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Researchers question government handling of Defence Bill

Australian researchers say a new Bill designed to free up defence trade with the US puts them at a disadvantage. AAP

The government has enabled rushed legislation that could put Australian researchers at a disadvantage to their US counterparts, says University of Sydney deputy vice-chancellor of research Jill Trewhella.

The controversial Defence Trade Controls Bill, designed to free up defence trade between Australia and the US, was passed by the Senate and progressed to the House of Representatives yesterday.

However the House failed to legislate key amendments proposed by the Senate that were designed to protect Australian researchers.

Under the bill, researchers who share proscribed information without permission could be subject to up to ten years in prison.

Independent and Greens senators yesterday achieved a more rigorous transition period for implementing the Bill, but also argued for the introduction of an exclusion clause that would protect the freedom of intellectual inquiry for researchers.

However the House of Representatives removed this exclusion clause, with the opposition siding with the government on the issue.

“University researchers now face a great deal of uncertainty about what research they can legitimately exchange or publish without potentially facing criminal sanction,” said Jeannie Rea, president of the National Tertiary Education Union.

“An even worse outcome is that the government and coalition have relied upon a barely comprehensible reference to national interest considerations at the expense of Australia’s research and innovation efforts,” Ms Rea said.

Professor Trewhella said the House failed to support the exclusion clause despite the fact that it closely mirrored the language in the US so Australian researchers weren’t put at a disadvantage.

“So we have a piece of rushed legislation that needs to be evaluated,” Professor Trewhella said.

She added that it was clear from questioning by Liberal senator and shadow minister for defence David Johnston that the government did not have a detailed understanding of the legislation, with amendments being worked on right up until debate commenced in the Senate.

Ms Rea said while the cross-benchers acknowledged the concerns of the wider research sector, the government did not.

“The Minister for Defence, Senator Smith, appears to have a limited understanding of the nature of academic research, when he said the legislation does not impact on domestic research,” Ms Rea said.

Professor Trewhella called for transparency during the two-year transition period, and argued serious engagement would be required from the academic sector.

“It’s going to be very hard work because it’s very technical, detailed and complex and the people who’ve been carrying the ball so far are battle weary.”

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