The Morrison government wants sweeping new powers to cancel international arrangements by universities, councils and state governments. After announcing its intentions in August, it introduced a bill to parliament last week.
The government argues the bill is needed to “ensure a consistent and strategic approach to Australia’s international engagement”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said Australia must “speak with one voice”.
But the bill should not pass parliament.
Not only has the government failed to identify any specific problem with the status quo, the bill rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of modern diplomacy.
Modern diplomacy is about multiple voices
For decades, Australia has had international agreements beyond the federal level. A huge number of actors interact internationally and affect how Australia is viewed. This can’t be exclusively managed from Canberra.
There are 87 state trade and investment offices overseas and 500 sister cities, including more than 100 with China. Each university would have hundreds of international agreements, including for students to study abroad for a semester and for research collaboration.
The proposed legislation mistakenly rests on the idea that speaking with “one voice” in foreign policy is a positive thing, when the modern idea of diplomacy emphasises broad engagement.
Australia benefits when multiple actors across society engage internationally to balance the ups and downs in official relations. As American author Parag Khanna memorably described it, “diplomacy is no longer the stiff waltz of elites but the jazzy dance of the masses”.
This bill overreaches
The legislation badly overreaches by seeking to regulate activities across education, culture, research and trade.
Including universities is also a step too far. It was originally thought the legislation would only cover arrangements between universities and foreign agencies, but it also covers universities that do not have institutional autonomy, which is a large number of foreign universities. This vastly increases the scope of regulation.
Meanwhile, the test for vetoing a foreign arrangement is far too wide. The foreign minister can declare an arrangement invalid if it is likely to adversely affect Australia’s foreign relations (undefined) or be inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy (defined as whatever the minister says it is, whether or not written or publicly available). “Arrangements” include anything in writing, whether or not legally binding.
We don’t actually need this bill
In sounding the alarm, the government has failed to pinpoint a real problem.
For example, there is zero evidence that a non-binding, symbolic memorandum of understanding between Victoria and China on to the Belt and Road Initiative has hampered the Commonwealth in pursuing Australia’s foreign policy.
It is important to note Australia already has the ability to protect itself, with existing laws on espionage, foreign interference and foreign investment and a University Foreign Interference Taskforce. We made it through the Cold War without needing this type of legislation.
What will happen if the bill passes?
Apart from being unnecessary over-regulation, the bill will also create problems for Australia if passed.
Firstly, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will have to divert resources to this new function when its funding is the lowest in history.
This means diplomats, who could be pro-actively working to promote the national interest, must check potentially tens of thousands of overwhelmingly non-controversial arrangements like the City of Warrnambool’s local export bureau with Changchun or the City of Darwin’s student English language competition in Haikou.
Secondly, the bill is likely to reduce international linkages due to uncertainty about what will be approved. Educational or cultural exchanges are the most at risk.
State and local governments will continue to promote trade, but they will waste time filling in the prescribed form to take, say, a delegation of Australian start-ups to pitch to investors in Nanjing.
Beyond this, the legislation sends exactly the wrong message to the wider community: to be uneasy about international engagement.
And all of this at a time of economic recession, when we need to find new avenues for growth. Sister cities have been shown to have measurable direct economic benefits, while state government export and investment promotion brings local jobs.
What could we do instead?
There are better solutions: more information-sharing between different levels of government; a one-page bill banning state governments from the Belt and Road Initiative.
Even giving the foreign affairs minister the power to request information on, and then cancel, any specific arrangement would be better than the overkill regulatory burden proposed.
Speaking with one state-approved voice is not what a open democracy like Australia should aim to achieve.