. Only the Commonwealth is empowered to make these judgements.

The bill, through the public register, will allow greater visibility of these judgements and will enable states, territories, local governments and universities to work in partnership with the Commonwealth when they engage internationally. Following the bill's introduction, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has conducted consultations with more than 60 stakeholders, including representatives from state and territory governments, local governments and Australian public universities. The Prime Minister, the Minister for Education and Training and I have also each engaged with stakeholders in respect of the bill. Detailed fact sheets for stakeholders have been published on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website. The government has also established and funded a Foreign Arrangements Taskforce in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. That task force will work closely with stakeholders on the implementation of the bill, including to ensure its efficient and effective administration.

I commend the bill to the Senate, and I recall that this is fundamentally about engagement and collaboration, with due diligence. It is vital that the Commonwealth has oversight of arrangements concluded at all levels of Australian government with all foreign countries.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Wong be agreed to.