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Universities call for clarity on changes to defence law

Multiple simultaneous reviews mean impact on research collaboration is unclear, say Australian institutions

Universities Australia has said that legislation controlling foreign research collaborations should not be changed until it is clearer what activities will be affected.

The group, which represents all Australian public universities, told a Senate inquiry into changes to the Defence Trade Controls Act that it was “difficult to delve deeper into the issues relating to this bill” without seeing accompanying changes to other regulation and the national Defence and Strategic Goods List.

In its February submission to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee, Universities Australia reiterated earlier concerns, including how “fundamental research” would be defined.

Its members have “pressing concerns” about how exemptions from offences will be phrased, but “the bill defers to delegated legislation on these and other important matters”.

Renee Hindmarsh, who was acting chief executive of the group at the time, told the inquiry that while the university sector was committed “to supporting the development and implementation of an appropriately balanced Defence Trade Controls framework”, it also wanted to see research collaboration supported.

Goods list

The Defence Trade Controls Act is also currently undergoing a five-yearly review, which is being carried out by former senior public servant Peter Tesch and former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair Graeme Samuel. The pair are also reviewing the 2021 Defence and Strategic Goods List, which names sensitive and controlled material and information.

In a submission from the Group of Eight research-intensive universities, the current list was criticised as “out of date and inaccessible”. As a result, it “serves a limited purpose”.

“The Go8 acknowledges that there is a perceived (and potentially actual) gap relating to control of transfer of relevant goods and technology within country,” the submission said, adding that this led to “additional caution when universities consider the inclusion of foreign colleagues or students in research projects of potential interest”.

The Senate committee is due to report on the Defence Trade Controls Amendment bill by 30 April.